Worlds & Time

Monday, June 08, 2009

Noird and Sushi

On June 3 in Cambridge I got to hear China MiƩville speak about his new book The City and The City, during which he let fly with the created word "noird." He was content to let it live in the wild: he refused to define it himself except for in the most general terms and refused to speculate on other authors that it may describe. (If you're interested, the first reference to it is here and Why Mice Sing delves into it here.)

During the signing, he told me that I should spread #noird, so I guess I'll have to go sign up for Twitter. China MiƩville told me too.

I asked Ben to talk about his thoughts about noird, because he's substantially brighter than I am and more apt to clearly express interesting ideas. He said:

I went to see China Mieville give a reading and question and answer session last week, in which he declared that his most recent book 'The City and the City' is a member of the noir and new weird portmanteau: noird subgenre. Upon declaring this new subgenre, Mieville started the question and answer session. I fired off the first question: 'Who else would you put in the subgenre of Noird? For me, Richard K Morgan immediately springs to mind, but what do you think?' Mieville demurred and suggesting that we need to identify the authors for ourselves. To wit, I start with a modest proposal for what Mieville is defining.

Noird is a fusion of Noir and New Weird - Noir is fairly straightforward: hard-boiled detective/crime/police procedural story - I always thing of Raymond Chandler and Chinatown. New Weird is a bit more amorphous - presumably, this encompasses the new science fiction approaches, the speculative fiction which Neal Stephenson defines so cleanly here. There is certainly a current/modern component to this, so Golden and Silver Age of sci-fi/fantasy should probably be excluded.

On the author/book list (as Mieville implied that not all his work is Noird, but 'The City and the City' most certainly is) I suggest the following:

  • Takeshi Kovacs (Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, Woken Furies) series by Richard K. Morgan
  • The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon
  • Something by Neil Gaiman [not sure what, but he's certainly New Weird, and there's got to be detective elements to some of what he's done]
  • Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde
  • Halting State by Charles Stross [possible others like Glasshouse have references along those lines]
  • The da Vinci Code/Angels and Demons by Dan Brown [possibly too mainstream to be new weird, but there's certainly elements that map onto this construct - stylistically, the noir component falls short here--there's not a lot of that hard-boiled feeling]
  • Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami [though others from Murakami fits into this as well]
In many ways, I feel like Philip K Dick was a major founding influence in this Noird genre - looking at works such as Do Androids Dream, A Scanner Darkly, which wiki calls "a bleak mixture of science fiction and police procedural novels;" possibly may be the founding work. That being said, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man is a worthy contender as well, with the heavy influence of the classic Noir style.

Obviously, there are other and further choices, but this is certainly a reasonable sub-genre which captures many works which sort of defy classification.

Personally, I'm not convinced that when Ben wrote this, his definition of New Weird was correct. I asked if he'd looked New Weird up on Wikipedia and found that he hadn't. Some of the works that Ben takes for granted as New Weird aren't necessarily part of that movement and some of them predate it by decades.

So, New Weird "subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy" and invents complex and believable worlds in which the plots are set in a more realistic and not particularly utopian setting. Basically it's fantasy set in a world that extends beyond the boundaries of the story that exhibits the traits of the real world.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is on the Library Thing list above and both Ben and I agree that it deserves it's place on that list. Ben, having just finished the Chalion series by Bujold, thinks that those books belong to that movement as well and I can't necessarily disagree. I would add George R. R. Martin's ASOIAF to the movement as well. His books are subversions of a romanticized fantasy setting.

Possibly Harry Potter by J. Rowling belongs to this movement as well. It's certainly an expansive world that belongs to a world with a past and future that exists regardless of the actions of Harry. It does push the limit on the "realistic" front though, although I would argue that the later books show that the world in which Harry lives is not the typical utopian fantasy setting. The Minister of Magic is voted out, isn't he? Characters related to the main characters die. Not everyone lives happily ever after and if we're defining this movement by expansive worlds and a step away from utopianism, then I would argue that it does fit.

Ben would point out somewhere in here that J. Rowling would never describe herself as "New Weird." Considering her separation from the mainline fantasy movement I would question though whether she'd even accept the term "fantasy," so why does it matter?

It matters because China is spreading New Weird himself, as sort of a self-promotional/sales technique. That doesn't mean that it isn't a valid sub-sub-genre but it does make me question how correct the pushed definition is to the way that people use it. And since Noird is a sub-category of New Weird, how specific are we willing to get?

There are only a few examples of Noird, but Ben feels (and I would agree) that the are categorical, there are ways to parse out the differences between New Weird and Noird. Figuring out what those were led me to at least one more subset that Noird must be distinct from: Victorianeird (pronouced with a hard e at the end).

Victorianeird is that part of the New Weird that adapts the literary conventions, styles and sometimes setting and characters of Victorian England. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the obvious genre defining work, but there are others. Brust's Viscount of Adrilankha series is probably another. Although I haven't read them I would guess that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Graham-Smith (and Jane Austen, of course), the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik probably fit into that category as well.

So yeah, Noird and Victorianeird. If I have any more thoughts, I'll have to do a follow-up post.

Moving on to the sushi part of this post: Cafe Sushi on Mass Ave in Cambridge is excellent. Really, really good. I guess they've changed management recently but they're much better now than they used to be. So, if you happen to be looking for excellent sushi in the Cambridge area, I heartily recommend them.

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