"Wake up and smell the burning corpses of your dreams, pal."
There is something wrong with this line of dialogue. Not in its rhythm or intonation, both of which could belong in a mid 20th Century film noir, but in their disconnect from the grotesque lyricism of the central image. The catchphrase returns again and again in K.W. Jeter's woefully neglected fantasia Noir (1998), only to be gradually revealed as the authorial précis.
Not only does the line evoke to pervert the titular lost genre, but it presents two worlds, those of sleep and wakefulness, as permeable, less easily confused than inextricably conjoined.
It's also just plain nasty.
Noir offers a fairly simple story. A powerful corporation loses something and hires a contractor to get it back. He, rightly, doesn't trust the corporation. It has set him up, and his only way out is to go deeper and deeper until there is no hope of extrication, for him or his enemies.
The world the story takes place in, however, is not so simple. An ersatz LA in a cold future where the known world has been reduced to an "almost-complete urban circle around the Pacific" called the Gloss. Preregistered killings take place on private streets. Corporate handbooks originate from pioneering pimp techniques. "Mandatory employee donations" (i.e. swaths of skin) flutter "maypolelike from the exterior walls" of office towers.
It is a world our protagonist, McNihil, resolutely does not want to see. Unlike traditional PIs and their archetypal offspring, McNihil doesn't just use booze, solitude, and desperate acts of self-immolation to dull the edges of the real world; he's also had a surgical procedure performed to alter his vision. The world McNihil walks through might be a cyberpunk grand guignol, but the world he sees is one of film noir. The close third person authorial voice constantly switches between these two aesthetics. That the ethoses and standard operating procedures of the two worlds are so similar that it rarely ever effects McNihil's job-performance or survival prospects is only one of Jeter's cruel, cynical jokes.
This is not, however, the sole reason for Noir's title.
In 1984, William Gibson's novel Neuromancer rose above the disparate, polyphonous voices of Gibson's contemporaries to establish what would become the mainstream brand of cyberpunk. The frisson Gibsonian cyberpunk imparted (roughly: the plot mechanics and tropes of film noir + Gibson's great addition to the lexicon, "cyberspace" + a weaponized gloss of Orientalism) was intoxicating, addictive, and, like most speedballs, soon wore out the culture's nervous and central operating systems. By 1998, cyberpunk was dead, ossified, or just about to crest its second wave, depending on whose potted cultural history you prefer.
Gibson did not acquire this frisson entirely from the ether. He first saw a rough approximation of it in Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner. An aesthetically and narratively divergent adaptation of SF author and noted gnostic channel Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Blade Runner offered extremely new eyeball kicks: flying cars bathed in neon rain hovering above LA streets deracinated by shadows. The titular bounty hunter is an updated sucker-PI protagonist, the kind noir thrives and centers on. Gibson spend the years after his viewing chasing the high Scott imparted, to obviously productive results.
By 1982, Jeter was a good enough friend of PKD's to suggest that he do massive amounts of cocaine at Blade Runner's premiere. After PKD's death the same year, Jeter was tapped by his children to write the official novelistic sequel, Blade Runner 2: The Edge of Human (1995), in which he tries to square the plots of the film and source material. While Jeter's own neon-filth SF novel Dr. Adder was published the same year as Neuromancer, it was completed in 1972, making it an (again, neglected) signal text of cyberpunk's prehistory. Jeter would go on to coin the word "steampunk" and write one of its first (and best) novels, Infernal Devices (1987).
While normally situated at the margins of cyberpunk, Jeter was present at its birth, development, and decline. Noir is final judgement on the genre.
A hell of a judgement it is too.
As cyberpunk, Noir can be best approached through its most obvious genre lacuna: cyberspace. In Noir, the internet is merely a historical moment which led to mass abuse of copyright. ("Salvation hadn't come from advertising revenues, either," is a typically prescient aside.) McNihil is a former asp-head, an employee of The Collection Agency, which exists to enforce copyright through increasingly ridiculous and horrific violence. ("Asp-head" is derived from ASCAP).
Jeter takes a great deal of delight in detailing McNihil's asp-head duties, the apex of which takes place in a rotted-out old movie palace:
“Information wants to be free, huh? McNihil didn't wait for an answer. "Well, here's some info you can have for nothing." He swung his fist in a hard, flat arc, landing it straight to the kid's nose, which exploded in a bright flower of blood.”
Because death is insufficient negative reinforcement, The Collection Agency has pioneered the winnowing down of offenders' corporeal flesh to the very physical nub of consciousness. The "core of the subject's memory and personality...[is] reduced to an oblate sphere the size of a tennis ball," which is then inserted into a common household appliance, the better to experience digital hell eternal.
Jeter's rage at copyright violators comes through unmarred by his authorial duties as overwhelming and obsessive, directed specifically at fans who will "shell out nearly the same amount or even more to a pirate, some copyright rip-off specialist, rather than see the same money or even less go to the rightful creator." For Jeter perversity is always the defining concern of the human condition.
While the internet has not survived into Jeter's future, a virtual zone has prospered. In his theoretical-historical tract Connected (2003), Steven Shaviro describes it for us as "...a nocturnal zone known as the Wedge. Sometimes the Wedge seems to overlay the real world, a spectral double of its streets and buildings and private spaces. Other times, it seems to lie in an actual spatial location..." The Wedge is a callback to PKD's novels in which multiple realities comingle until the very concept of reality itself begins to break down. PKD's famous line, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away," gets misquoted by Jeter's characters as ancient wisdom.
As Shaviro writes, the Wedge is "a murky realm of hidden, shameful, and disavowed pleasures." It is the greasy ash heap left after the trash fire that now rages in our own timeline, fertile ground for an eldritch entity referred to as the "Filth Deity", which proves to be the only thing stronger than humankind's vile corporate fuckery.
Noir predates both Napster and the Pirate Bay, but some of Jeter's fury certainly seems aimed at their ideological progenitors, cyberlibertarians such as John Perry Barlow who were so ably diagnosed by the Californian Ideology. Their utopic vision of a wired world transcending nation-states and transforming communication is reduced in Noir to an immense, interconnected system of exploitation, one in which the logic of sexual slavery has seeped into every interaction to the point where "to connect" has replaced "to fuck".
In Noir, debtors are tracked by DynaZauber (the corporation which contracts McNihil) "...even to the point of radio-tagging their vital signs with detector implants; that way, their post-mortem surgical teams could swoop in on someone who's died with an account in arrears and splice in the thermal packs and batteries before the cortex decayed into unrecoverable mush." This means that if you die with debts unpaid, you never really die. Instead, debtors become, via roughly the same tech that allows copyright offenders to be tortured for eternity, "the indeaded". As their corporeal beings roughly decay, the indeaded perform increasingly simplistic tasks, such as scavenging the giant garbage heaps on the edge of the Gloss, to try and claw their way back from red to black. McNihil's own wife is among their ranks, thanks in no small part to his selfish actions.
DynaZauber is a very '90s corporate apocalypse, a grotesque outgrowth of cubicle-culture, down to execs whose handshake feedback is wired to their genitalia. Its "Pimp-Style Management" owes much to the '90s obsession with the pimp as cultural figure, although in previous work such as Adder, Jeter reveals an intense focus on the world of sex work. The climax of the novel turns on a pager.
"The goal of commerce is to destroy history, to put its customers into the eternal Now, the big happy theme park of desires that are always at the brink of satisfaction but somehow never get there."
This reads Brave New World's cautionary message that we will gladly become our own jailers rebranded for turn-of-the-millennium capitalism. Simultaneously, Jeter updates Orwell's "picture of the future...a boot stamping on a human face—forever" to "a bloodied human mouth, with a cock shoved down its throat, the perfect connection forever and ever, world without end." Noir is less a synthesis of these two competing visions of dystopia than a statement that, through the combined virtues of addiction and corporate management, both were not always possible, but inevitable. Whether or not this has proven prescient is ultimately beside the point: it sure as hell felt that way in the '90s.
Most of Jeter's published fiction in that decade appeared in the form of tie-in novelizations. Between 1995 and 2000, he published eight novels set in the Star Trek, Star Wars, and Blade Runner universes. (Two of these novels, both Boba Fett tie-ins, came out the same year as Noir.) Noir was Jeter's single stand-alone novel published in this half decade; the only one he originated and held copyright over. It's tempting to look at Noir's rage as partially directed at this professional situation.
However, Jeter's tie-in fiction is no blunted, tame thing. The aforementioned Edge of Human doubles down on Blade Runner's hardboiled worldview. Jeter makes a point of, early on, plugging a commonly raised plot hole in the original film. Why, Deckard asks, would anyone ever want to employ robot slaves with human-level intelligence? It seems like, y'know, a pretty obvious self-own. The new head of the Tyrell corporation responds with typically Jeterian perversity: "It's simple. Machines don't suffer. They aren't capable of it. A machines doesn't know when it's being raped. There's no power relationship between you and a machine...For a replicant to suffer, to give its owners that whole master-slave energy, it has to have emotions."
That's as dark as anything you'll find in Noir.