Pulp Modern: TechNoir Special pulls the rug out from under the reader in the best possible way.
Scotch Rutherford serves as guest editor for this themed collection of darkly themed near future science-fiction stories. None of that should surprise, given the title of the collection. It’s all right there, just what it says on the tin, and then the authors pull a fast one by delivering stories heavily leavened with hope and optimism and renewal. All too many authors these days mistake wallowing in the mud with serious chin-stroking intellect, and Scotch throws a middle finger at such pretensions by including stories that, while far from G-Rated family fare, typically turn away from the bleak nihilism so typical of those who seek to emulate the noir stylings. It’s brave, and refreshing, and surprising.
While largely hopeful, this does remain a noir inspired collection, and the stories are not for those who prefer a light touch when it comes to sex and gore. Many of the stories allow the camera to linger over the grittier aspects of sexual relations or take a moment to showcase the depths of violence to which men may sink in his depravity. On the other hand, such moments never come across as cheap or gratuitous, in large measure because the stories do not neglect to also illustrate the price of such actions. While it doesn’t always happen in a traditional, or legal, or even poetic way, justice exists in the world of Pulp Modern: Tech Noir. That proves to a nice escape from the normal strictures of the genre.
So let’s look at the stories themselves:
C. W. Blackwell turns out the lights and shoves the reader into the deep end of noir with A Deviant Skein, the tale of an investigator hired by the world’s most tech-savvy billionaire to find a missing android who has been up to no good. It can be hard to tell who the bad guys are in this one – humanity or his tools? A fitting homage to Blade Runner, it checks all the technoir boxes, and in doing so frees up the rest of the collection to push the boundaries of the genre a little harder.
The Moderator, by Nils Gilbertson, takes a more digital route. The investigator at the heart of this tale works as a moderator for the next generation of social media. Placed on work restriction for a catastrophically bad moderator call, he learns of a guerilla organization piggy-backing on the media giant, and the hopeful result of his investigation provides the first clue that this collection isn’t your typical slurry of fatalism and anti-tech shrieking.
Tom Barlow gives us a different sort of hitman in Love in the Time of Silicone. Called down to the local robo-whorehouse – yes, it’s that sort of collection – whose owner takes particular exception to the way one customer roughed up a robowhore. The man wants revenge for the robot’s destruction for reasons that prove to be deeply human. The hitman guides the man responsible to a just fate as dark as the genre demands, but one that allows just enough light to shine through the darkness.
Things get really strange in Angelique Fawns’ A Time To Forget. Told from a multitude of points of view, it takes the opposite tack of the two preceding stories. The end paints a grim future for humanity, but the path to reach that end follows a string of people both good and bad and indifferent. The bad actors serve as stark contrast that allows the good ones to shine, and to serve as a driver for the indifferent to rise above themselves and become better people. At its heart, the story highlights how much misery the world inflicts on itself through sheer callousness, and reminds us all of the multiplicative effects of kind acts.
J.D. Graves takes us away from earth for the first time in the collection with, Three, Two, One Zebra-Stripe Shake-Off. The powers that be have dusted off the old trick of dealing with undesirables by shipping them off to penal colonies. Our protagonist agrees to board one of the colony ships, in spite of the thorough brain-scrubbing by way of cultish indoctrination such a ticket requires. His petty selfishness proves to carry a high price when the cult saddles him with a wife with secrets of her own.
We plunge back into the world of social media with Don Stoll’s Fifteen Minutes. A treatise on the real cost of internet fame and the emptiness of fame earned through deceptive measures, it turns into a deadly game of survival for one girl who chooses the path of drama and hate-clicks.
Jo Perry puts the reader into the skin and thoughts of a robotic janitor in Lights Out. The strange perspective turns the nature of the world in which the robo-janitor works into a mystery to be solved by the reader. It is perhaps the crudest of the stories, and culminates with a revelation telegraphed by the full page art included with the story.
Walking Out by Zakariah Johnson again puts the protagonist in prison and on death row. He moves from prisoner to guard to…well, the story is really one of identity and the lengths to which men go for money and to live variously through the experiences of others. It’s a kind of tech-driven mistaken identity caper story filled with unsavory characters, and it ends the collection on a bit of a down note.
On the whole, this is a collection that takes risks, thumbs its nose at the prevailing wisdom of the rules of the technoir genre, and provides enough variety to satisfy any appetite. The writing varies from serviceable to excellent, and the casual disregard for genre rules prevents these tales from falling into the same predictable pigeon holes and narrative cul-de-sacs that so many modern noir works blunder. Even if not all of the stories appeal, you’re sure to add a new author or two to add to your “to read” pile.