Does it work? You know, you could argue that it all comes down to personal preference, but I think even as offbeat as this is it could stand to be a notch more coherent. It’s tough for me to say that given that I’m a bit of a champion of the kitchen sink approach to fantasy world-building, but I really do expect a little more verve than this. Just as one example, the noir vibe clashes with the cyberpunk premise occasionally. We are walked through nearly all of the traditional gumshoe story beats with a lead that overcomes his problems with psionic abilities. It just doesn’t jive.
Part of what makes noir work is the plainness and simplicity of the protagonist. He really has to hustle to accomplish anything and he gets the snot beat out of him all the time. It’s an underdog thing. But with psi as the answer to nearly every situation, it’s hard to get invested. That’s one of the things that makes this story feel like it’s fueled by video games rather than classic pulp fiction. The superpowers are just so easy. They just work. They feel like there’s little more to them than a stat in a tabletop rpg. In the older stories, psi tends to be a little more weird. Often it’s hard to use. Sometimes it’s saved back for a deus ex machina. But you definitely get a whole lot more than the chrome of “he psi-ed the psi with his psi.”
I have to say, though… if there were standalone stories like this on spinner racks in gas stations, comics wouldn’t be in near the sorry state that they are today. This absolutely is the sort of thing people look for in anthologies and magazines but completely fail to find. And I know from the comments on my reviews that there are things that bug me that the rank and file moviegoer could not be bothered to care about.
And I wouldn’t feel the need to call this next thing out so much if superhero television were not so painfully, mind-numbingly consistent on this point. But there are elements of this story that fall dutifully in line with last year’s zeitgeist when it really doesn’t have to.
Take the introduction of the most significant female character:
My immediate boss, Magritte, was in the alley mouth, holding up a hand to signify she was coming in, a soft target if I wanted to take advantage. I’d have liked to, but my curiosity got the better of me.
She stood close to me and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. I never understood how anyone could use those things, dragging smoke–smoke for Christ’s sake– into their lungs. Mostly they were a product of an age long gone, but Magritte seemed addicted. Maybe they were just her trademark. I waited while she inhaled and blew out a cloud of white smoke.
“What the [heck] is going on?” I said, now in full view.
“You’ve made a mess of four Psiclones. Good models, too.” Her voice was almost a growl, probably something to do with the muck she inhaled. Her skin was pasty, no make-up, her face drawn, short hair clipped close to her skull. She looked like a woman who hadn’t known a good night’s sleep for a long time. She was less than forty, but her job had aged her beyond that.
Now, people will buy the heck out of this sort of thing. It’s as absolutely the norm today and nobody really cares. This is exactly the same archetype that Karrin Murphy fills in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. It’s in the same ballpark as the sort of high powered, hard hitting “tough guy” women that clog up shows like Iron Fist or Jessica Jones. Granted, Magritte is not outright noxious in the way that the big time lawyer played by Carrie-Anne Moss is, but she is creeping towards that general ballpark.
It’s the fact that guys like Butcher and Cole invoke the noir ethos that does them in for me. They recapitulate so much of it… and then they simply go limp. It’s like the barrier in the minds of the Bene Gesserit that prevents them from looking into entire swaths of human nature and the human condition. They are old school… but the whole idea of “regress harder” eludes them.
A pulp-style story that refuses to introduce beautiful, feminine, tantalizing, sultry women…? That instead, takes women and forces them to conform to a bossy, butched-up, jumped-up, hyper-competent archetype that is more of a political statement than anything out of literature or myth…? That’s lame. And it’s markedly inferior to the classic works of the pulp era. Now… I am inclined to cut authors some slack on this sort of thing given that the old way of doing things is both unimaginable to most people and inordinately risqué to boot. But that is the problem. That’s exactly why this sort of thing matters.