In speculative fiction—you know, science fiction, fantasy, and horror—there is a widespread antipathy for “loser” characters, for “whiners.” It’s considered intuitively obvious that stories should be about excellent people surmounting the obstacles before them using logic and reason (in SF), or via powers granted by their special inherent role in the telos of the universe (in fantasy), or through the willingness to engage in social trespass, but only so far (in horror). The form rejection letter for the venerable science fiction magazine Analog warns aspiring writers of this specifically:
Science fiction readers are problem solvers! Stories with downbeat endings, in which the characters have no hope of solving their problems, are strongly disliked by Analog readers. In a good SF story, the characters strive to solve their problems—and even if they fail in the end, they go down fighting, not whimpering.
There’s a bit of a giveaway there. It’s not that science fiction protagonists are problem solvers, but that the readers are. Or they fancy themselves to be, at least. If you ever want to see the rhetorical equivalent of a bunch of half-starved pitbulls tearing apart a live pig, just attend your local science fiction convention, find a knot of fans in a hallway and say to them, “You know what book I like a lot? The Catcher in the Rye.” Warning: you’re the live pig.
In noir, and in the darker precincts of crime fiction generally, characters almost never solve their problems. Sometimes they are the problem to be solved, and via sudden violence; often their problems are impossible to solve. In mystery/detective fiction, logic and reason are valorized, as is the special social position of the sleuth, as is the willingness of the hero to break a few rules to capture a more dangerous rule-breaker. Just like SF. But noir story abandons these character tropes. The author James Grady (Six Days of the Condor) said in an interview that, “noir is essentially the ‘social novel’, but one in which characters must face the reality that they must choose from imperfect choices, and that though they must rebel to find themselves, they are doomed to life’s absurdities.” Noir heroes go down whimpering, when they don’t go down gurgling and drowning in a throatful of their own blood.
Of course, there are SF heroes with noir fates. Ever see The Planet of the Apes? But those are exceptions, and so with my novel Bullettime I had a challenge ahead of me. Bullettime is the story of a kid named David Holbrook for whom things do not go well. Not when Dave is given the dubious gift of near-omniscient perspective, so that he might see how his life will play out in an infinity of ways based on his own decision-making. Not when Dave’s high school crush is a Greek goddess that has chosen him for her divine attentions. And not when Dave comes into possession of a couple of Uzis and a way to sneak them into his high school. That is, things don’t go well for Dave when Dave is a science fiction hero, or when he’s a fantasy hero, or when he’s a horror hero.
Social novels are often both epic and domestic at once. With Bullettime I did want to perform the almost cliché action of “entering the mind of a killer”, but I also wanted to enter the social world of one. It’s easy enough to draw a line starting at home neglect, neurological problems, and social outcast status and ending at “school shooter”, but if it were really that easy we’d have a Columbine once a week. How many former potential school shooters live amongst us now, the only good decision they ever made obscured by their boring workaday adult lives? Being a science fiction enthusiast, the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics came to mind immediately: show a character deciding to shoot up his school, and deciding not to, succeeding at it, and failing, and then run through the alternative timelines created by the decisions. But as a noir enthusiast, I knew it would be a simple lie to avoid the “downbeat ending” forbidden by science fiction, especially when I had a number of endings to write. Finally, being a fantasy enthusiast, and a good Greek boy above all else, I knew that the word “enthusiasm” comes from entheos—having the god within. If there is a way to escape both the cold equations of logic and the endless absurdities of life, then Eris, the goddess of discord, would find a way to go down whimpering and rise up fighting in the same split-second moment of bullettime.
Nick Mamatas is the author of the novels Bullettime, The Damned Highway, Sensation, Move Under Ground, Under My Roof; the two collections 3000MPH In Every Direction At Once, and You Might Sleep; and the novella Northern Gothic.
He is also the editor of the anthologies The Urban Bizarre, Phantom #0, Spicy Slipstream Stories, and Haunted Legends.
Nick also co-edited the magazine Clarkesworld for two years, which was nominated for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards. Stories from Clarkesworld have been collected in a pair of anthologies: Realms and Realms 2.