JF Ptak Science Books Post 1177
I wonder if there is any such thing as Science Noir? There is certainly science fiction noir, and Cyber Noir and associated reaches, but, well, what about a purely Science Noir? Scary, off-center, distracted, chilling, nightmarish science? I’m not so sure if this is even a real question, but when I think about arguments made for the cultural and supposed artistic impacts in the creation and direction of some aspects of scientific development, I wonder if it makes any sense at all to think of science in terms of the noirish aspects of culture.
Emma Alvarez Gibson made the suggestion to me that Science Noir might be a version of Steampunk, and she may well be correct, although the frightening aspects of vast machinery shrouded in noise and smoke and shadow–the very definers of Steampunk and massive Victorian-era machinery–may be itself one version Science Noir.
But what comes first to mind of course is film noir, the edgy use of cinema that came about during the late stages of the Expressionist movement and the early stages of motions pictures. Expressionism comes just after the first real influx of motion pictures, around 1910 or so, and it seems a little surprising to me that such a huge developmental leap was taken in film so quickly after the first initial mass public success of the film industry. Perhaps it is incredible that a movie such as The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari–seen as the first adventure into Film Noir and an enormous leap of creativity in film–came so quickly: after all, the first NYT film review appears in 1909, the first movie magazine (Photoplay) appears in 1912, the first animated cartoon (the great Windsor McKay’s Gertie the Dinosaur) in 1914, the same year as the first appearance of the Little tramp. And then five short years later, almost a decade into the Expressionist movement, comes the Cabinet.
Film Noir was a new experience in motion pictures–it tested reality, coming to the audience in a shadow, fractured, sharp angled crossed line existence, dark, potentially unreal, teasingly chaotic, establishing a waking nightmare. The mood was questioning, the atmosphere sharp and highly contrasted. It was scary–especially in the case of the deeply creepy Dr. Caligari the deeply disturbing sets continuing to stay as existence in the film even after it is revealed that everything that had happened previously was a dream...except that the dream’s landscape was not relieved.
Perhaps the earliest brush of Film Noir was Science Noir. The earliest removed images in real time that were seen moving eerily across the probable clay/adobe walls of a camera obscura must have seen fantastic to the first observers. The earliest projected images from the magic lantern–seen here in the engraving La Lanterne Magique by Jean Orvrier and published around 1770–included many frightening portrayals of witches and demons in addition to their general stable of scientific, technical, literary and travel images. I am quite sure that the earliest viewers of these scenes must have felt as though they were witnessing something extra-ordinary, something beyond simple optical amusements shown on white cloth, something more real than not–particularly since it seems that many people were exposed to these images by traveling magic lantern itinerants more so than scientific lectures. The images of spectres and demons may well have felt to be the things themselves.
Perhaps the magic lantern is the first bit of Science Noir, the Steampunk without the steam. And metal. The noirsh aspects of this science was in projected light and the imagination, leaving the worst effects of the visual aspects of this fear to the imagination.
But I think that Ms. Gibson is correct, and that the most vivid aspects of Science Noir are left to Steampunk, the threat of metallic enormities of power and noise simply overwhelming the viewer. I suspect though the greatest science noir of the 20th century would best be seen through the eyes of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, a masterpiece of black humor layered in incredibly stark, high-contrast black and white scenes, the threat of entire annihilation made to feel somehow ridiculous, humorous and possible, the viewer laughing as Major Kong rides the nuclear weapon "Hi There" all the way down in Nukepunk cowboy glory through five minutes of an insistent "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" soundtrack. And then, suddenly, the silent, brilliant flash, and the laughing stops, and there’s nothing left but cold heat.
I guess that’s my first take on the vision of modern Science Noir.
(The except below from Dr. Strangelove is longish, about five minutes, but it is well worth the buildup.)
The oldest extant magic lantern-like machine comes to us from Christian Huygens from about 1656. Huygens is a scientist of enormous energy and capacity and genius, and more often forgotten than not nowadays, at least in popular culture