One of my favorite things about studying genres of fiction is finding ways to mix elements of them together in new and interesting ways. Sometimes, this adventure also leads me to understand a genre more based on its roots with older styles of fiction.
In one of my own stories, The Night Trilogy, I lean heavily into both the cyberpunk and the hardboiled detective genres (and by association, film noir). So, what is it about these genres that make them such a great combination? Well, we’re here to explore just that!
First, it should be noted that cyberpunk itself borrows heavily from the preceding genre of hardboiled detective fiction. Generally, this shows through in how there is some sort of damaged anti-hero slogging his way through a dark, dystopian society. What sets them apart is that in cyberpunk there’s a focus (or at least a backdrop) of a connected, electronic society; while in the hardboiled detective story, there’s always… well… a detective. These stories are also usually low-tech, as most of them were written in the 1940s and 1950s.
But, what other traits do these genres share in common that lends them to such a natural combination? That’s really what we’re here to discover. The following is a list of ten tropes that the two genres have in common.
1) The Anti-Hero
The anti-hero, even more than the reluctant-hero, usually isn’t out to save the day. Indeed, their motivations are often selfish rather than selfless. They might be out for revenge or a simple pay-day. They’ll often have character flaws that are looked down upon by society, such as antisocial behavior, alcoholism, drug use, or even violent tendencies.
It’s no surprise that in the hardboiled detective genre, crime is part of the routine. Since we’re dealing with a detective, it goes without saying that dealing with crime is part of his job. This is a big part of the cyberpunk genre as well. Plenty of these stories already involve a detective of some sort (The film Blade Runner, and the book by Phillip K. Dick it’s based on—Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—is a great example of this.) That aside, many of the protagonists in cyberpunk stories are criminals themselves; often hackers or activists working to bring down a corrupt system.
Speaking of the devil, corruption is the next item on our list. From crooked cops to mega-corporations, both the hardboiled detective and cyberpunk genres often touch on this theme. It might be the subject of a side plot or an aspect of the setting, but very often it’s at the center of the story either by way of the plot, thematic exploration, or both.
4) Guns, Lots of Guns
Now, I might just be an action junkie, but in almost all of what I’ve read in both hardboiled detective fiction and cyberpunk, somebody is going to get shot. You don’t always get a big set-piece action sequence (with the obvious exceptions, like in The Matrix, shown above), but the climactic showdown between the detective and the perp—or the cyber-resistance member and the big bad—is often going to involve some shooting.
“It was a dark and stormy night…” This opening phrase from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, Paul Clifford, could probably serve as an opener for any hardboiled detective or cyberpunk novel. In fact, I’d be surprised if a few aspiring pulpsters haven’t put this particular string of words to work. (See more about this phrase in Setting the Mood, an article I wrote not long ago about opening lines.) Dark nights, rain, and lurking in the shadows are all common elements you’ll see in both these genres.
6) Substance Abuse
Speaking of dark, we’re going there. Maybe because we’re likely to be spending time with an anti-hero, or maybe because these settings are about as grim as a dead kitten, substance abuse almost always shows up in these works. It might not even be a part of the story, but at some point there’s going to be chain smoking, bourbon sipping, or stimulant injections. In many of the more clever works from these genres, the substance abuse is subtly woven into the deconstruction of the effects living in a dystopian society has on the individual.
7) Dystopian Societies
Speaking of segues… Both harboiled detective fiction and cyberpunk take stabs at the dangers of commercialism, materialism, and uncontrolled capitalism in their own ways. The former might make a caricature of the greedy, rich wife as the femme fatale, while the latter goes big with mega-corporations controlling every aspect of day-to-day life. It was arguably dangerous to explore these themes in the 1940s and 1950s in America, so your hardboiled authors had to be subtle. But in the post-McCarthyism America of the 1980s, cyberpunk authors turned these quiet grumblings into an outright rebellion, if only on the page.
Dames. Broads. That piece of work that walked into my office with legs that kept going and eyes that could melt any frozen heart. It would be hard to dig into either hardboiled detective fiction or cyberpunk without finding a female character that’s central to the story. Sometimes they are the protagonist (such as Major Motoko Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell, pictured above), but more often they are not. Sometimes they’re the ones hiring the detective, or they need saved, or they’re the villain. Usually they’re a badass, and they might even turn out being the one to save the day. Either way, from the sultry femme fatalle to the action on the side, there’s going to be a woman playing a big role.
For the hardboiled detective genre, this again should go without saying. It also is arguably redundant with the above-mentioned element of crime; but I say not every crime is a mystery and not every mystery involves a crime. However, when it comes to our detective stories, it’s usually going to be one and the same; most often a murder. With the cyberpunk side of the coin though, the door is open to wider possibilities. The mysteries here are often on a larger scale, such as finding out how some corporation was hacked and taken for all it was worth or how the same entity is mind-controlling their customers through the net.
I’ve saved the best for last. And, arguably, the most important. No matter what your story has—detectives, dames, crime, corruption, darkness, and so on—there’s a certain feel that harboiled detective fiction and cyberpunk have in common that can be summed up in one word: cynicism. The worlds are dark, the governments (or members thereof) are corrupt, and people die horrible deaths. Often, the only escape is found in the bottom of a bottle (or some futuristic street drug). Our anti-hero isn’t just edgy, he’s damaged, and that didn’t happen in a vacuum. If all these stories have one thing is common, it’s a bleak outlook on the world. Don’t expect happy endings here. Don’t expect the hero’s journey.
Expect to get slapped in the face by a grim reality.
But, after all, isn’t that the appeal of these genres?
My own cyberpunk hardboiled detective trilogy, The Night Trilogy, can be found below.
Night Shift and Night Life are available now, and Night Shadow is coming in 2021!