I had the pleasure of attending LibertyCon this past weekend. While I was there I attended a panel on noir and hardboiled detective fiction. (One of the panelists was Larry Correia, who wrote the excellent noir fantasy Grimnoir Chronicles.) I’ve never read Raymond Chandler or seen Chinatown, but between The Grimnoir Chronicles, Ian Tregillis’ Something More Than Night, and now The Dark Side, I’m developing a taste for the stuff (I also stuck Killing Pretty by Richard Kadrey and Pale Realms of Shade and The Plural of Helen of Troy by John C. Wright with the Noir SF tag).
The key point of the panelists at LibertyCon is that noir is more a style than a genre. Which makes me question my classification of some—if noir is a style than it’s not enough to slap a fedora on your protagonist and have him spout some hardboiled slang. But then O’Neill is interested in doing a lot more than that. The Dark Side is part noir mystery, part hard sci fi, part satire of Ayn Rand, part travel brochure for the Moon.
The setting is the dark side of the moon (the literal dark side of the moon, not the excellent Pink Floyd album), specifically Purgatory, a city suitably full of seedy bars and shifty residents. The heavy is a plutocrat and robber baron named Fletcher Brass. The sap is a cop who was too good at his job to stay on Earth. Oh, and there is a renegade android murdering his way across the Moon.
The murderous android’s first victim is a lunatic (O’Neill really likes this joke) who bombed and shot 62 people to death. He is, of course, an anti-immigration hardliner, just like all terrorists except those whose motives are completely, utterly, and entirely inscrutable. He is also almost certainly a latent homosexual, just like they all are. Oh, and he is a fan of “ruthless economics,” because apparently O’Neill knows nothing whatsoever about immigration hardliners. But anyway, the bombing and shooting and errata got him sent to be imprisoned on the Moon, which, lab rat experimentation aside, seems like another example of a grossly expensive penal system. And he gets killed pretty quick, one in a rather long line of victims of android rage given in little vignettes. They’re kind of pointless, and don’t really build suspense in the way O’Neill is likely aiming for, but they are entertaining enough in their own right to be worth the price of admission and are part of the “Moon travelogue” slice of the mix.
Meanwhile, Purgatory has a new detective, Lieutenant Damien Justice (pronounced “Eustace”), who had to leave Earth to protect his family and got a beaker full of acid to the face in the bargain. All for arresting the wrong man. Well, the right man with the wrong connections. Or maybe the right connections, depending on how you look at it. Justice plays the straight man, with the cops above, below, and beside him indifferent, incompetent, cruel, and venal in equal measures. The story is largely pushed forward by his drive to get to the bottom of things. Things that start with a bombing that kills a member of the “Brass Band.”
The Brass Band is Fletcher Brass’ inner circle of confidants, and Purgatory is the personal company town of Brass, an aerospace billionaire. Or trillionaire. Or billionaire who goes out of his way to encourage people to think he’s a trillionaire. Like just about everyone else, he’s up there on exile. And everything about Brass—not just the Brass Band—is, well, brass. Brass-tinted hair. Eyes that look like they have flecks of brass in them. A brass-colored suit.
The book copy ties him to Ayn Rand, but Fletcher Brass seems to owe a lot more to Donald Trump. (And Donald Trump isn’t the hero in an Ayn Rand novel, he’s the villain.) Like Trump, Brass is known for an ugly head full of hair. Like Trump he is ostentatious in his wealth and intensely interested in what people think and say about him. Like Trump he takes credit for success better attributable to his father and wildly exaggerates it anyway. His development successes “were underwritten by generous grants, tax breaks, mining rights, and incentive schemes”—the sort of rent seeking that was anathema to Rand but very good to Trump. He takes great satisfaction in being “politically incorrect” (i.e., a jackass). Trump’s hand probably feels more like a crawfish claw than a lobster claw, though.
And, at the very least, Brass avoided plastering his name on at least one thing. Purgatory is distinctly old fashioned, as befits the setting for a noir, with no CCTV, no radar, not so much as a radio. (It’s to protect sensitive instrumentation pointed out into the galaxy, but has the added benefit of attracting tourists looking for “a square inch that’s not being watched, probed, or listened to.”) In true noir fashion, Purgatory is as much a character as Brass or Justice. It’s full of lovely, absurd little touches like goats springing 40 feet into the air and crashing into a padded roof and prostitutes done up to look like movie stars of yesteryear. It has gun control, being tightly enclosed and all, but it doesn’t work any better up there than it does down here.
Purgatory is on the far side of the Moon, the dark side. It’s not called the dark side because it gets less sunlight than the near side. “[I]t’s ‘the Dark Side’ because it looks not upon the glorious orb of the home planet but upon the icy emptiness of space. Because it’s less populated, less charted, and less studied. Because it’s appreciably more dangerous. Because no satellites or shuttles are allowed to fly over it. Because it’s luna incommunicado—in permanent radio blackout. And because it’s been home, for twenty years, to Purgatory and Fletcher Brass.” It’s the dark side of the day-night Terminator and 328 consecutive hours of darkness.
O’Neill nails the noir setting and atmosphere in a way that some of the other works I’ve tagged as Noir SF do not, as much as I love them. Some of the best chapters are long discourses on life on the Moon mixing the noir colonies that have sprung up with a hard scifi look at the difficulties of living up there. Even when he’s being absurd it works. The Dark Side if full of ridiculous conservative strawmen from the anti-immigration hardliner to Fletcher Brass to “the U.S. secretary of defense responsible for authorizing false-flag operations that led to two catastrophic wars.” But instead of ruining the work in the usual way, they fit the cynicism and inherent and welcome slight absurdity of a noir setting, giving the whole thing a sort of BioShock Infinite feel.
More troubling is that The Dark Side falls flat toward the end. There is something off about the pacing that I can’t quite put my finger on. Like bankruptcy, it proceeds two ways, gradually then suddenly. And, at that point, there isn’t any real mystery left. I like to keep myself in as much suspense as possible, but I didn’t exactly have to try to guess what would happen to guess what would happen.
Disclosure: I received a copy of The Dark Side from the publisher.