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Titanium Noir by Nick Harkaway

07/06/2023
Titanium Noir by Nick Harkaway

While it is always true to say genre is fluid, occasionally something magical can happen when crime fiction meets science fiction. This may be because the best crime fiction uses its tropes to interrogate a particular milieu and its inhabitants, while the best science fiction creates new environments, often to explore what it means to be human. When put together well, crime genre tropes are the perfect vehicle for thoughtful and non-expository science-fiction world building.

And there are plenty of great science fiction books that have a crime fiction engine, going at least as far back as Asimov’s 1950s robot detective books The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. Inside this history of genre mashing are some truly superb titles that draw on the noir tradition of crime fiction, including Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, China Miéville’s The City and the City, and Leviathan Wakes, the first book of James SA Corey’s Expanse series.

Which is a long way of saying that Nick Harkaway’s latest book, Titanium Noir, which gives its cross-genre antecedents away in the title, is a great example of both.

In the world of Titanium Noir, a pricey, exclusive genetic treatment called T7 has made the wealthiest one per cent literal Titans. The drug repairs the body, extends lifespan and leaves the user significantly bigger and stronger than before. Each dose makes the user bigger and more powerful again. The treatment is owned by a Titan called Stefan Tonfamecasa and through it, his family company essentially controls the world. Titans are still mortal but they are hard to kill, so when a Titan dies, the police have to tread carefully.

Enter gumshoe Cal Sounder. Sounder works on retainer with the police, brought into cases that involve Titans in order to try and solve them quietly.

Titan cases by definition involve frightened rich people calling the politicians they socialise with, who call the police chief, who then wants to know everything before the cops themselves do until it’s like two guys running in clown shoes, except when they fall over one of them gets to fire the other.

When Titanium Noir opens, Cal has been asked to look into the death, seemingly by suicide, of an atypical Titan called Rodney Tebbit. Tebbit, a researcher, is not a profligate, entitled member of the elite. But the investigation into his death will take Cal from the criminal underworld to the heights of Titan society and plenty of shady places along the way.

Cal is your classic noir detective. Scarred, hard-bitten, cynical but determined to get to the truth. As he says of himself:

I don’t hate Titans, cops or journalists. I also don’t love Titans, cops or journalists.

I do what I do and I try to do it right.

Cal is a clever but dirty fighter, but even so, getting shot and beaten up is par for the course. And there is, of course a woman involved – his ex, Athena – and a tragic backstory. His voice is pure Sam Spade, and there are great examples on almost every page, such as this:

Right now the moon is rising behind the ridgeline and the campus streetlights are lit, each casting an X of shadows over the central path. I walk through the gates and find a guy standing by himself in the middle of the court. He’s short, a little plump, and he wears waistcoats and corduroy so hard you have to think he’s making a statement. Oddly flat lenses in round spectacles, so that they catch the light and flicker when he turns his head. I guess he has a certain image to maintain. After all, he’s the Dean.

And this:

Cop life is complicated. Three-quarters of the problems they get asked to solve they can’t, and shouldn’t have to, and don’t know how. The rest are just fucking terrifying. That makes them hang together, and that causes trouble because they can’t belong to one another more than they belong to other people – but they inevitably do. Add in all the ordinary human vices and cops can be a mile away and to the side of the population they’re supposed to protect.

Harkaway has always had an eclectic, highly weird and fascinating output. His previous books include his completely gonzo dystopian debut The Gone Away World, the steampunk-with-spies adventure Angelmaker, and the kind of comic-book superhero homage Tigerman. In Titanium Noir, Harkaway completely owns the noir detective form – cynical and sharp and not a word wasted. He uses it to explore a world that can probably be described as dystopian, but his observations land as it is a world that is scarily close to the one we actually live in.

This review first appeared in Newtown Review of Books.

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