When a film journalist writes a science fiction novel in the 1980s, you’d have expected it to be cineliterate and perhaps even reflect the author’s tastes in film. Write what you know, is the mantra, after all. You expect it to reflect the trends of the time, too, with the emergence of cyberpunk. The big question, is whether or not that combination can translate to the wider science fiction audience and be worth reading today?
Titan Books have re-packed and re-issued The Night Mayor, which Kim Newman first had published in 1989. This edition includes 4 short stories set within the same fictional (meta)universe. At the time, Newman was a fairly well known author of short-fiction, having appeared in Interzone.
The setting for The Night Mayor is the future and the past. We’re in the near future and the primary source of entertainment are Dreams; computer-enhanced realities created by professional Dreamers. Of course, they reflect the entertainment values of when Newman wrote the book, and are still prevalent today. The main character, Susan, is a star Dreamer, known for her romances. Soap operas and cop shows are extremely popular. What we call movies are nostalgia pieces called ‘flatties’. There’s also an AI called Yggdrasil that essential runs the world. Nod to cyberpunk.
When a criminal mastermind and computer genius called Truro Daine creates a film noir dreamscape it threatens both Yggdrasil and the real world. Susan and another Dreamer, a detective specialist called Tom Tunney, are sent in by the authorities to put the wrongs to right.
The book begins in typical noir narration of Tunney’s first person. All dark alleyways and rainy nights. The dream created by Daine is populated by actors from the glory days of cinema. This gives Newman a chance to show off his knowledge and understanding of the genre. Which is impressive. Susan’s perspective is told in third person, allowing a wider view of the world. As a fan of science fiction and noir, The Night Mayor is a fun and intriguing read, but I’ve no doubt less cineliterate readers might miss most of the references. In fact, I’m sure I missed many myself.
The Night Mayor is a tight novel, reflecting the efficiency of much of the noir genre; where gumshoes were hired, good guys double-crossed, dames distressed and rescued, and the truth will out all in under 90 minutes. Newman possibly knew the limitations of the story as it whips by at a decent pace with little room for significant character development. The world-building, on the other hand is beyond reproach. Within the noir dream it is perfect. He uses great expressions such as “a hand me down Cagneyism that looked bad on him” which puts you right in the picture (pun intended). All the clichés are present and correct – moody jazz, dodgy diners, femme fatales, rain-soaked alleys. All the stars are name-checked (Bogart, Raines, Gardner, Carradine, Hepworth et al) as are the litany of classic films (The Big Combo, Double Indemnity, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Big Sleep and more). It is easy to lose yourself in Daine’s creation (of course he plays god – wouldn’t you if you could create a world?), which credit to Newman, is perhaps the point. It even reads as a dream as the characters do the impossible (within the conventions of noir – such as fade between scenes rather than physically travel between locations). As for the real world of Newman’s science fiction, the ideas are fine, although I imagine they had more impact on original release. In today’s familiarity of AIs and such like, there’s little new to find here.
The short stories are of varied success. The first, featuring JFK and Marilyn Munroe perhaps the least successful. Perhaps a little too meta and conceited for its own good. It (and indeed the main novel) features John Yeovil, Newman’s own alter-ego, with which he has penned several novels in the Warhammer universe. The middle two shorts both worked well for me: a wry look at the future of the celebration stripper, and a spooky mystery. The last one, again lost me a little – I didn’t feel much for the domestic drama.
For a debut novel, this book oozes confidence, but also a little smugness. It has a clear passion and wears its noir-soaked heart on the sleeve of its battered trench coat. The brim of the fedora is knowingly pulled a little too low. There is just a little too much of ‘look what I know about cinema’ and not enough story and character arcs to keep a casual reader interested. The writing, as you’d expect however, is terrific and the atmosphere as spot on as a neon reflection in a puddle at 2.30am. Fun but flawed science fiction.
AUTHOR: Kim Newman
PUBLISHER: Titan Books
Reviewer: Ian J Simpson