Mar 28 2013 11:00am

Love and Death: Noir Sci-Fi Romance

Naked in Death by J.D. Robb“A woman doesn't care how a guy makes a living, just how he makes love.”

—Rita (Helen Stanton) in The Big Combo (1949)

Even if you’ve never heard of the term “film noir,” you’ve probably read a book or have seen a movie in that genre. Film noir refers to “…stylish Hollywood crime dramas, particularly those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations.” With roots in 1930s crime fiction, film noir’s first major wave was during the 1940s and 1950s.

This genre encompasses a broad category of films. It’s strongly associated with a private eye or law enforcement officer as one of the main characters. Other well-known elements are the femme fatale leading lady and an urban setting. It’s also important to note that “Thematically, film noirs were most exceptional for the relative frequency with which they centered on women of questionable virtue.” Noir even extended to science fiction, with films like Blade Runner and Dark City being notable examples of “science fiction noir.”

Given the scope of film noir and crime fiction, it’s no wonder the genres made their way into science fiction romance. J.D. Robb’s In Death series is one prominent example. In a nutshell, it’s noir-flavored crime fiction in a near-future setting. Beginning with Naked in Death, the series follows heroine Lieutenant Eve Dallas as she solves various crimes and embarks on an intense, complex romance with wealthy businessman Roarke. Eve’s character refreshingly subverts the typically male lead in this genre.

Ann Somerville’s gritty Pindone Files series take a similar route in that the police procedural action is set against the backdrop of a human inhabited planet in a futuristic setting (futuristic in the sense of its non-Earth location). The two heroes work to uncover the perpetrator responsible for a number of mysterious deaths. Included in the mix are a forbidden romance and characters with telepathic abilities.

Caught in Amber by Cathy PegauNoir and crime fiction elements are also a component of Cathy Pegau’s Caught in Amber. The hero is a Colonial Mining Authority Agent who enlists the help of the heroine, a former drug addict, to rescue his sister from a dangerous drug lord. Like the Pindone Files, the story takes place in a non-Earth setting. I’ve been wondering if the buzz surrounding Caught in Amber is in part because of the film’s noir elements, crime fiction flavor, and easily accessible futuristic elements.

Here’s why: at Amazing Stories, Chris Gerwel speculated in one of his Crossroads columns (Science Fiction Romance - A Niche Before Its Time?) that noir/suspense elements might be a strategic move for SFR stories:

“Noir and suspense have developed a far more stable and recognizable set of conventions, which are in turn used and repeated across literature, film, and television. As a result, the reading protocols of noir/suspense are more solidly developed, which leads to a larger potential audience that I believe science fiction romance has left largely untapped.”

He postulated that J.D. Robb’s In Death series have had wider appeal than other sci-fi romances in part because “…the books are constructed as a classic police procedural mystery.” Of course, there’s the possibility that the In Death series is popular because it’s written by Nora Roberts. On the other hand, readers, as Chris Gerwel rightly observes, are very familiar with noir/crime fiction because of its history and prevalence. And so he wondered if science fiction romances with those elements would be more apt to attract readers.

What do you think about the romance + noir + SF combo? Would you like to read book versions in the vein of films such as Dark City? Is this indeed an untapped area, or has it remained untapped for a reason?


Heather Masseyis a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She’s also an author in the subgenre. To learn more about her published work, visit

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Allison Brennan
1. Allison_Brennan
Great article. I hadn't thought of Robb as being noir, but there is certainly a flavor of noir in the series.
Darlene Marshall
2. DarleneMarshall
I was especially intrigued by your claim of how Robb subverts the paradigm Roarke is the "guy fatale" and we're all darn glad of it. I was ready to reject the premise that the "In Death" series is noir until I read that, then it made sense.

On the other hand, now that Roarke is most definitely one of the good guys, the NYSPD's "Civilian Consultant", it's moved from possible noir firmly into police procedural. In addition, there are too many good people in the series for it to feel noir--almost all of the secondary characters with the exception of Dickhead are lovely, witty, morally upright folks. Contrast that with Sam Spade's partner in The Maltese Falcon, the one killed by Brigid. He was a two-timing. lying weasel, but Sam had to avenge him solely because he was his partner. Now, that's noir!
Jenna Bennett
3. Jenna Bennett
I have no problem with the noir-appellation to the In Death books. Rather, my problem is with the SFR label. They're a police procedural series with the same protagonist(s) throughout. Doesn't that automatically take them out of romance territory? There's no HEA at the end of the first book, or any of the others, for that matter. The series describes an ongoing relationship. It's a pretty straight up police procedural suspense series that happens to take place near-future, but it certainly doesn't fit the accepted definition of romance, even if Nora Roberts did write it.
Allison Brennan
4. Allison_Brennan
@Jenna -- I think it's a romantic suspense series. Eve and Roarke have an on-going, growing relationship that is emotionally satisfying for the reader. It's not a classic romantic suspense with everything tied up in a neat little bow at the end of the first book, but it's certainly a romance entwined with the suspense. In most police procedurals or mysteries where there is a relationship between the protagonist and a love interest, the "romance" is thin and often unresolved or the protagonist goes through multiple relationships over the course of the series. But with Eve and Roarke, you KNOW they're together forever, and as a reader, I love seeing how the author creates conflict that is integral to both the mystery plot and their relationship. It's organic and wonderful. IMO. :)
Donna Frelick
I'm more interested in exploring the noir aspects of character, setting and mood in a futuristic environment. When I think of BLADE RUNNER or DARK CITY (and the film noir classics to which they pay homage), I think first of the lighting, the rain, the shadows, metaphors for the darkness in the soul of the antihero at the center of the story. That can work so well in a dystopian future, no matter whether the setting is Earth or a colony somewhere, a spaceship or another planet.

Gerwel was speaking to those conventions that make it easier for writers and readers to communicate with each other. I agree that the conventions of romantic suspense--be they noir, police procedural, lovers-on-the-run, woman/man-with-a-past or whatever--can be put to terrific use in a science fiction romance. I call my work science fiction suspense romance--a mouthful, I know. But my hope is readers will somehow find it more accessible and less unfamiliar territory.
6. spacechampion
Sorry to be late to the converstation, but I think the chief element of noir is not crime or suspense, but transgressive, depraved humanity. Frequently that will be uncovered in criminal investigations, but what about transgressions that are not a crime? Romances to me seem to be used frequently to investigate a social setting or subculture through the character trying to make a relationship happen. So a transgressive relationship... like a Romeo & Juliet one with social disaproval, is ripe for a noir treatment. Thirdly, science fiction with transhumanist themes can be transgressive as well, so also ripe for noir treatment. So a science fiction noir romance does seem like a natural fit to me.

To expound more on the noir idea, I think of it as the opposite of gothic. Gothic has the supernatural or superscientific as dangerous threats than can drive you mad and disrupt the placid world of respectable society; while noir can have supernatural or superscientific as mundane elements in society while it is the human elements that are shocking, depraved, and transgressive.
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