Noir detective thrillers and science fiction are fairly natural bedfellows; add epic poetry to the mix too, however, and you end up with something far more unusual. Oliver Langmead's debut novel, Dark Star, combines elements of all three genres into a surprisingly focused whole: a science fiction noir poem, if you will.
Dark Star is set deep in humanity's future in the city of Vox, situated on a planet that orbits a lightless sun. It is a city where nothing that burns emits light: "the only dark star among the countless." The only sources of light are expensive, artificial, and dim for most, fuelled by Vox's three "Hearts," the fuel cells that the inhabitants rely on. The narrative is based around two mysteries that spring up simultaneously for Detective Virgil Yorke and his partner Dante: the unusual death of a young woman and the theft of Cancer, one of those three Hearts that powers Vox—and could be used to destroy it.
Following the tradition of the epic, the plot throws the reader straight into the action, wasting no time on exposition: light is cast slowly on Virgil's backstory, the world of Vox, and what has happened to humanity. The reader is left in the dark, occasionally glimpsing clues in dim patches of light; this mirrors both the experience of living on Vox and what Virgil feels when trying to solve the twin mysteries. The stark imagery of the murdered Vivian adds to the intrigue, making the reader as keen to work out what's happened as Virgil:
She's difficult to look at. She's too bright.
She's lighting the whole damn scene with her blood.
Dark Star's form also throws down a gauntlet to the reader: the entire novel is written in iambic pentameter (as opposed to the dactylic hexameter better suited to classical Greek and Latin epic poetry), using four-line stanzas with a regular meter of ten syllables per line. At first, I thought this might be an unnecessary extravagance; that Langmead had perhaps hobbled himself with the meter's constraints. However, he uses enjambment to make the words flow smoothly: sentences spill over into the following line, giving his writing a natural style that takes surprisingly little time to adjust to, like when you watch a film with subtitles and soon forget you're even reading them.
Langmead has said that he believes many modern stories like Star Wars and the Game of Thrones TV series share many characteristics with the epics, without needing to share their poetical traits. So what does the measured form contribute that plain prose would not? It adds a certain gravitas to the story and makes the reader consider it alongside the great epic poems—including those by Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton—that inspired Dark Star. Epics often attempt to define a culture's origin narratives and myths, even when they are set in a different time and place, like Beowulf (famously set amongst Geats and Danes, not the Anglo-Saxons who shared the poet's tongue). Using the poetic form embeds Dark Star within this epic tradition, perhaps establishing itself as Vox's central, defining story.
Here's a sentence I never thought I'd type: iambic pentameter also enhances the terse conversational style used by Virgil and Dante, the story's hard-bitten detectives (and, of course, an epic poet and the later interpreter he guided through Hell). Langmead's stripped-back style of poetry is far from flowery, and the stilted nature of the syllable count suits the style well, making the dialogue convincingly gruff.
Despite being set in the future, Vox is far from a sterile utopian vision of it. Instead of using its future setting as an opportunity to explore the technological advances we might make, Langmead creates a world that seems to have regressed technologically, with humanity struggling to survive in the dark, rather than pushing on. As well, much of Dark Star's language made me feel more like I was reading a hardboiled detective story set in the American 1930s, with strong echoes of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe series.
The perpetual darkness and even the weather (generally rainy) give the city a film noir feel too; whereas things only seem to happen at night in film noir, it's essentially always night in Dark Star. Film noir is often set in a city full of dangerous traps to ensnare the hero, and in Dark Star it's hard for Virgil to move without bumping into antagonists with dubious motives.
Langmead has named Blade Runner and Sin City as influences on Dark Star too, and there are certainly stylistic similarities: its night setting, a mostly monochromatic color palette, and deep shadows. As in Sin City, from out of the gloom, flashes of color are used to draw the eye; in Dark Star, for example, Virgil finds a photograph that's "all vivid colour, strange-looking torch light; an odd reflection caught in a mirror." To Virgil—and to the reader, relying on his muddled description—the picture is entirely unfathomable, and it's not until we're told it's a picture of an Earth sunrise that it makes sense. As the novel is narrated in the first person by Virgil throughout, it's through glimpses like this that the story is told, forming a coherent picture gradually.
The characters too feel like half-described sketches that we never get to see properly. Dante fills the role of the standard-issue loyal sidekick, and Virgil's various adversaries are not given enough time to establish convincing motivation. Virgil feels a little too much like a grizzled, doubtful detective-by-numbers: literally scarred, constantly smoking, drug-addicted, and frequently alluding to a dark past. However, traditional epic heroes are often recurring characters lifted from the legends of their culture, so it makes sense that a Chandlerian detective should be the hero in a setting like Vox—and he fits the city's dark landscape perfectly.
As well as its haunted detective, Dark Star also features some familiar tropes from speculative fiction. Conjuring corrupt echelons of power, and featuring something we take for granted now as scarce in the future, takes the reader down a well-trodden dystopian path. What sets Dark Star apart is that it is light that is turned into a commodity, since its scarcity gives it value. Instead of being free and provided by the sun, light can only come from artificial sources like bulbs, which require electricity. Langmead thus asks valuable questions about what happens when something we take for granted as a basic human right is, effectively, privatized. In this case, those that control the supply of light (the owners of the "Hearts" that power the city) hold authority in society. The opulence of the rich is generally flaunted through well-lit private spaces that aren't shared with the public, who are left in the gloom: "Here the wealthy feed and grow fat on light." Similarly, the rich are the only people who can read: everyone else has to get by using a crude braille.
This is echoed in the portrayal of Vox's drug dealers, who also hold power over individuals by controlling the supply of something they need. We see this firsthand through Virgil's addiction to Prometheus, a drug that gives him a fleeting simulated feeling of light and warmth, leaving him in withdrawal and in need of more afterwards. The parallels between light and Vox's drugs suggest to us that we can become addicted to more than chemicals, perhaps echoing contemporary society's reliance on fossil fuels, and its political, social, and environmental effects.
Langmead researched Seasonal Affective Disorder and light deprivation studies when writing Dark Star, mirroring their symptoms in Vox's population, who need light to stay sane:
In school they try to teach you how to cope
With the constant dark, to tell you to find light
And avoid being immersed in blackness
They fairly know what it does to a man.
The lack of light also erodes the distinction between night and day, with time measured in "cycles" instead of days. The timeless listlessness this creates, combined with its subdued population, junkies and ghosts, makes Vox feel like a purgatory—or possibly even a hell, similar to parts of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy (in which a Virgil, too, was our guide). Humanity has left Earth (having used up all its resources, I assume), so may be living out its punishment in a sort of afterlife, as it pushes for one last glimpse of true light, of the paradise humanity has lost:
I want there to be a place where the sun
Can make a sky blue, an ocean sparkle.
Where a sun can rise, and be made of light.
If so, Dark Star might just be a legend of humanity's end, rather than an origin story. It could even be taken as an environmental parable, ending on a warning about the consequences of wanton consumption. Whatever its message, it avoids clumsy directness, making it all the more intriguing.
Dark Star's dream-like ending leaves Vox's final fate ambiguous. The poetry is at its most powerful in these final few scenes, their unrelenting ticking rhythm adding to the sense of urgency that will wrap everything up before the end. It finishes, however, with several questions left unanswered (who, for example, are the ghosts haunting Vox?), with Vox's history and fate still ripe for further exploration. If Langmead does write another epic, poem, novel, or song about this astonishing city, I'll be more than happy to revisit Vox.