Noir by K. W. Jeter
388 pages, 1998, Spectra/Bantam Books, $23.95
Review score: *** out of *****

K.W. Jeter is starting to become known for his Star Wars and Star Trek "franchise" novels. Making a living as a writer can be tough and we all have bills to pay. I've always despised people who criticize an artist for "selling out". Why should artists have to starve? So I certainly don't hold the franchise novels against Jeter. However, the franchise novels don't represent Jeter's best work. They pay the bills. I have read a number of Jeter's books over the years and Noir, although flawed, is the best so far.

Jeter has a varied body of work that goes back twenty five years or so and includes twenty books. He was a friend and admirer of Philip K. Dick and Jeter's taste for dark Dickian surreal reality runs through his novels. Noir has elements from Jeter's first novel, Dr. Adder, so it could loosely be viewed as set in the same universe.

The title Noir is well chosen. As with many of Jeter's worlds, the world Noir is dark. A world where corporations are free from anything but the most pro-forma government constraints. Where the drive for profit has entirely taken over and life is cheap. It is possible to literally get a license to kill, as long as the victim has low enough status.

As one of Jeter's character's describes it, noir is also a reference to "low-brow American culture, ages ago, ancient black-and-white movies filled with shadows, garish paperback cover art that seemed equally devoted to guns, lip-dangling cigarettes, and off-the-shoulder cleavage". Noir is "a literature of anxiety. Somebody's always getting screwed over... it's betrayal ... That's what it's always been. That's what makes it so realistic, even when it's the most dreamlike and shabby, when it looks like it's happening on some other planet. The one we lost and can't even remember, but we can see it when we close our eyes..." And indeed the gray twists of betrayal run throughout the plot of Jeter's Noir.

At times Jeter can be profound, deep observation swirling into the bizarre.

[...] he's still looking for what every member of the male species is always looking for. Way deep down inside. He's just brave enough to come out and say it, to ask for what he really wants. What all of you want, eventually. The complete and total reunion of the male and the female principles.

[...] What men wanted; palaces and cathedrals were all very well, but the goddess they worshiped was absent from those places, and they knew it. How much better to live inside the goddess herself, absorbed and yet still separate.

The male thirst for the feminine archetype. The desire to join with the avatar of the universal woman. I know just what Jeter means. I can never get enough of my wife. I hunger for her even after I've just had her. But it would give away some of the plot to tell you what he means by "the life inside". It is here that we see a Jeter branch into strange madness.

No world, even an imaginary one, can be entirely described in a single book. There will always be details that are never fully explained. This is true of the dark world of Noir as well, but as the book progresses many of the features of the world become revealed, like some night blooming flower. One of the strangest is what appears to be Jeter's view of copyright and intellectual property:

There's a hardware solution to intellectual-property theft. It's called a .357 magnum. No better way for taking pirates off-line. Permanently. Properly applied to the head of any copyright-infringing little bastard, this works. [emphasis in the original]

Jeter is violently opposed to the oft quoted Internet saying "Information Wants to be free". He is a sort of anti-Raymond

And no utopian notions, no wierd 'net-twit theorizing, propagandizing, self-serving merchandising of predictions, no half-baked amalgam of late-sixties Summer of Love and Handouts, Diggerish free food in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park [...]

The "gift-based" economy had been a hippie dream, nice for exchanging information of no value, worthless itself for selling and buying anything worth buying and selling.

The international nature of the internet and its pervasiveness make intellectual property difficult or impossible to protect. While Jeter is outraged at this, he is not ignorant of the nature of the Internet

For a while, the inchoate, not-yet-coalesced Internet had fostered the kind of informational darkness in which thieves prospered. The so-called anonymous remailing services pleaded an ideological agenda and served as a front for criminals and vandals. The first and most famous,, folded in 1996, its spine broken by Finnish court orders. The rest were hunted down and exterminated off the wires -- it took a while -- on the simple legal principle and mechanism that receiving stolen goods was as much a crime as the theft that produced them. That was what being a fence was all about: there was essentially no difference between a sleazoid pawnshop trafficking in hot, wire-dangling care stereos and an on-line service receiving a stolen, copyrighted piece

Perhaps. It still remains to be seen what will happen with Napster and the distributed MP3 archives. And even if Napster as a company is destroyed, Gnutella appears to be impossible to suppress. Perhaps Jeter knows that only the threat of sure and horrible death (or horrible life in death) would have a hope of stopping intellectual property from flowing, unlicensed, on the Internet.

As a software engineer I strongly believe that I should be rewarded for my work, as I have written elsewhere. My wife and I have a large library and we collect signed first editions (which includes a signed copy of Noir), so I believe to my core that artists should be rewarded for their efforts as well. But, as Courtney Love has pointed out, markets evolve and artists must evolve along with them.

Although many reviewers have seized on Jeter's copyright rant and on the intellectual property themes in Noir to suggest that the book is about intellectual property ("a world where copyright theft is punishable by death"), this theme is not central to Noir. The copyright rant reminded me of reading De Sade, where in the midst of torture, sodomy, rape and kinky sex there appears a tract on the Republicanism and the rights of man. Then, after the position statement is read out by one of the characters, the action continues as before. Noir is an excellent book, flawed by the Jeter's extreme copyright rant. The copyright twist could be extracted and plug-replaced by another twist and Noir would have been a better book. Copyright and publishing on-line are complex issues. It would have been better if Jeter had left the ranting for his Web page.

Noir gives the reader every reason to believe that Jeter holds rather extreme views on intellectual property and that this is not just "the characters speaking". So in concluding this review, I would like to note that the laws protecting copyright include the concept of "fair use". In particular, quotes are allowed in book reviews and other critical works. If Mr. Jeter somehow stumbles on my humble review, I urge him to remember this. Any quotes I have used from Noir on this web page fall well within fair use.


My predictions that Gnutella and other peer-to-peer networks for swapping copyrighted material would take Napster's place if Napster was suppressed have come to pass (this is kind of a no-brainer prediction that was only non-obvious to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)).

As the traffic on the peer-to-peer networks has increased, the reaction from the RIAA has become more extreme. See the references at the end of A Modest Proposal: Gnutella and the Tragedy of the Commons. I'm sure that the RIAA would apply Jeter's "hardware solution to intellectual-property theft" if they could. Murdering their customers would be a small price to pay for protecting copyright.

While violation of copyright is not currently a capital offense, there has been a proposal (by Texas Congressman John Carter) to send people to jail for trading copyrighted files (especially music) on-line (Marking File Traders as Felons by Katie Dean, Wired News, March 19, 2003).

Carter said making an example of a few college students could go a long way toward bringing home the message that sharing and duplicating copyrighted materials is wrong.

"Sometimes it takes the shock value of someone actually being punished," Carter said. "In this particular instance it might also send a message to these kids that are operating on these networks that, 'Hey, I better stop.'"

Students would learn quickly that copying even one album is not worth the potential punishment, he said.

"That information sent out to kids would be a real eye opener," he said. "I think you would have a 50 percent falloff, at least, of these people (who are pirating files).

"I'm not out to get the kids, I'm out to get their attention."

And if the threat of a few years in jail running the danger of rape does not make an impression, perhaps Jeter's techniques could be adopted. How many people would be willing to threaten the profits of the members of the RIAA if the threat of Jeter's living hell hung over them.

Ian Kaplan - July 2000
Revised: March 2003

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