Hardboiled: The Maltese Falcon

Since our launch last month, we have shortchanged part of our mandate by not talking about hardboiled lit with the same enthusiasm we’ve shown other genres. As a corrective, I’ve provided below a reworked version of a review I put up last year on Goodreads of The Maltese Falcon.

I’ve chosen Dashiell Hammett as the first hardboiled author to highlight on Albino Books because he is one of the first true writers in that subgenre and because of his influence over an important subgenre of science fiction: cyberpunk.

There’s a lot of loose talk about the noir influence in cyberpunk, and the most common reference tends to be Raymond Chandler. No disrespect to the marvelous Chandler or his admirers, but I think Hammett is a clearer influence on cyberpunk and in particular the ground zero that is the William Gibson novel Neuromancer.

Hammett’s best work is clean, diamond-hard and unsentimental—the core of what it means to be hardboiled writer.

If you spliced together the DNA of Red Harvest, The Stars My Destination and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress* the resulting hybrid would be Neuromancer.

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Reading a book like The Maltese Falcon is a little challenging for me. I’ve seen the beloved third film version many times since I was a child—it was also the first movie I watched in the first film studies class I ever took—so my expectations going in were that I would find little in the way of fresh experience. There’s a distancing effect that happens to me where I compare what I’m reading to my recollections of a film adaptation. And those recollections aren’t always accurate, despite how many times I’ve seen the movie, so the distancing is multiplied while I simultaneously interrogate myself about my memories.

Look, I’m not going to argue with you that I’m not too introverted sometimes.

Roughly halfway through reading The Maltese Falcon though, I became fully engrossed and achieved the highly sought after Nirvana of total escapism. Mr. Hammett was that good.

From the first page, I was surprised by the differences from the 1941 film. In the book, Hammett describes his main character Sam Spade as looking like a tall “blonde Satan.” Like most people, when I hear the name Sam Spade, I think of Bogart, who was neither tall nor really devilish (at least in appearance), and certainly not blonde.

This was where I was still wrestling with my preconceptions. At about the point where Spade roughs up “the Levantine” Joe Cairo, I was fully immersed  in Hammett’s morally grey world of tough guys and femme fatales. I stopped seeing Peter Lorre and Bogart and started seeing the characters as Hammett described them.

Part of my ability to lose myself in the book is the slightly different tone it takes. Probably as a result of censorship at the time, Hammett’s novel seems harsher and darker than the movie. The book is not elaborately violent or sexy, but it definitely has more edge than the film. And Spade as a character displays an even more dubious morality than his film counterpart.

Do I need to recap the plot? It doesn’t differ that much from one of the most popular films of all time. Sam Spade, a detective, and assorted criminals including one legendary femme fatale scheme and swindle each other over a rare historical object from Malta.

Hammett gets into a surprising amount of detail about the history and provenance of his MacGuffin—I felt like I was watching a lost Indiana Jones movie. It’s a startling effective passage in the book and provides an interesting resonance to the proceedings that might otherwise be lacking if the characters were squabbling over more conventional spoils. It’s easier to imagine everyone becoming obsessed with the Maltese Falcon because Hammett provides it with more back-story than some of the main characters—which is not at all a criticism on my part.

But what’s really striking about the book, as opposed to the movie, is the ambiguity of Spade’s moral calculus. There’s some suggestion that Spade makes the decisions he makes in the course of the book because he believes in criminals being brought to justice, but it could just as easily be interpreted as Spade favouring that side of the game—just slightly. In fact, his calculated approach to life ends up alienating his loyal to a fault secretary Effie. She comes late to realize what the reader has a few scenes earlier: Spade is basically a bastard, who may or may not have some rudimentary motivations left related to issues of justice.

The Maltese Falcon, the book, expresses a deeply nihilistic worldview that the movie only hints at. The movie is unimpeachably a piece of classic film noir, but it only touched on the blackness of the novel—still a bracingly modern read, even over 80 years later.

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*I readily acknowledge the importance of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to the development of SF, but think it’s mostly a terribly written book with some great concepts littered throughout.

The Magic 8-Ball: Science Fiction Predicts

It’s a cliché among writers and critics of science fiction to say that the genre is not about predicting the future, but instead is meant to hold a mirror up to the present. There’s obviously some truth to this when we read books like 1984—famously titled as a reversal of 1948, the year it was written. And in the words of William Gibson:

“I think the least important thing about science fiction for me is its predictive capacity. Its record for being accurately predictive is really, really poor! If you look at the whole history of science fiction, what people have said is going to happen, what writers have said is going to happen, and what actually happened — it’s terrible. We’re almost always wrong.”

What this vigorous denial of the predictive ability of science fiction somewhat obscures though, is the interesting back-and-forth exchange between fantastic literature and the real world.

Beginning long before science fiction emerged either as a term or a distinct genre, Jules Verne imagined, in startling clarity, many now commonplace technologies such as submarines, televisions, and even the taser. Like many later science fiction writers, Verne spent hours in research at the library—specifically in Verne’s case the Bibliothèque nationale de France—immersing himself in recent scientific and geographic writings. He would then extrapolate from general knowledge a possibility. What separates an SF writer from a futurist is the ability to take that possibility and turn it into a story. Sometimes the predicted tech becomes a metaphor, but Verne inspired many more scientific minds than his with the rigour of his imagination. For example, Michio Kaku noted Verne’s influence on a young  Edwin Hubble, describing the budding astronomer as “enthralled” by Verne’s tales in his book Parallel Worlds.

Arthur C. Clarke also acknowledged his debt to Verne, writing, in an introduction to a biography of Verne:

“Jules Verne had already been dead for a dozen years when I was born. Yet I feel strongly connected to him, and his works of science fiction had a major influence on my own career. He is among the top five people I wish I could have met in person.”
—Butcher, William (2006), Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press

Clarke himself wrote a letter to Wireless World in 1945 proposing geosynchronous satellites, which later became a key component of the space elevators in his novel The Fountains of Paradise. Geosynchronous orbit is still known as Clarke Orbit in some circles. He is often cited in discussions around the validity of science fiction as a predictive tool, but I would argue that Clarke wrote a formal proposal to a scientific paper and only later turned his concepts into a story.

And for both Verne and Clarke, telling a story was more important than designing the future, otherwise wouldn’t they have become researchers or scientists of some sort?

A 1964 article in the New York Times by Isaac Asimov is, for me, the perfect microcosm of the accuracy of science fiction writers. Parts of Asimov’s predictions for what future visitors would see at the 2014 World’s Fair are suprisingly accurate:

“…by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works…”

“As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set…”

“Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”

But for many of his more accurate predictions, Asimov falls down on the specific details. Of the television, he goes on to say that:

“…transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible…”

Despite writing that robots will still not be very good in 2014, a thoroughly accurate prediction, he still imagined that they would be in general use for gardening. And where are the moving sidewalks in urban centres? No, airports don’t count.

Still, it’s no accident that Honda’s torturous acronym for their prototype robot is ASIMO. Science fiction has, without a doubt, been a huge influence and often a direct inspiration on the scientific community. But although to say that science fiction inspires scientists is true, it limits the scope of what is really a complex web of interrelations. Remember the hours and hours Verne spent in the library pouring over recent theories?

And what’s the downside of this incestuous relationship between the scientific community and science fiction?

William Gibson tells an anecdote about the fear he has around imagining future tech in his work: that someone will make it real. Apparently a group of West German hackers were once caught selling secrets to the KGB for cocaine and cash. At the trial, their twenty-something-year-old leader* stood up and told the judge he’d never understand them or their culture unless he’d read Neuromancer.

The thing is, not all science fiction writers imagine new technologies as an endless progressive bounty, some, like Gibson, are busy writing cautionary tales—or at least with ambivalence. The import of a given story is really up to the reader in the end. In the words of Doris Lessing:

“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.”

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*Possibly a reference to the trial of Marcus Hess? I can’t find a clear source for this anecdote, but trust me, Gibson has told it more than once…maybe No Maps for these Territories? I’ve lost my copy…