Monday, September 15, 2014


John Barleycorn must die...

                           Allow me to discuss the nature of a series of books. A series is a very careful thing. Especially when escalation is involved. It's fine to do sequels for the books, or even have to break up one book into a trilogy. But when writing a volume that is something of the conclusion to the whole mess, there are two very specific guidelines: First, that the book actually make some kind of sense, and second, that it actually concludes things in proper order, not some incredibly hallucinatory sequences that make the whole thing feel like some kind of horrid sideshow where the main plot isn't ever involved. 

                             Now, as Pollen stands alone, it doesn't necessarily have to follow these two guidelines. In fact, it's entirely free from these two guidelines, because it takes an entirely new story in the same universe, with entirely new characters. But in following the escalation patterns on from Vurt and presenting a world where the bleed-through between reality and Vurtuality has reached critical mass, Pollen's job would be to explore the bleed-through and conclude with some kind of cohesion. Instead, in telling its story, it gets too into the hallucinatory nature of the events, completely ignoring a cohesive story at certain points for an abstract and kind of aggressive surreality, culminating in a game of hot-potato with a black beetle representing groundedness in reality, and something of an anticlimax. 

But there's more than enough rope Pollen is giving me. Why am I having trouble? 

More, as always, below.

"Three for a clean and sexy death."
- Boda

                      Manchester, in the far future. The entire city transit network is run by a company called XCab, a cybernetic cab service employing networked drivers and their AI-infused cabs across The Map, a huge network that contains every street and intersection, allowing drivers to get anywhere. However, for those that don't necessarily want to play by XCab's rules, there's a rogue network of black-cabbers, a group who drive too dangerous, who can brave the restricted zones overrun by zombies, who take the jobs of questionable sense and legality in an effort to make some kind of a buck off the only career they have.

                       One of these black-cab drivers, a dogman named Coyote, picks up a little girl with directions to drive her deep into the heart of restricted territory. He's not given much knowledge of who the fare is or anything else that goes on, but he's the kind of dog that's paid not so much to ask questions as he is paid to get things to places as fast as he possibly can. The story follows Coyote through the streets, braving zombie attacks and outrunning police as he brings Persephone, his fare, to her intended destination...

 Only to receive a flower as payment and promptly start sneezing like mad.

                       And this is where the plot actually kicks off. Coyote's death from his sneezing starts a "sneezing sickness" as flowers begin to sprout all over Manchester. People from all races and species begin to die off as the pollen count rises, causing almost near-constant hay fever for everyone. Well, almost everyone. The small subset of people unable to take trips on the hallucinogenic Vurt feathers, the disabled souls known as "dodos" who can't interface with the subconscious dimensions that exist just to the right of reality, those people are just fine and wondering why their friends are dying in a plague that plays a little too much on the ideas of flower sex and snot fascination. 

                       Thrown into this conflict, this otherworldly plague, are two people. Sibyl Jones, a "Shadowcop" able to read peoples' thoughts and astrally project herself, who becomes embroiled in the case after examining Coyote's body; and an Xcabber named Boda (short for Bodiceaea) who becomes the plot of an assassination attempt due to her association with Coyote and Sibyl. With the aid of pirate radio DJ Gumbo Ya Ya, the two of them must find out why Vurtuality is bleeding into reality, and what it has to do with plans to introduce a "new map" to realign the city both psychically and physically with the Vurtual world. But there are forces massing against them, forces both in the flowers and in positions of authority, and if Sibyl and Boda are to get to the bottom of this, they will need to face death, an ancient Satan figure, a man made out of orchids, and finally something dark within themselves.

                     I suppose I should begin at the end, as it were. It seems like the easiest place to explain everything that's wrong with this. So. About fifty pages from the end of the book, there's a sudden veer into a hallucinatory underworld involving a new style of feather, a green feather, known as "Juniper Suction". Suddenly veering into hallucinatory territory isn't something new for the Vurt series, though this was technically second in publication after Vurt, but the difference between Vurt and this is simple: Where Vurt was somewhere grounded, the last fifty pages of Pollen become a mess with very little grounding in reality. You have two people inhabiting the same body, riffs on greek myth, some minor allusions to necrophilia...and none of it hangs together well, if at all. This entire digression also solves the plot in a roundabout sort of way when a more direct version without the odd underworld digression would have served the purpose so much better and easier. Furthermore, nothing seems particularly resolved by the character the digression serves to introduce to the plot, one John Barleycorn. While he does a bit at the end that helps clean things up, for the most part he could have been lifted out of the plot entirely and not much would have changed. In the first part of the book, he serves as a red herring. In the later part of the book, he serves as an odd ally, but not one that really adds much to the story.

                     Adding to this is another huge problem: Pacing. Pollen, as a book, never seems to get to where it wants to go, and certainly not where it needs to go. I'm reminded of the concept of the "idiot plot", a plot where, if everyone's brain was working the way it was supposed to, the plot could be solved in a manner of moments. Pollen's plot is a lot like this. The objectives are very easy, and not much stands in the way. The one thing that does stand in the way is the increasingly convoluted plot that doesn't seem to care much where it's going or why. It takes the shape of a film noir-- one of the narrators even goes from a first-person viewpoint-- but that doesn't really help things. When nothing is explained, and when there's still no one who knows what in God's name is going on, you don't have a good noir. You have a sub-par attempt to do David Lynch or someone equally as mind-screwy. Coupled with a plot that goes absolutely nowhere, this makes for a slow book, where everything should be going somewhere, but just...isn't.

                       And that leads me to the last point. In Vurt and Nymphomation, there was a sense that things were grounded. That there was somewhere to stand. That everything made sense on some level. Unfortunately, in Pollen, this is not the case. The story spends its time spiraling into flights of fancy, something that only sort of makes sense since reality is breaking down. Where in Vurt, these were welcome and kind of cool, with the caveat that reality was important, Noon threw most of that out the window for Pollen, instead deciding to spend time on what Shadowpeople are like, an unsettling secret involving a Zombie (a human-corpse hybrid, since everything in Vurtchester is pretty much plug-and-play), and the aforementioned underworld journey, which looks very cool, but in the end amounts to a way to quickly set up a deus ex machina to end the book. It should probably be said that no, this is not how you write things, and overall, it cheapened the book's otherwise strong and very weird plot. There is no grounding, Noon just flings people into the air and expects them to come down all right. 

                        There are some good points, of course. The flowers add a nice bit of body horror, and there's a certain squick factor that works in the book's favor when describing the flower plague and the oddly sexual nature of sneezing. The odd flower-based nature of the invasion from Vurt is handled very well, and the vivid surrealism does actually make for some good images, my favorite being the flower-man who can arrange his petals into any shape he wishes to take on anyone's appearance. 

                         But in the end, there just isn't a lot to recommend Pollen, and a lot to warn someone away. It's confusing, convoluted, and frequently up itself. The squick parts aren't really all that good, just kind of gross. The plot is best left unmentioned after all of this. And it's kind of a disappointing close to Jeff Noon's trilogy. So avoid this book. At all costs. Pirate it if you have some kind of morbid curiosity, but avoid. Strong avoid on this one.

And so concludes the trilogy. Remember, anything else by Jeff Noon is good, but please don't ever read Pollen.

- Pattern Recognition by William Gibson
- The Void-Captain's Tale by Norman Spinrad
- Child of Fortune by Norman Spinrad

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