Sunday, September 7, 2014


"A young boy puts a feather in his mouth..."

                      I found this book at random, which, for some reason, makes sense. It just feels right that my first introduction to Jeff Noon would be at completely random, a completely accidental collision with the insane genius behind...well, Jeff Noon books, as Noon lacks a genre he can be pigeonholed into other than maybe, say, science fiction. And since at its core Vurt is about a bizarre, sometimes macabre, often tragic series of accidents, it makes sense that while looking for another book whose name was lost to me I somehow stumbled upon a brightly colored book. The book's spine read, in descending order, "JEFF NOON - VURT - Crown", and at first I thought it had to be a pen name. I also hadn't seen a book this brightly colored before. Intrigued, I took it to the desk, figuring if I was about to read something tawdry or mundane, at least it was tawdry, mundane, and trying to be interesting in some respect. 

                          By the time I was walking home, I'd opened the book and found...well, a bizarre mix of abstract visuals, Irvine Welsh-style grit, well-disguised gnosticism, slang, and the feeling that one has left an electronic dub soundtrack on and one does not know where. The first chapter alone whiplashed between mood, tone, and sometimes even genre at dizzying speeds. After that, the book swirled into a rabbit hole of horror, black comedy, and what's best described as "post-cyberpunk" if it could be pigeonholed into a genre at all. By a third of the way through the book, I found it weird but engaging. By two-thirds, bizarre and a little uncomfortable. And by the end? Well, I'll leave that up to you. Suffice it to say, the book may be ten shades of cracked-out-- and it is-- but it's well worth a read, and one of those books that I've wanted to own for years but simply haven't gotten the chance. I heartily recommend you own this book. In fact, if you don't have another tab open to Amazon looking for a good edition of this right now, I strongly suggest you do.

Why? Well, read on...

- Opening scrawl of English Voodoo

"Mandy came out of the Vurt-U-Want, clutching a bag of goodies..."
- Scribble (opening lines)

                                       Vurt begins with Mandy coming out of the Vurt-U-Want to the waiting van of the gang she rides with, the Stash Riders. Led by the charismatic, brutish driver named Beetle, the Stash Riders are a group of addicts living on the government-supplied "dripfeed" that allows them a squalid apartment and money enough to buy the hallucinogenic virtual-reality feathers known as "Vurt" that the entire country (or perhaps the entire world) is hooked on. Vurt comes in both legal and illegal varieties, the illegal kind running the gamut from severe terror bordering on snuff experiences (black) to vurts where it is completely impossible to "jerk out", or exit the experience before it gets too dangerous, possibly leading to death (Yellow). Scribble, our (highly unreliable) narrator, has lost his sister Desdemona to a weird hybrid feather, a so-called "Knowledge Vurt" known as English Voodoo, and to a yellow feather located inside Voodoo entitled Curious Yellow. When Desdemona disappeared into the Vurt-world, Scribble received a strange tentacled mass known as The Thing From Another World that speaks in an untranslatable language and seems to manifest mouths at random along its body. It also has a feather addiction.

                                      Vurt, you see, is not as simple as it looks. While it promises something halfway between virtual reality and a hallucinogenic experience, it winds up being something more like a dip into a dimension modeled on the collective subconscious, a place where dreams are actually reality and where various odd creatures and denizens dwell. With the entire world doing Vurt, things have become rather tangled, with several new breeds of sapient life popping up, some of it hybridized with other forms. Vicious Vurt-spawned creatures called Dreamsnakes sometimes escape into reality to cause havoc and attack the populace. The one voice of reason amongst all the chaos (even the cops are vurted-up and partnered with sinister ghost-like Shadowcops) is the writer of an underground 'zine who goes by the name Game Cat, a jazzy sort of fellow who lets people know what feathers are dangerous and which people should avoid outright. 

                                   But what Scribble wants is something far beyond what he might be able to feasibly grasp, and it becomes more obvious that whatever game he thinks he is playing, the real board is far more complex and incomprehensible than he understands. Before he can even think of swapping The Thing for his (almost too) beloved sister, Scribble will have to match wits with corrupt cops, brave a den of human-dog hybrids, fight a frighteningly-determined cop with a fractal gun, and finally learn his true nature, something no one is truly aware of. 

                                   Now, before getting into the setting or anything like that, there's something that needs to be addressed. It has long been a point with reviewers and critics that Vurt is considered cyberpunk, and it is the opinion of this blog that that is, in the most intellectual term one is able to muster, hooey. While there are similar themes, the main one being the way humanity uses virtual (or Vurtual) reality to escape their everyday problems, Vurt actually takes a few weird paths to eventually get to where it's going, and none of them are actually about technology. Rather, the book presents a kind of inverted cyberpunk with biopunk elements...instead of things taking away humanity and leading to more problems with humanity, it's a very human element that's taking away people's humanity and ability to interact meaningfully in the world. Because it's essentially peoples' subconscious dreams that are causing the world to fall into more and more disarray, the exploration takes a more nihilistic route. 

                                A lot of the other innovations in the world are biological, too. A gun shoots a bullet that turns people into spirals and causes their entropy to increase. A flower clock sheds and regrows petals to tell the time. And somehow there are numerous levels of interbred races, including one that combines all the possible combinations at once, something biologically impossible with current technology and utterly painful to think about, considering three of those races are "vurt", "robot", and "dog". The closest things we get to actual technological advancements, other than the aforementioned robos, are nanites used to clean hair and a kind of soundwave that causes addiction and feelings of euphoria, sometimes to the point of pain. Even then, a lot of this innovation is relatively ignored in favor of spotlighting the centerpiece to everyone's life, that of course being the vurt feathers.     

                                 However, despite being nihilistic and ultimately a Faustian tale with some bits of the Orpheus myth and the Hero's Journey welded on to it, Vurt manages an almost cheerful tone. An early scene sees Scribble and Mandy trying to get the Thing into their apartment from the van and being questioned by their neighbor, a repressed old woman, and it makes an excellent bit of uncomfortable comedy. There are also some interesting and kind of lighthearted scenes with Peaches, the star of several "pornovurts" made by reclusive designer Icarus Wing. For a dystopia where sections are literally paved with jagged broken glass, it's surprisingly bright and actually kind of a cool place to live, once you can forget the population is on several different kind of drugs, fighting with each other, screwing over "pure" humans, and liable to be bitten by snakes from a dream dimension. 

                                  Another interesting thing about Vurt is the way exposition is handled throughout. Instead of being handled by long narration or context or advertisements, the world-specific exposition is handled through the dispatches from Game Cat strewn throughout the book. The Cat is incredible knowledgeable about the world, and their exposition throughout helps to fill in the missing pieces about vurts, the various races of future Manchester, allowing the reader to better understand what's going on. And even with Game Cat offering a look at the various things going on in Manchester and the world outside of it, there's a reason why so much of the world is left undescribed, and that is for the simple reason that neither Scribble nor any of his friends really care about the world being described. To them, what's important is the vurt and rescuing Scribble's sister/lover. 

                                And finally, Vurt is a good example of the drug narrative, in the style of something like Trainspotting or Naked Lunch or Requiem for a Dream, though closer to Trainspotting in its humor and characters constantly trying to escape addiction and dealing with withdrawal. Scribble even gets a regular job and proves to be quite good at it, though he's dragged back through the dirt and into his old unsympathetic self by Beetle, the nastiest and loudest addict in the group (following on with the Trainspotting analogy, he's Begbie). However, it subverts this a little, in the way of drugs being a transcendence and salvation, rather than something that drags someone closer to self-destruction. Or maybe it splits the difference, as at least one person's self is destroyed by the feathers. Either way, it takes an interesting turn.

                             But the book isn't without its foibles. The main characters sometimes lack some crucial empathy, partially because they've been desensitized to reality and partly because they're just terrible people willing to do what it takes to get them their next big fix. The relationship between Scribble and Desdemona is actually an incestuous one, making the entire quest a little squicky and putting Scribble's narration further into the unreliable zone. Also, the abstract nature might be a little much, with the book slamming violently between hallucinations, nightmares, flashbacks, and dreams at rapid pace.

                              But in the end, you should read this book. It's a classic of modern science fiction, it's an amazing, vivid read, and despite its twisted and sometimes brutal nature, it's incredibly readable and well worth your time. Find this. Buy this. It's recently come out in a tenth-anniversary edition with a completely unnecessary introduction by critically-acclaimed Angry Robot mainstay Lauren Beukes.  And now, I leave you with one last comment:

John Barleycorn must die

Pollen by Jeff Noon

Book: A Novel by Robert Grudin
Child of Fortune by Norman Spinrad

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