There is something both comforting and unsettling about Jeff Noon’s Vurt. Reading it for the third time was like meeting up with an old friend who I hadn’t seen for years and I’d forgotten how much I missed. And then reading it, actually remembering the narrative and the characters; made me uncomfortable at some of the plot points, warm inside like I’d had a glass of my favourite brandy, made me insanely jealous at Noon’s phenomenal talent and imagination and infuriated me that more people had not read this book. Even though it won the Clarke Award back in the day.
So, why was I reading Vurt for the third time? I read it when it was first released in 1993. I was blown away by how original it was at the time and I couldn’t wait for more from Noon. I read it again several years after, just because I’d read Pollen and Nymophomation and Automated Alice and wanted another fix of Noon. And then the Twentieth Anniversary edition comes out with an introduction from Lauren Beukes and so my surprise and delight, 3 new short stories at the end of the novel.
If you’ve read Vurt before then you know what’s coming next. If you haven’t, why not? Ok, so you might want the plot and the background, and just why I’m a fan of something I might describe as unsettling or uncomfortable. We are in a science fiction with fantasy elements, and even a bit of meta-fiction. Or maybe it’s a fantasy with a nod to cyberpunk. It is posthuman fiction or a love story. It is a riff on Alice in Wonderland or a social commentary on life in Manchester in the early 1990s. It is all of these things and more, and it all starts with Scribble and a yellow feather. Vurt is told in first person by Scribble – possibly a narrator of the unreliable kind – who is searching for the rare feather, called Curious Yellow. He travels with his group, the Stash Riders; Mandy, Brid, the Beetle and the Thing. Brid is a shadowgirl. The Thing is Vurt swap, alien-type, well, thing. You see, Scrib is searching for the feather because he thinks he can swap the Thing back for Desdemona, who is his lover and more. Uncomfortably so.
Virtual reality is achieved via feathers. They come in different colours for different styles, such as pink for porno or blue for safe. However, sometimes, things are lost to the Vurt and something else comes back instead. Scribble and his gang are travelling in a series of adventures through the rain of Manchester so he can find his lost love. This world is populated by shadowcops and robodogs and dogpeople. Pure humans are looked down upon. Incest and bestiality are major plot points and an everyday part of the world Noon creates. And yet, you don’t mind. And that is his genius. You don’t object to what would be offensive ideas in the hands of others. And so you miss Des as much as Scribble does and you suffer with Tristan when he cuts the hair of Suze. You want to visit the Slithy Tove because it sounds right and you want Murdoch, the shecop, to fail in her righteous mission.
Noon creates a world like no other. It has been compared with William Gibson’s Neuromancer in terms of ground-breaking, but to me, Noon’s world is quite different. It doesn’t conform. It’s not much of a true science fiction future extrapolated from our society, and yet it speaks of life in Manchester. There is no science (or any explained) behind the vurt feathers, even though their inventor becomes a plot point late in the novel. It references rave and drug culture, crusty sub-culture and anti-authoritarianism. It makes us care about very odd characters with disturbing motivations. It makes us want to be in the world Noon creates. The structure of the book includes descriptions of the world by a sort of reviewer called Game Cat, who becomes a major player in his own right. It’s not perfect, mind, Vurt. Some sections in the middle of the book are a tad laboured, and Brid’s journey leaves you wanting more. The conclusion, however, works so well, that it’s disappointing to find you’re no longer reading the book. In this edition, the bonus shorts are welcome, if not the standard of the novel. Tantalising glimpses into a better place; a sniff from the cork while being denied a drink of the wine. I might read Vurt again, in a few years time, when I’ll be glad to spend more time with Scribble, the Beetle and the gang.
First posted on Geek Syndicate