Thoughts on travelling through time without a time machine after reading Jeff Noon’s A Man of Shadows

timequakeI was planning to review Jeff Noon’s latest novel, A Man of Shadows, to tie in with my interview with him here. But the more I thought about it, and I’m a huge ponderer, the more I figured that it’s actually a hard book to review without any spoilers at all. Sure I could comment on the noir-ish plot, of hard-boiled investigator John Nyquist’s latest case, or the seemingly impossible murders committed by Quicksilver (no, not that one Marvel fans), or I could wax lyrical about Noon’s prose style, evoking both place (the city combining Dayzone, Nocturn and Dusk) and more importantly, a person’s sense of time. But in doing so, I would give away the joys of exploration to any given reader. I thoroughly enjoyed A Man of Shadows but it is hard to recommend it without giving away that experience of discovery.

So I thought about time and time travel. And minor spoiler alert…how Jeff Noon’s novelA Man of Shadows tackles time and his characters as they travel through it. But it is not a time travel novel in the traditional sense. There is movement through time at a rate not equivalent to our perceptions of moving at 60 seconds every minute, but there is no time machine at play. What Noon does, however, is describe those feelings of how time seems to pass differently for each of use depending on what we are doing at a given moment of the day or our life. As Matt Haig says: “How to stop time: kiss. How to go back in time: read. How to escape time: listen to music. How to feel time: write. How to KILL time: Twitter”. Time, and travel through it, is all about perception.

Now I’ve read a few traditional time travel novels (The Time Machine, Doomsday Book, Timescape, The Time Ships to name some) but to be honest, they are no really my bag. I enjoyed Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, for example, but to me, it is just an excuse to write a historical novel through the eyes of the Twentieth Century reader. But I have read a whole bunch of books that tackle time in a different manner, as Noon has done. No time machine. No timey-wimey science. Just character and story dealing with time; so here are my favourites:

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1957)

In which Gully Foyle is an uneducated, unskilled, unambitious man lost in space who discovers the ability to jaunt (a form of personal teleportation) through space and time. He is on a revenge mission but locked in a prison, where he learns his trick. By the end of Bester’s classic, it is revealed that it is faith that is the driver of jaunting. Bester uses Foyle to examine society’s prejudices and misogyny. He was very much ahead of his time.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) / Timequake (1997) by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse 5In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians have the ability to observe time as we observe distance. And so they can see their entire lives ahead and behind them. Death is just a part of what they can see. So it goes. Vonnegut tells his main protagonist’s story – that of Billy Pilgrim – out of order which highlights the idea that time is fluid; more like a river than a dimension. Meanwhile, Timequake sees everyone travelling back in time 10 years to live their lives again, but without the ability to change anything from the first run. In Vonnegut’s eyes, we are all victims of time with no free will. I tend to agree.

Replay by Ken Grimwood (1986)

The plot of Replay sees our hero – a 43-year-old man – die and wake up back in 1963 in his 18-year-old body. This happens repeatedly as his life takes different paths but he dies in the same manner on the same date every time. I suspect Grimwood had read some Vonnegut before writing this classic. We can’t escape our fate.

Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes (2013)

The Shining GirlsIn which a more traditional time-travel tale is told, but without any obvious mechanism to drive the movement through time. Beukes story is a kind of serial-killer murder mystery, except the murder is collecting the life force from girls who ‘shine’, and the killer moves throughout the 20th Century. Set in Chicago, Harper Curtis finds a key to a house that opens doors to other times. However, one of the girls that shine, Kirby Mazrachi, survives the attach on her, and starts investigating. Beukes provides no explanation on how or why time travel works. It is a MacGuffin for chasing a murderer through time.

The First 15 lives of Harry August by Claire North (2014)

In which North mirrors Grimwood in a way. Every time Harry dies he returns to where he began, as a child with the knowledge of the life he has already lived a many times before. During his eleventh life, however, something starts to change. North’s story is very different from Replay in that Harry August finds he’s not alone in his ability. Time is something that can be fought?

The Shore by Sara Taylor (2015)

Taylor’s novel reads like a anthology of short stories. On an island group off the coast of the USA, a number of family’s interlocking stories are told over 150 years. Stories of the past, present and future reveal the strength of Taylor’s female characters. She uses time to highlight relationships, and while there is no travelling in time as such, the chapters move back and forth in time, like Vonnegut, suggesting time is a mutable river.

The Gradual by Christopher Priest (2016)

The GradualWhile travelling through Priest’s Dream Archipelago, Alesandro starts to lose time. After returning home from a short concert tour he finds he’s been missing for a few years and his wife has moved on. Alesandro is also searching for his brother who disappeared when he was a child and his brother joined the army. Priest sees time as something that can be taken and given, and travelled through at different speeds. The novel is also about music, which is heavily influenced by moments in time.

The Rift by Nina Allan (2017)

In which Allan uses the separation of time to examine the relationship between sisters. Can close childhood sisters find commonality after 20 years apart, when one thinks the other has been dead for that time? Less a time travel novel, than a time-stands-still novel, the nature of sibling love is tackled alongside delusions. The classic puzzle for the reader to unravel is the question of reality versus all-in-the-mind.

Time travel is better served when there isn’t a machine or a doodad that transports protagonists hither and thither through time. I see time machines as an excuse to tell a story set in another time period through the eyes of the modern reader, but not giving the reader the credit to be smart enough to dive straight in. The novels described above are all interesting, daring, and tackle the subject of how humans relate to time with no holds barred. Spend some time with them…


Interview: Jeff Noon talks about A Man of Shadows

A Man of ShadowsHi Jeff, and many thanks for agreeing to take some time out of your busy editing to answer a few questions.

Your latest book, A Man of Shadows, is the first traditionally published work you’ve written since 2002’s Falling Out of Cars. Why did you decide to publish it in this way rather than only as an e-book?

Jeff: After Falling Out Of Cars, I vanished into the world of screenwriting, or at least I tried to break into screenwriting. That didn’t work out as well as I hoped, so years later I returned to novel writing, with immense relief, it must be said. In the interim the whole eBook phenomenon had taken off, and I thought it might be an interesting experiment to put out a new novel myself, along with a good chunk of my backlist. That new eBook novel was Channel SK1N, which I enjoyed writing and publishing. It was good to be back. However, after a good few years of promoting and publishing myself, I really wanted to get back into a paper existence. I really love paper books, and I was missing seeing my work in the bookshops. My first venture was Mappalujo, a collaborative novel written with Steve Beard. We published this through a small publisher, which was great, but it still wasn’t reaching the bookshops. So when Angry Robot Books got in touch, I was more than pleased to write A Man Of Shadows for them. It’s so good to see the book on the shelves. I do feel now that my self-publishing experiment is over, and from now on I’ll be seeking publishers for my work. I hope to find a publisher for my backlist.

Concepts of time and what it means to an individual feature strongly in A Man of Shadows. What does time mean to you?

Jeff: Time is the landscape in which a narrative is played out: I see it, in story terms, as a kind of geography. Events move through it. Once I’d created the setting of the novel – a city divided into areas of strict light and dark, where the sky is hidden behind a vast canopy of lamps – I realised that time would have a very different function for the people who lived there. Cut off from the natural cycles of day and night and the seasons of the years, I thought that time might become more liquid for them, more personal, in the sense that everyone would be free to create, or to buy, their own time scales. This concept really excited me, and was a major force in the writing process. In a sense, the citizens are going back to a period in human history when time wasn’t so regimented, and more localised. I was interested in how this concept of liquid time would affect my characters, for good and for ill: how some would revel in it, and some would rebel against it, and how for others it might cause psychological problems. My protagonist, Nyquist, is severely and increasingly affected by a broken sense of time as the narrative progresses. My job as a writer was to chart his disintegration. I really felt scared for me at certain points.

Nyquist has classic noir-detective traits. Did any noir fiction or films inspire you?

Jeff: I love crime novels, always have done ever since I was a young teenager first reading Agatha Christie. I have a passion for all murder mysteries: hardboiled, traditional, or avant-garde. I really like the puzzle aspects of the narrative. So writing in the genre seems a very natural step to me, especially combining it with science fiction. I also remember reading with delight Isaac Asimov’s SF detective novels, The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. The actual plotting of A Man Of Shadows is influenced by the work of Ross MacDonald, my favourite of the American noir writers. He dealt with the twisted, darker side of family life, and I explore that same area in this book. Film wise, I really like The Long Goodbye, an amazing 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler by director Robert Altman, although that’s not really an influence. It’s mainly novels that I’m inspired by, especially older ones. I suppose my favourite contemporary crime writer is Jo Nesbo. But I feel that I’ve delved into his books so deeply and so many times that I can now predict his plotting. It’s a curse!

Your writing is often very evocative of place or culture. Do you go out and about observing and note-taking?

Jeff: Surprisingly, no. Not really. I write from my imagination, rather than from the outside world. I’m a bit of a recluse, I guess. But it suits me. I used to write about Manchester, my home town, but since leaving there about 18 years ago, I haven’t really depicted the real world that much. I’m going through a phase where I prefer to create realms of my own imagining. The initial idea behind the Nyquist mysteries was to have my private eye resident in a different weird city for each case, and to let the peculiar properties of that city create the case he has to solve. In a similar question, people often ask me if I’ve taken lots of drugs, and again the answer is no. I just make it all up!

Does your writing infect your dreams or do your dreams infect your writing?

Jeff: Not so much. These days I very rarely remember my dreams anyway. I do recall that the end of my first novel Vurt came to me in a dream. And recently, working on the follow up to A Man Of Shadows I dreamt that Nyquist was dead. I got up very early that morning and wrote a chapter exploring that possibility, and what it might mean in terms of the novel’s structure and narrative. Was he really dead, or had some other kind of reality taken him over? This is the kind of question that very often possesses me. But usually, I wake up without any dream memories. I do keep a pad and pen at my side, in order to jot down ideas. That’s very useful. If I don’t write them down, the ideas vanish after a few minutes.

Vurt is one of my favourite novels. As a debut, were you surprised by its success and longevity?

Jeff: I’m very happy that a good number of people love the book, and it’s very exciting these days, as I get older, meeting younger writers who have been influenced by the novel. That’s very gratifying to hear. It’s strange, because the book came out on a tiny publisher, and was really aimed at a few of my friends in Manchester: I wanted simply to write a book that they might enjoy, that was the main drive behind it. That, and the dream of escaping the day job!  So it’s quite incredible to me that the novel grew from that very personal impulse, to have a wider influence in British science fiction circles.

Finally, when can we expect your next book?

Jeff: If all goes to plan, I should have two novels out next year. The first will be The Body Library, the continuing adventures of private eye John Nyquist in a new city, with a new group of characters, a new crime, a new predicament. The second book will be my first ever proper crime novel. No SF or fantasy elements, just straight down the line murder mystery set in 1981: real people, real events. That’s a big change for me, a departure in a new direction. But the story itself is still concerned with my usual themes: I can’t escape those, now matter where I go in genre terms. I haven’t given up on SF, but I really want to explore some different approaches and themes as I get older. To never settle into one pathway.


More info:

Buy Jeff’s books: 


Haunted Futures edited by Salomé Jones.

Haunted FuturesHaunted Futures is a KickStarter-ed (is that a verb yet?) multi-genre anthology of what might be described as weird fiction, taking a look at life, and sometimes more importantly, death, in a variety of futures. And maybe one present. The dedication at the beginning of the collection reads: To the future – yours, ours, everyone’s. May it be haunted by only the delightful specters. [sic]

The idea of being haunted is an interesting concept. Haunting usually has negative connotations. Someone who looks haunted might be anxious or distressed or worried. A place that is haunted is associated with death, often tragic. But it can also mean to be pre-occupied or obsessed with a memory or an emotion. So who and what has Jones compiled here with this crowdfunded collection of short stories.

Well, there are a couple of headline acts: Warren Ellis, Tricia Sullivan and Jeff Noon. And a bunch of writers I’ve not come across before. Let’s have a brief look at each of these stories and see what they came up with under the banner concept of haunted futures:

You’re Welcome by Felicity Shoulders

The collection begins with the story of a mother whose daughter has left home and is thinking of getting a dog. Darla, the daughter, disappears and Marit, frantic, tries to piece together the mystery. She uses a system call Genie (which I guess is the future version of Amazon’s Alexa) that provides for you using algorithms. This is an interesting take about control, and getting on with life. Shoulders’ writing is engaging and draws you into the story.

Retirement Plan by Pete Rawlik

We’re now in alien invasion territory. There are ships from somewhere else, but no actual aliens. Rawlik’s tale is like a disaster movie from the point of view of reasonably ordinary folk. There are plenty of ideas from the movies, such as the Mechs and the interiors of the space ships. The theme seems to be about population control. There is talk of terraforming Mars. A fun and satisfying read.

Split Shadow by SL Huang

Huang has written a powerful story about something you don’t usually come across in science fiction; mental health. This feels like a very honest telling. The story concerns friendships amongst what might be perceived as the underclasses – the mentally ill, the addicted, the homosexual. In the future, people can be split into the good parts of themselves and the ill or depraved part. That part doesn’t usually survive, but sometimes… Dora sets up a support group for the splits and finds friendship and hope. It is a very human story that reminded me of Never Let Me Go and Spares.

Futures Past by Thord D Hedengren

What is art? What is life if not art? I really like the premise of this tale, although the execution isn’t quite there. But that’s a personal preference as I’m not a fan of epistolary fiction. A serious of letters from a man to his wife interspersed with her coming out of some kind of medical condition. The slow reveal through the letters is great and the payoff is terrific and quite heart-breaking.

The Psychometry of Tuvan Currency by Tricia Sullivan

I’m quite a fan of Sullivans. She tends to have pretty sharp takes on technology. In this story she takes a look at the future of augmented reality. There is some proper darkness here, as the AR people use has attracted their dead relatives – who won’t leave our protagonists alone. How do we think about death and the dead, when they can still exist with us – but they’re not ghosts! While the previous stories have been good, Sullivan’s skilled prose really stands out in the collection (only really matched later by Noon).

Ghostmakers by Warren Ellis

I didn’t quite get this one. Ellis has written some of my favourite comic books but this is the first time I’ve read his prose. It is good, but left me a little cold, despite having an absolute cracker of an opening line. It reads like a fairly dry, almost technical story of death and doing a job, as the Exotic Crimes Squad goes about its business. It sounds intriguing, but it lost me a little.

Comfort Food by Alex Acks

Another epistolary tale; diary entries from someone who might be described as a network engineer. There are cameras everything and data on everything. Someone has to watched. But there’s a glitch. A ghost. But is it in the network or is it in the person? Half way through, this short also becomes a comment on celebrity worship, as the engineer spots the odd and repetitive behaviour of one of the most famous people on the planet. There’s interesting traces of past and/or future for the reader to ponder. My thoughts are that the ghost is more likely to be in the person than in the machine.

Salvation is a One Time Offer by Armel Dagorn

Another issue not normally found in speculative fiction (unless you’re Neil Gaiman): homelessness. This is an enjoyable story of how a rich and successful salesman of wonder footwear ends up on the streets. In this case, amusingly, he jumps on a health-food bandwagon which has an unfortunate effect! He tells the story to another successful protagonist…and has he infected her too?

Guardian of the Gate by Lynnea Glass

This is the second story in the collection that I just didn’t get. Again, more of a preference thing. This is a second person grand vision of ancients and abysses and galactic gates. I’m not even sure that the story is here as I was totally disengaged.

Spy Drug by Greg Stolze

Meanwhile, this was proper fun. A very short story about the titular drug. I love Stolze’s idea of a drug that can give you the confidence of a Bond-like spy. This is about infidelity and the very nature of existence told via the medium of drug control – or the lack thereof. A confident and entertaining read.

Shift by Liesel Schwarz

Shift is another entertaining piece; this time about a civil war. Humanity has been split into two – the pure humans and animal-human hybrids caused by the integration of animal DNA. More spying and suchlike too. I think that this is also a story of teenage love in adversity. And with the graffiti too, just the struggle of being a young outsider… I love the idea reveal of the gran character. Lots to like here, although I’m not sure of the science in this science fiction – a human to a wren?

Greenwood Green by John Reppion

A real oddity in this collection. Reppion’s story feels like an old-fashioned horror. Set in an abandoned railway station in the middle of a cemetery it is creepy and surprising. The theme turns out to be plants versus animal and it so very effective – especially the scenes ‘out of time’. Readable and enjoyable as a standalone, and while the theme might just resonate with the idea of haunted futures, the style and tone are out of place here.

Future Noir by Michael Grey

The title says it all. This is science fiction noir at its most entertaining. The afterlife has been proved. So how does that affect religion, technology and life itself, when everyone knows that there is more after this existence. But there’s a problem. Of course. How do you solve the first murder in 20 years, when you can communicate with the dead. Grey handles the dilemnas well. A great read.

Remember the Sky by Gethin A Lynes

I have no idea what happens in this story. There are at least two Arks. People want to see the sky. There are leaders. There are population issues. Each passage starts with a meaningless date and population numbers, which don’t seem to relate to the prose. Either I’ve completely missed the point or this is too smart for its own good. I could not find a way into this story at all. Not for me.

Mercury Teardrops by Jeff Noon

Back on deliciously safe ground with Noon. Nobody writes quite like him. We’re in a post-human world. Mind-body duality is considered alongside machine-flesh duality. Technology has failed, so what happens to the technology within a person? And what happens when someone dies and someone loves that person? A key to the success of this story is Noon’s descriptive prose, and his integration of music and the emotions it engenders. Powerful stuff.

As usual with any collection of short stories, some stand out and some simply don’t work for me. That doesn’t mean that they won’t work for you. Tastes vary, but there’s something for most fans of speculative fiction here. And the best thing about collections like this is that they give voice to new or unknown names. I’ll be looking up Greg Stolze, John Reppion and SL Huang for sure… Alex Acks is definitely one to keep an eye on too. For me, the best in this collection come from Noon, Huang and Reppion. Nods to Schwarz, Sullivan, Grey and Stolze.

Haunted? In some case I think these stories hit the brief. The stories about death are particularly germane. There’s not a lot of optimism to be found, but maybe as a species, optimism is undeserved. I think this is an interesting collection of ideas and styles that, with the one contextual misstep, is worth any fan of speculative fiction’s time.



Note: I contributed to this project via KickStarter. Find out more:

End of term report: 2013, or The books I read in an arbituary time period.

Good year, I think. In that I was quite disappointed by most of what I read in the first part of 2013, but I’ve read some cracking books since.

So, what words have reflected light into my eyes this year?

Non-fiction up first, and not much read, I’m annoyed to say. I’ve been so engrossed in fiction and reviews, I’ve let the non-fic slip a bit (in no particular order):The Storytelling Animal

  • Heretics by Will Stor
  • The storytelling animal by Jonathan Gottschall
  • Nightmare movies by Kim Newman
  • The science of monsters by Matt Kaplan
  • Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre
  • Peter Cushing: a life in film by David Miller
  • How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world by Francis Ween
  • Monkeys with typewriters by Scarlet Thomas

8. Sheesh! Mind you, it took ages to read Nightmare Movies. I also read and reviewed the coffee table book Cabinet of Curiosities: My Notebooks, Collections and Other Obsessions which was a study of the works of Guillermo del Toro. Plus I read a whole bunch of comics and graphic novels…

Since the summer, I’ve also not read any more short stories. So this year only saw The Peacock Cloak and The Eye With Which the Universe Beholds Itself, as mentioned in my half-term report. Shocker!

So, now for fiction and here are my top 5 books that I read in 2013:

The Year of the Ladybird by Graham Joyce

17976979I found the writing so evocative and the story so enthralling, that I wanted it to be much longer. I also loved the ambiguity. Is it a ghost story? I remember the summer of ’76 (just) and so for me, this was a wonderful tale full of reminiscences and potential.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsI kept wanting to read this long after I’d finished it, which highlights just how good the writing is. The story of Kirby is so utterly engaging, and Beukes is such a good storyteller. I loved how the time-travel elements were never explicit. I often find books that bring in new characters every few chapters to be very annoying, but Beukes’ writing to appealing to me, I lapped the new characters up.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Neil GaimanA magical adventure with darkness and light and Gaiman’s awesome ability to scare and delight and awaken the child within. Can we have  longer book next time though, Neil?

The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

The AdjacentSuch an intriguing work of imagination and deliberate uncertainness. What this book is, what it is about and what it all means against Priest’s earlier work is open to much debate and interpretation. But in the end, it is the characters and his writing that keeps you wanting to read more and more.

Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconA book about words and their power. Genius. Some great writing and interesting characters. I loved how the clues in the different timelines eventually came together in the reveal, and I’m pleased that Barry never gave away the bareword.

What I loved in particular about these five books is something I think genre fiction has been guilty of shying away from: breaking the rules. Beukes is writing a time-travel story that’s not science fiction. Joyce has produced a historical fiction that may or may not be a ghost story. I’m not sure what I tag Lexicon with. Urban fantasy? Supernatural? Certainly not science fiction. And while The Adjacent is SF, it’s not like anything you’ll have read (his other work outstanding). Only Gaiman’s work can be said to be traditional genre fiction, and even that could be seen as being about telling stories and hence a bit meta. These books that have defied genre and categorisation. These books that have teased and suggested they might be one thing before turning out to be something else. These books (and some others, see below) have surprised me. Thanks, books.

So, next 5 in my list are:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • The Chosen Seed by Sarah Pinborough

With the exceptions of Heller’s novel, which is pure post-apocalyptic fiction, along the lines of The Road, and The Method, which is classic dystopia, these other books mess with genre convention to some degree or other. Pinborough writes police procedural as urban fantasy. Wilson blends eastern mythology and science fiction. I’m not sure what Strange Bodies is. Victorian mad scientist and eastern European crime combined with literary detective. Whatever. Books I thoroughly enjoyed.

I also read two of my favourite books again this year: Vurt by Jeff Noon, and while lying on a beach, American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Ok, so now we’re onto some honourable mentions just outside my top 10:

  • Hang Wire by Adam Christopher – another surprising genre-defying novelJasper Fforde
  • Beauty by Sarah Pinborough – great fun, alongside Poison
  • The Woman Who Died Alot by Jasper Fforde – a return to form!
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod – consistently great sf
  • NOS4R2 by Joe Hill – his best work yet, reminiscent of his Dad’s early work.
  • Dark Eden by Chris Becket – decent sf
  • Poison by Sarah Pinborough
  • The Shadow of the Soul by Sarah Pinborough – more crime based urban fantasy
  • The Good Fairies of New York by Mark Millar – Millar’s work is always fun, and this is no exception

And so to the rest, and in no particular order now, oh all right, from best of the rest to the worst:

At first glance, it looks like I’ve read a lot from female authors this year. However, Sarah Pinborough features heavily (as she’s only a recent discovery) and only 1 of my top 5 are women authors. I looked into all the books I’ve read, and only 30% of my favourite authors are women, which is annoying. On the other hand, I’m not going to just like an author because of their gender designation.

Putting the fiction I’ve read in the broadest possible categories then, this year has consisted of 14 science fiction novels, 2 horror and 22 fantasy. A closer look, however, shows clearly that the best books I’ve read this year defy specific characterisation. And I love that!

Vurt by Jeff Noon

17401136There 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