Friday, May 17, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Books: Vurt by Jeff Noon

Note: Friday's Forgotten Books is hosted this week at Sweet Freedom, the blog of genre fan, cinephile and jazz lover Todd Mason. Todd has published numerous stories, poems and non-fiction pieces in markets such as The Progressive and Tomorrow Speculative Fiction. Log on to discover old, obscure and unfairly overlooked titles.

It doesn't quite feel fair to call Jeff Noon's 1993 SF debut Vurt a forgotten book. After all, it garnered an Arthur C. Clarke award and several favorable comparisons to William Gibson's inimitable Neuromancer, a longtime personal favorite. But the last time I remember hearing about it, Borders was still in business, Boyz II Men still produced Top 40 hits, and I was still in high school. Why had Vurt disappeared from the speculative fiction landscape? Was it due to unintentional oversight or a shift in critical consensus?

Scribble owes his nickname to his habit of writing, a compulsion to chronicle his days with a Manchester gang called the Stash Riders. There's Beetle (fast driver, drug addict, owns a gun), Bridget (somnambulist psychic, Beetle's girl), Mandy (the new girl, a redhead, and Beetle's got his eye on her, let me tell you), and Desdemona (Scribble's lover). Or there was Desdemona. See, Beetle lost her to English Voodoo, a blue feather that carries you into a particular corner of the Vurt. Ah, the Vurt -- part shared simulation, part mass hallucination, part reality. What to compare it to? Well, imagine if someone took the mass unconscious, edited it down like a TV show, and encoded it onto multicolored feathers that would plunge you into fairyland once you touched them to your tongue. Only the Vurt isn't just imaginary. It contains things that sometimes slip into ours. Dreamsnakes, for one thing, rainbow-hued slitherers with a fearsome bite. More troublesome for Scribble is that exchanges run both ways. He went into English Voodoo (a blue feather, entirely legal and reportedly safe) with Desdemona, only she didn't come out. Now he's determined to find her, because Desdemona is more than Scribble's lover: She's also his sister.

Noon deserves kudos for all the intricate imaginings that populate Vurt. Pseudo-synthetic dogs with plastic bones. A couple that uses nanobots to weave their dreadlocked hair into a thick, impenetrable snarl so they'll be forever close. Bullets that wound at the cellular level. A gelatinous, alien ooze whose flesh can transfer its tasters straight into the Vurt. The plot also works well, a sinuous series of advances and reversals that never bores.

But while the near-future setting and punk ethos recall Neuromancer, the novel falls short at a number of points. To put it plainly, Noon lacks Gibson's literary panache. His style! It uses way too many exclamation points! And tired slang too, man! Also, while Neuromancer's protagonist partook of prohibited pharmaceuticals, one got the idea he had some sort of life beyond the momentary high. Not so with Scribble. Other than dropping Vurt (which is almost always described using druggie diction) and yearning for Desdemona's body, he doesn't have much going on. He only actually writes in a couple of scenes, and we have to take it on the word of others that he loves to scratch out stories. Then there's the incestuous elephant in the room. Honestly, I can't figure out why Noon felt the need to make Scribble interested in his sister. Other than a virtual confrontation with his father during the novel's climax, he does nothing with it. No thematic exploration. No societal commentary. Zip. Vilch. Nada. That's strange and more than a little repugnant given that every recorded society I know of decries sexual relations with one's family members in the strongest possible terms. Not to say Vurt is a terrible book. But the bad matched the good in my tally, which left me wondering how it managed to snag one of the speculative-fiction community's highest honors.

Postscript: This post was featured on the I Saw Lightning Fall podcast. To listen, check out the widget below, visit the show's Soundcloud page, or subscribe via iTunes.

(Picture: CC 2009 by tony newell)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

Once you're done with Lovecraft, this might be a new continual column. Explore the obscure side of, say, novels that win both Hugos and Nebulas. It'd be interesting to note what stands the test of time, and what doesn't--and to speculate about why.

Loren Eaton said...

Hmmmm, that's not a bad idea at all. I rather like it! Although Richard Stark's Parker novels have been calling to me ...