VURT Amerika Online

Review of Jeff Noon's Vurt

Mark Amerika
(originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer

About ten years ago, the mainstream science fiction community went through a jarring change with the introduction of a new style of writing published by authors like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and John Shirley. The ensuing cyberpunk movement that grew out of novels like Neuromancer, Total Eclipse and Islands In the Net, was said to have successfully mixed popular genre fiction with a decidedly high-tech, streetwise edge in such an original way that it signaled the beginning of an emerging counterculture where the computer hacker and the gothic rocker would overlap in a cultural Petri dish thus creating a new kind of sensibility that would appeal to hordes of young readers looking for something strange to bite into.

Since then, the mixing of genre fiction with a more avant-garde edginess to it has led to all kinds of wildly hybridized forms of writing, most notably Mark Leyner's twisted novels of megalomaniacal perversity and Kathy Acker's philosophical investigations of sexuality, human desire and the influential role of media-technology in our day to day lives.

One of the more interesting curiosities about these changes is that almost all of the authors writing these alternative novels are American. But with the release of Jeff Noon's debut novel, Vurt, we finally get a chance to check out one of the most explosive new voices to materialize in the British scene in years.

Vurt, which won the 1994 Arthur C Clarke Award for best science fiction novel of the year, takes place in a near-future Manchester, England, where life moves at high-speed velocities. Much of the story takes place inside the mind of the protagonist whose moniker is Scribble and whose mission is to relocate his long-lost sister Desdemona who has disappeared inside an alternate reality created by sucking on the hallucinatory Vurt-drug that one accesses by swallowing color-coded feathers.

Noon's infectious narrative, though set somewhere in the distance, has this eerie, contemporary feel to it and one can see the influence of writers as diverse as William Burroughs, Lewis Carrol and Anthony Burgess running through these pages.

For example, one can't help but think of Alice-In-Wonderland when Noon describes the utopian, dreamlike love-affair he has with his wanderlusting sister, Desdemona, who encourages him to take the ultimate Vurt trip of all, the Curious Yellow (an obvious reference to the "I Am Curious Yellow" underground sex film of the sixties). They take the Vurt together, which in Noon's world means that they tickle the back of each other's throats with the rare yellow feather until they simultaneously enter the secret, cinematic world of Curious Yellow which, like all the other secret worlds that appear in this novel, starts off with a welcome message and a line of production credits.

But somewhere in the middle of this supposedly blissful experience, the trip turns bad, and Scribble loses his sister to the Other World. This is how Noon describes the process:

"Desdemona pushed the golden feather in deep, to the limits. Her eyes flashed yellow, just the once, and then the ground was opening up beneath her feet, and weeds were pulling at her, yellow weeds, spiked with thorns. Desdemona was screaming."

When Scribble awakes from the Vurt dream, his sister is gone, replaced by a big blob called The Thing from Outer Space (the reader is advised to place tongue firmly in cheek). The rest of the novel is focused on Scribble's crusade to somehow get back into the Curious Yellow where he hopes to successfully exchange The Thing for his much longed-after sister. Although the writing occasionally pushes the limits of credulity, even for a sci-fi fantasy novel, there are too many brilliant episodes full of humor and genuine cleverness to dismiss the importance of this book.

Scribble's supersonic adventure, which he shares with a group of slackers referred to as the Stash Riders, bolts through a Max Headroom-like reality where the urban war zones are full of robocops, rabid dogs, disenfranchised crazies and High Priests and Priestesses of the reigning Vurt culture.

Here's how Noon describes it in a chapter called Death For Life, where the ultimate yellow shadowcop, Takshaka, closes in on Scribble as he tries to escape from the ever-present, bitter totalitarians that permeate the landscape:

"The dreamsnake colors lighting up the field all around. Takshaka hovering above me. Another shot rang out, but there was no impact this time...all these numbers floating by, pure and naked information, wrapping up in mathematics. The records of all my crimes were being written in the saffron air."

One of the more interesting characters that keeps popping up throughout the book is called the Game Cat. Game Cat is one of those oddball 1990's type of creations in that he can be many things at once, including a writer, a magazine editor, a brand name product, and a guru to the cybernetic universe.

At one point in the novel, Game Cat tells Scribble to "be very, very careful. This ride is not for the weak. It's a psycho. A bit like real life. Well maybe not quite that bad."

For Jeff Noon, this ride has become Vurtual Reality.