‘ Science Fiction is as much a victim to fashion as any art form, no matter how much it tries to look to the future.’ – Jeff Noon
What can one say about ‘Vurt’? I first read this on its first release and still have my treasured Ringpull paperback edition. It was a modest publication from a small publisher which went viral and ended up winning the Arthur C Clarke award.
In retrospect, this was no surprise. Back then, it was a revelation. Many readers have expressed the sentiment in various ways that ‘it was like nothing I’d ever read before,’ and indeed that was my feeling back in the Nineties and still now, having returned to it twenty years on.
There have been comparisons with Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ in that this book pushed the boundaries of the genre into new and exciting areas. It is certainly a brilliant and original piece of work, reflecting, to a certain extent, the club and drug culture of Manchester in the Nineteen Nineties, although its influences include Lewis Carroll, often overtly, and a host of other influences more subtly. Orpheus and Eurydice play their part also, for instance.
Scribble, our hero, is one of The Stashriders, a gang of young people who spend their days acquiring feathers, feathers laced with substances which not only alter their perceptions, but the nature of reality itself and, it would appear, genetic integrity. There are various variations of humanity roaming the streets of the city, mixtures of dog, shadow, robot and human to various degrees. No doubt some will interpret these as metaphors for the mixed race residents of various Manchester communities, but I’m not sure that was ever Noon’s intention.
When one shares a feather by tickling the back of the throat with its fronds, one is transported into the world of the Vurt; the experience received dependent on the colour of the feather and the strength of its effects.
Scribble, along with the rest of the gang, Beetle, Mandy, Bridget and The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, is attempting to find a way to rescue Scribble’s sister Desdemona, who is lost in the world of Vurt. Occasionally the Vurt will take someone and replace them with something from the Vurt world, in this case, The-Thing-From-Outer-Space, a small tentacled entity whose flesh has hallucinogenic properties. Scribble believes that if he can find the right feather he can swap his sister back for The Thing.
The perennial question for me is whether this is Science Fiction at all. There seems to be no real explanation for the effects of the Vurt feathers, and the final scenes raise some questions about the reality of the entire story. Science Fiction, however, like the people of Noon’s alternate Manchester, is a morphable beast and occasionally throws out new and wonderful mutations. I for one am happy to accept this as one such.
What makes this novel so compelling is Noon’s style; fast, fresh and packed with puns and wordplay. Action kicks in from the first page when the Stashriders, having acquired a new feather, are chased by a Shadowcop and engage in a rollercoaster chase through the streets of Noon’s bizarre and colourful Manchester.
In his quest to find the means to rescue his beloved sister (far more beloved than society’s norms would usually allow) Scribble encounters a whole host of bizarre characters, chimeras and grotesques, such as Justin and his lover, whose mutual dreadlocks are so matted together that they can never be parted, or The Game Cat, a creature once human who has become part of the Vurt and can seemingly come and go at will between Scribble’s world and the world of the Vurt. There are robodogs, dog human hybrids and brightly coloured snakes which have escaped the game platforms of the Vurt and infest housing estates.
It’s a fast paced no-let-up novel which contains surprises and wonder on every page.
There are, in the history of SF, novels which seem to have been written in an SF vacuum and appear to owe no allegiance to any major influence or current fashion or style of SF literature. I count among these ‘1984’, ‘Neuromancer’, ‘Riddley Walker’, and would have to include ‘Vurt’.
The Kindle Twentieth anniversary issue contains three new stories set in the world of the Vurt, but whose style and tone is, perhaps understandably given the twenty year gap, far different from that of Vurt. These are more mature works and although they lack the fire and verve of Noon’s original novel, have a greater depth and sureness of touch.
A young girl becomes convinced that something from the Vurt is living in her flat, and consequently the Vurt may have taken something from her, although it takes a while for her to discover that what the Vurt takes is not always physical.
What is interesting about this is when she leaves the flat she passes a couple coming up the stairs, carrying something alive in a tartan rug, which is how Scribble and Mandy used to carry The-Thing-From-Outer-Space around in ‘Vurt’.
A young woman is harassed by three dogboys and rescues the entity they were searching for, a young female bird/human hybrid from the Vurt. This again examines the concept of Vurt artefacts being swapped for memories.
A beautifully written and constructed tale which plays with our sense of reality. A young couple become attached to their lodger, Milo, a man – unable to access the Vurt – whose behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre as he seeks to find a way to ‘dream’.
Again, like the other pieces, there is an oblique relationship to the parent novel.
Although I am all for authors giving us a challenging read there are times when I wish for that Glossary of Terms which used to be a major feature of Sf and Fantasy novels.
I can just about live without that here, although a list of characters may have been useful since there is a relatively large cast all bearing long and unfamiliar names. This is acceptable since we are in a far far future where humanity has diversified both physically and culturally. The main challenge in this novel is the author’s use of pronouns to denote gender, since many cultures have languages – or so it seemed to me – where misuse of the terms for ‘he’ and ‘she’ could result in a grave insult. Thus, most characters throughout the book are referred to as ‘she’ as a kind of default setting.
It’s an interesting device to employ and no doubt some critics will argue – perhaps with good reason – that such a device subverts the reader’s mental view of the characters with some no doubt seeing main characters as either male or female. On the other hand others, including myself reluctantly, might suggest that a neutral gender pronoun should have been employed since the constant use of a word with which we are all intimately familiar as denoting female is simply distracting and despite the reader’s attempts to do otherwise will no doubt result in her (or him) visualising all the characters as female. I gave up and did just that very thing early on in the novel.
Breq, as the main character calls herself, is the last survivor of the sentient ship ‘Justice of Toren’ which was destroyed many years ago. ‘Survivor’ is perhaps the wrong word since Breq was a part of the ship’s consciousness and still identifies as being the ship.
In flashbacks through the novel we discover why the ship was killed and why Breq is on a mission to track down an alien weapon that can kill those who destroyed ‘Justice of Toren’.
Leckie has to be credited with having created a rich and detailed human universe of which we only see a small part. Human civilization is mostly dominated by the Radch, which employs ships such as Justice of Toren to carry out enforcement. The Radch is controlled by a multi- gestalt human named Anaander Maniaani. Indeed, the events which unfold within the narrative all lead back to one action on the part of Maniaani, and will no doubt continue to do so with a sense of Shakespearean inevitability to some ultimate conclusion in successive volumes.
Maniaani, it appears, is suffering a schism in her consciousness, possibly as a consequence of being infiltrated by the alien Presger, resulting in her being effectively at war with herself.
The novel raises issues of slavery, loyalty, consciousness and the morality of a dictatorship which sacrifices innocents to bring peace to billions.
It was nominated for and won several major awards including the Arthur C Clarke award and perhaps justly so. It is a well crafted and complex piece which is all the more importantly believable and featuring characters with flaws and human vulnerabilities, this all despite the fact that some are no longer completely human at all.
One is glad in this instance, given that it does not have a complete conclusion, that it can still be categorised as a stand-alone novel. I have always had minor qualms about the first books of a trilogy being nominated for such awards. I guess it upsets my sense of order since my view is that awards should be reserved for single novels.
Perhaps fortunately my views aren’t likely to sway the opinions of the selectors a huge amount so the point is moot.
An interesting premise, which begins with a researcher researching the disappearance of another researcher, who himself was investigating the life of Robert Ross, the man who discovered the connection between mosquitoes and malaria.
One has the impression of being drawn into a web when reading this; a net which slowly closes as the various coincidences, chance happenings and meetings begin to come together to provide us with the secret that has been held within a select group of people since the 19th Century.
Confusingly, the narrative veers between various characters, and backwards and forwards in time, occasionally diverging into strange anecdotal stories such as the tale of what happened to a scientist when he arrived at a reputedly haunted Indian train station.
We are nevertheless taken on a wonderful, colourful journey through an India of various times, as the threads are slowly and exquisitely drawn together to the conclusion.
It’s a marvellous, refreshing work, and highly recommended.
‘In the twenty-first century Europe is divided between the First World bourgeoisie, made rich by nanotechnology and the cheap slave labour of genetically engineered Dolls, and the Fourth World of refugees and the homeless, displaced by war and economic turbulence.
Alex Sharkey is trying to make his mark as a designer of psychoactive viruses in London whilst staying one step ahead of the police and Triad gangs. He finds an unlikely ally in a scary-smart but dangerous child named Milena, but his troubles really begin when he unwittingly helps Milena quicken intelligence in a Doll.
It is the first of the fairies.
Milena wants to escape forever to her own private Fairyland, but some of the Folk she has created have other ideas about where her destiny lies…’
Blurb from the 2009 Gollancz paperback edition.
Somewhat Michael Swanwick-ish in style, McAuley takes us on a real trip through a near future Europe. Alex, a slightly stereotyped fat geek, designs and deals in hallucinatory viruses and is seriously in debt to Billy Rock, the local villain. Billy has a job for Alex, and it includes a young prodigy called Milena.
In this world, genetically engineered humanoids called Dolls are manufactured to be used as cheap labour and fashionable pets.. Rock has subverted this to create fighting dolls in a venture called The Killing Fields.
Rock wants Alex and Milena to work together to change the Dolls’ DNA so that he will be able to breed them. Milena, however, has other ideas and uses the research to raise a Doll’s intelligence to sapience, and creates the first of The Fairies.
The narrative jumps forward to where Alex is travelling Europe, searching for Milena. Disneyworld is controlled by fairies and reality itself is being subverted by virus attacks which can change one’s moods, beliefs or memories. Alex herself believes that Milena has infected him with some viral love potion which has caused him to follow her across Europe.
In the meantime Milena, herself originally a product of company research has become The Fairy Queen, an amoral monarch whose subjects have been killing young girls for their ovaries in order to raise changelings among themselves or, as Milena explains, harvesting the ovaries of their own experiments which they planted among humans.
McAuley’s attempt to turn myth into reality works remarkably well. Our original Celtic stories of The Fair Folk show them to be wilful, amoral and often cruel and illogical creatures who would trap people in time or replace their babies with fairy babies (another concept used in this novel)
There are no doubt other parallels which will be more obvious to others.
‘Sex, science and spin… it’s your future and welcome to it.
2044, and the US is coming apart at the seams. The people live nomadic lives fuelled by cheap transport and even cheaper communications. the new cold war is with the Dutch and mostly fought over the Net. The notion of central government is almost meaningless.
This is your future. Oscar Valparaiso’s too – or it would be if he wasn’t only half human and could sort our his love life…’
Blurb from the 2000 Millennium paperback edition
Bruce Sterling inhabits the same satirical and cynical universe as the likes of Sladek and Kurt Vonnegut and here uses his considerable literary powers to attack not only the American political system but posits an American dystopia in 2044 where independent bands of ‘travellers’ make a living making and selling – among other things – laptops made from grass. This is also an America where Anglos(i.e. white people) are now a persecuted minority group.
Oscar Valparaiso is a futuristic spin-doctor who has helped to get Alcott Bambakias elected as Senator, and though his current project is now over, Valparaiso, being a driven man, is unwilling to give up his campaign tour and decides to make an issue of a US Air Force base which – due to some political chicanery or incompetence – has been ‘forgotten’ and so is not receiving funding of any sort.
This minor debacle escalates into an ongoing battle between Green Huey, Governor of Louisiana, and Valparaiso.
There is a large cast of characters, most of whose lives revolve around Oscar in some way or other.
There is a reason why Oscar is so brilliant, the reason being his ‘little personal background problem’. Oscar is the result of a black market cloning programme set up to satisfy the public need for black market babies. Much of his DNA isn’t even human; his body temperature is constantly higher than normal and he has to take a cocktail of medication to treat the constant bodily ills caused by his twisted DNA.
It’s a clever and amusing novel which I’m sure I would have enjoyed even more had I understood US politics and history better, but that’s not a major issue.
In style it’s redolent of Robert Sheckley and John Sladek. The dialogue is slick, classy, witty and each character has their individual voice.
Oddly, there is no real mention of any issues surrounding religion which, in the US, seems a trifle odd.
The main theme of the book, which Sterling deals with on all sorts of levels, is Power. We learn, for instance, that a lot of political power now resides on the net. Corporate and National wars can be fought in cyberspace. There is also a random power on the net at work whereby programmes are set up which monitor whether one has been critical of a certain policy or politician. If one’s score rises above a certain level then one’s details are forwarded to newsgroups or forums which makes one a target for stalkers or would-be assassins.
Oscar becomes a victim of such a programme until a neighbour and software-expert clears his details from the net.
It’s a huge enjoyable romp with a cast of slightly caricatured characters.
In a set of three sequential narratives, Cadigan explores a strange future world in which memories and personae can be bought and sold, transferred from mind to mind.
It is at times funny, baffling, compulsive, downright confusing and one is grateful to one back cover reviewer who states that it needs ‘rereading immediately.’
We are dealing with three personalities; the actress, the memory junkie and the cop. Each tells their tale in the first person, and each is identified by a unique typesetting on the page. The problem however is that the persona may not necessarily be in the right body.
The actress finds herself dressed in rags and unrecognised by her own friends and colleagues. Could it be that the memory-junkie has switched bodies with her, and what is the memory she has of pushing someone off a cliff?
The writing is fast and slick and Cadigan has made an excellent job of exploring the concepts of consciousness and identity. Perhaps deliberately, at times the reader is made as confused as the protagonists.
It reminds me in flavour (if that is the right word to use here) of Bester’s ‘The Demolished Man’.
There is the archetypal downtown area where the memory junkie lives, contrasted with the world of the Very Nice People, a device that turns up regularly (see also ‘Neuromancer’ or ‘The Paradox Men’) even in the worlds of Cyberpunk’s precursors.
Also we have the strange grotesques, such as the undercover cop Sally who chews sandwiches constantly but spits out rather than swallow them.
It’s a brilliant thought-provoking work, but perhaps not one for those new to the genre.
Detective Borlu is called to a crime scene in the city of BesZel, a city state somewhere in the darker areas of Europe. A young girl is found dead, left under a mattress in a skateboard park. BesZel is not one city, but two. BesZel shares its space with Ul-Qoma and residents of each city have to assiduously train to learn to ‘unsee’ their Ul-Qomian or Beszian neighbours. Each city has its own sections and its shared sections and there are designated border crossing points. For anyone in the two cities to see and acknowledge the other is a crime, detectable and punishable by a secret force called ‘Breach’
The dead girl, Mahalia Geary, turns out to be an Archaeology student, and therefore one of the few people allowed regular access across the border into Ul Qoma. As it turns out, she appears to have become obsessed with the legend of Orciny, being a third city hidden within and controlling the other two.
Borlu’s investigation takes him from BesZel and their crazy unificationists to Ul-Qoma (where it seems the girl was murdered) and into conflict with the mysterious forces of Breach.
One critic at least has described this as the best thing Mieville has written since ‘Perdido Street Station’ and I would provisionally agree. However, this is not the great Gormenghast-style city of PSS. As a novel, PSS was a beautiful baroque rambling Wagnerian opera of a beast, with a hefty number of pages.
This a much more economical Mieville, paring the writing down to the perfect point, I feel. The narrative is very much character driven and (like PSS) realises its existence in one’s head.
It certainly makes one consider the concept of boundaries within a city, not only the divisions between private property and public highway, but more esoteric boundaries, such as housing estates, ethnic specific areas, and indeed some pubs and clubs which are theoretically public but in practice, cater for a specific demographic.
“After the first exquisite songs were intercepted by radio telescope, UN diplomats debated long and hard whether and why human resources should be expended in an attempt to reach the world that would become known as Rakhat. In the Rome offices of the Society of Jesus, the questions were not whether or why but how soon the mission could be attempted and whom to send. The Jesuit scientists went to Rakhat to learn, not to proselytize. They went so that they might come to know and love God’s other children. They went for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm’
Taking you on an extraordinary journey to a distant planet and to the very centre of the human soul, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is an astonishing literary debut – a powerful, haunting and exciting novel about the nature of faith and what it means to be ‘human’.
Blurb from the 1997 Black Swan paperback edition
Emilio Sandoz is a Jesuit Priest who, by a series of coincidences which those involved consider to be divinely inspired, finds himself voyaging through space to the planet Rakhat. Rakhat was located following the discovery of radio waves transmitting sublime music from a star only a few light years distant.
The novel however, in a dual timeline structure, begins after Emilio has returned alive from Rakhat, his hands mutilated by having the connective tissue between the bones of his hands removed from wrist to knuckle.
The Jesuits need to interview Sandoz in order to discover what happened to his colleagues and so Sandoz’ ‘confession’ and slow recovery in interspersed with the story of the voyage to Rakhat and what happened there.
It’s admittedly a beautifully written novel and though heavily dominated by Jesuits it makes no attempt to espouse or attack this particular Christian sect although Russell addresses many questions and issues surrounding the concept of Faith.
Initially, First Contact with the aliens of Rakhat in the form of the Ranu – an anthropoid race with a great gift for trading and the creative arts- goes well. However, it transpires that there are two intelligent species on Rakhat, the second being the Supaari. They are similar in form to the Ranu, but stronger and more intelligent, and it is these creatures who have created the music which reached Earth.
The story is at times funny (all Russell’s characters seemed to be possessed of formidable wit. It is sometimes over-witty, but that is a small quibble), at times deeply moving, deeply disquieting and on occasions, simply brutal.
Overall, the tone is a romantic one. For me, the Jesuits found it absurdly easy to construct an interstellar starship from a sequestered asteroid, crew it and launch it without attracting the attention of the world at large.
The planet Rakhat seemed to hold no bacterial perils for the crew, and like colonials of old, they saw no harm in polluting the culture’s social habits; at one point disastrously which ultimately leads to Emilio’s chilling punishment.
Comparisons have to be drawn with Sherri Tepper’s ‘Grass’ which also sees a slow unveiling of the true relationship between two alien species on a world which Man has invaded; another book which coincidentally features religious politics as a central topic.
‘The metropolis of New Crobuzon sprawls at the centre of the world. Humans and mutants and arcane races brood in the gloom beneath its chimneys, where the river is sluggish with unnatural effluent, and factories and foundries pound into the night. For more than a thousand years the Parliament and its brutal militia have ruled here over a vast economy of workers and artists, spies and soldiers, magicians, junkies and whores.
Now a stranger has arrived with a pocket full of gold and an impossible demand. And inadvertently, clumsily, something unthinkable is released.
AS the city becomes gripped by an alien terror, the fate of millions lies with a clutch of renegades and outcasts on the run from lawmakers and crimelords alike. The urban nightscape becomes a hunting ground. Battles rage in the shadows of uncanny architecture. And a reckoning is die at the city’s heart, under the vast chaotic vaults of Perdido Street Station’
Blurb from the 2000 Pan edition.
A masterful piece of work which to a certain extent defies genre classification. I’d call it Science Fiction but the style is fantastic, gothic and not a little weird.
The independent city-state of New Crobuzon is situated at the junction of two rivers on the planet of Bas-Lag, whose moon has two moons of its own.
Home to a variety of races, but dominated by humans, it’s a sprawling gallimaufry of diverse architectural styles, ruled by a corrupt government who run a lottery to determine who is eligible to vote.
Eccentric and grotesque characters abound. The style is reminiscent of Mervyn Peake, and redolent of the films of Jan Svankmaer and The Quay Brothers. Then there’s the Remade, criminals who are surgically and ‘bio-thaumaturgically’ transformed – often in grotesque and apposite ways – as punishment for their crimes.
The narrative follows Isaac – a research scientist, and Lin, an artist. They are conducting an illicit affair, since Isaac is human and Lin is a female of the insect Khepri race who has rejected her own culture to pursue her vocation.
They are both offered secret – and somewhat dangerous commissions; Lin to sculpt a three-dimensional portrait of Mr Motley the grotesque and aptly named crime-lord, and Isaac to find a way for Yagharek – a wingless garuda (a race of large intelligent avians) to fly again.
The commissions have repercussions not only for themselves, but for the entire city.
The linking narration is provided by Yagharek, a poetic and melancholy view of the city from the perspective of an outsider.
Throughout the novel runs the theme of transition and metamorphosis, represented at various points such as the metamorphosis of Isaac’s caterpillar into the dark and terrible slake-moth at the same time as his clockwork ‘robot’ (after an encounter with a virus) undergoes a data-metamorphosis and achieves a form of sentience.
Motley seems obsessed with the theme of transition, since he has commissioned the khepri artist Lin to sculpt a statue of his body. Like the city itself, his form is a mongrel construction within which various organic shapes and textures merge from one state to another.
Mieville has created a complex and completely believable society, colourful, exotic, decadent and dangerous, in which strange scientific processes are conducted with arcane and primitive equipment.
The author was the Socialist Alliance Party Candidate for North Kensington at the last election, and the cynical reader might have expected to find a certain amount of agitprop. It exists, but is used only as a backdrop to the main narrative.
The nature of the political structure is not clearly explained, although it is clear that New Crobuzon is not a democracy but has an entrenched political structure in which the right to vote is determined by lottery.
The Parliament enforces its rule via the Militia and its network of informers, either blackmailed or enticed into reporting on sedition and dissent. A dockworkers’ strike is at one point ruthlessly quashed, shockingly reminiscent of Thatcher’s treatment of mineworkers in the 1980s.
Mieville has been wise to leave certain aspects unexplained, such as how humans first came to Bas-Lag, or indeed, the exotic and brilliantly depicted mix of alien races, who are very much portrayed as the underclasses.
In some ways, New Crobuzon could be any modern city, divided along lines of wealth, cultural status or ethnic background. Small ghettoised areas of lawlessness exist, such as the Garuda sector which, tellingly perhaps, is in a tower-black on an abandoned half-built housing complex.
The book is also pervaded by images of decay and corruption, from the toxic effluvia of the rivers into which the factories dump their waste, to the abandoned houses upon which the Khepri have moulded their own form of organic housing.
Mieville manages to weave all of these elements into a deliciously rendered cityscape, conveying the vastness of the city body itself, its cultural architectural and financial diversity, and also focusing in on the characters as unique and well-rounded individuals with depth and flaws who inevitably pay the price for some of their actions.
It’s a wonderful inspired piece of work, and destined to be recorded as one of the first classics of the new century.