‘ 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.
The sequel to ‘The Mind Pool’ is set much later. Humanity has been forbidden to travel into alien space via the network of wormholes controlled by a Federation of three alien races. This is because humans are deemed to be a violent and volatile species.
The novel begins with a Government official tracking down Chan Dalton to offer him a special assignment.
It would appear that a wormhole gateway has appeared which is unconnected to the alien network and is also accessible by humans.
Ships have been sent through to investigate but none have returned. Would Chan Dalton to be willing to reassemble his old crew and investigate?
What follows is an adventure in another universe where the humans have to deal with both inimical lobster-like aliens and the fundamentalist pacifist beliefs of their own alien crew. In truth, Sheffield could have made more of this internal battle of ideologies but that is a minor flaw. The only other problem with this book is the title, which has no relevance to anything in the text.
Like most of Sheffield’s work, this is highly readable, highly entertaining space opera which contains some excellent characterisation and some complex and interesting aliens, if a tad anthropomorphic. In its way, Sheffield’s work is very traditional, albeit with a modern gloss. It falls very much into the Romantic camp although Sheffield doesn’t shirk on the physics and it never falls into the trough of Star Trek technobollocks. There’s a themic thread of addiction which covers both the humans that have been addicted to various substances and Friday Indigo who becomes a slave to the lobster-folk who can stimulate his pleasure centres directly.
Sheffield left enough open for a sequel here but sadly it would appear that never transpired.
Nick Appleton lives in a world governed by two new types of human, the New Men and The Unusuals. Children, like Nick’s son Bobby, are given a test when they are eleven, to determine if they are fit to work in government. Nick is convinced that the tests are not rigged but his son knows otherwise.
The tests are rigged, and we are privy to a discussion in the testing centre before Nick and his son even arrive, deciding whether the boy should pass or not. Bobby is quite cynically convinced he will not pass.
In this society, alcohol is illegal but drugs are freely available at drugbars. Alcohol can be obtained on the black market as well as the illegal literature of the Undermen, the writings of a political prisoner called Cordon who beams his writing out via a transmitter implant, after which it is edited and sold in pamphlets illegally,
Nick works in a garage for a man called Zeta, where he regrooves bald tyres to make them look new, while making them more dangerous.
Cordon is a disciple of Thors Provoni, a man who set off on a ship decades before looking for help from advanced aliens.
The narrative follows Appleton, a law abiding citizen ostensibly committed to following the rules of society. A man called Darby Shire (an ex-colleague of Appleton’s) arrives at the house in fact, attempting to entrap Appleton into illegal activities. Then his boss, Zeta, takes him to a Cordonite apartment where he meets Denny Strong, an alcohol addict, and his girlfriend, Charley. Denny flies into an alcoholic rage when he finds Cordonite literature that Charkey has hidden and attacks her. Charley escapes with Nick, who realises that he has already crossed the line of law-breaking and become an Underman.
The New Men and Unusuals believe that the announcement of Cordon’s impending execution has turned many standard citizens into Undermen. They have of course, been monitoring everything and know where Appleton has been.
The kingpin of the government is Chairman Willis Gram, a corpulent old telepath. he has begun to ignore the advice of his aides and orders Cordon’s immediate execution.
Then comes the news that Provoni is returning with friends. Friends from Frolix 8.
This is one of Dick’s more frenetic and disjointed novels. It can be read as a warped mirror of Orwell’s ‘1984’ in terms of this world of relentless surveillance and control, where the ‘evolved’ humans, the New Men and the Unusuals, control who can and can not enter government service.
There are odd religious themes and concepts creeping in. At some point earlier, a ship had discovered a large frozen corpse in deep space which most humans believe to be God.
Cordon in a sense is an apostle, a John the Baptist figure who distributes his gospel directly through a transmitter implanted in his body.
Thors Provoni is returning – symbolically – from the dead with hope for all mankind. Dick being Dick, however, the nature of the help that the Frolixians is offering is ambiguous.
As is common to many Dick novels, the female characters are more fascinating than the males, and here we have a contrast between Appleton’s wife, a nervous paranoid woman, and Charley, the girl he leaves her for, a complex psychotic woman whose motives and actions are ambiguous and unpredictable.
‘BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD
is set in a strange and elemental era. The world had died – or what was good in it had died – and all that was left was confusion and disorder.
Colin Charteris had been an ordinary young man – once. But in a drug-distorted society he became a saviour – a hero who was to lead a doomed crusade into bomb-scarred Europe – a Europe that was to prove everything and nothing to the man who went Barefoot in the Head…’
Blurb from the 1974 Corgi SF Collector’s Edition
This is not an easy read since following the first chapter which introduces the central character, Colin Charteris, the novel devolves into a variation of English which those affected by the Acid Head wars are now using.
Charteris is a Serbian travelling through Europe in the aftermath of the Acid Head wars and we meet up with him in Paris. He calls himself Charteris because he is a fan of the British author and has a romantic view of British life.
Eventually he arrives in London and meets Burton, the manager of a band, and later his friend Phil who is a prophet of sorts. Charteris, however, with contradictory Ouspenskian and Gurdjieffian views, gains a following of his own and becomes something of a Messiah.
The novel, assembled from various sequential stories in New Worlds and elsewhere, is also dotted with poems and song lyrics from the characters.
See also ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘Riddley Walker’.
‘Terror of the Space Raiders!
The space-pirates of Boskone raided at will, menacing the whole structure of interstellar civilization. mater-minded by a super-scientist, their conquering fleets outgunned even the mighty space cruisers of the Galactic Patrol.
When Lensman Kim Kinnison of the Patrol discovered the secret Boskonian base, it was invulnerable to outside attack. But where a battle-fleet would meet insuperable resistance, a single infiltrator might penetrate the Boskonian defences – if he had the guts to take on million-to-one odds. Kinnison had guts enough to take on the odds – even with the future of the civilized Universe riding on his shoulders…’
Blurb from the 1982 Panther paperback edition
I fell in love with, and subsequently married this series of books in about Nineteen Seventy-Three and have never regretted the union for one second. In times of dark depression or darker British weather I dust them off, close the blinds, put the light on and set off with the Galactic Patrol across the galaxy.
This volume introduces the central figure of the Lensman series, Kimball ‘Kim’ Kinnison who – as the novel opens – is graduating from his training and is presented with his Lens, the lenticular crystal set in a bracelet which is attuned to the wearer’s psyche and acts as both an identification insignia for members of The Galactic Patrol and as a kind of amplifier of the psychic activity of the brain, allowing the wearer to communicate with alien species, read the minds of evildoers and keep in contact with one’s fellow Patrolmen.
Kinnison is soon knee-deep in adventure and alien entrails, on the trail of the drug-pedlars of Boskone and in the process teams up with Worsel of Velantia, the draconian multi-eyed future Lensman. Together they overcome the fearsome Overlords of Delgon (creatures who have powers of mental compulsion and feed on the life-force of the dying).
Pursued by agents of Boskone, Kinnison flees to Trenco where he meets Tregonsee of Rigel, another of the four beings destined to become Second Stage Lensmen.
Once again Kinnison evades capture and returns to Earth where the Boskonians are repulsed and their base on Neptune destroyed.
Following a lead to Aldebaran, Kinnison bites off a little more than he can chew with the Wheelmen, beings who have evolved into a wheel shape in order, no doubt, to get around faster. He is seriously injured and ends up in the Patrol Hospital under the care of Clarissa McDougall.
Realising that he needs additional training, he returns to Arisia for a gruelling mental workout with the formidable Mentor of Arisia.
Some time later, fully fit and now more adept at the workings of his Lens, he finally intercepts another transmission from Helmuth of Boskone and is able to triangulate the point of origin; a star cluster outside the main body of the galaxy.
Giving the drug barons – quite literally – some of their own medicine, he floods Helmuth’s dome with Thionite, the most addictive drug in the galaxy.
The base is taken, but Kinnison then realises that Helmuth was not the head of Boskone at all but merely an underling. The real head of Boskone is someone, or something, else and is far far away.
It’s one of the most enjoyable books of the series, fast-paced, tightly written and full of cliffhangers and moments of suspense. This is Pulp Fiction at its best, at times unknowingly camp, at other times fast, exciting, and inventive, packed with extraordinary evil aliens, unexpected allies, crusty eccentric Admirals and, above all, the rather quaint notion of Nineteen Thirties American society being in charge of the running of the galaxy.
No human being had ever landed on the hidden planet of Arisia. A mysterious barrier, hanging unseen in space, turned back all ships. then the word came to Earth, inexplicably but compellingly:
‘GO TO ARISIA!’
Virgil Samms, founder of the Galactic Patrol, went – and came back with the Lens, the strange device that gave its wearer powers no man had ever possessed before.
Samms knew that the price of this power would be high. But even he had no idea of the ultimate cost – nor of the strange destiny awaiting the First Lensman…’
Blurb from the 1982 Panther paperback edition
The Eddorians have now become aware of the existence of the Arisians, but have foolishly ascribed their secrecy to cowardice, rather than the Arisians’ long-term planning, in place for billions of years.
Dr Nels Bergenholm (who is in fact merely a vessel created and operated by Arisians) tells Virgil Samms that he must go to Arisia to be given an object which will operate as an unfakeable badge for his new agents of the Galactic Patrol.
This, of course, is The Lens, a lenticular arrangement of crystals, set in a bracelet, attuned to the lifeforce of its wearer. It gives the wearer the gift of telepathy, allowing full dialogue to be opened with alien races.
Samms is charged with choosing candidates for the Lens and finds, in scanning the minds of his staff, that he is woefully short of candidates. On Rigel, he finds the blue-skinned, oil-drum bodied, tentacled Dronvire, and even travels to far distant Palain VII to find a candidate among the cowardly and fascinating extra-dimensional Palainians.
Back on Earth, the rest of the Lensmen are involved in various secret projects, such as the investigation of drug-trafficking. Virgil Samms himself, posing as his identical twin cousin George Olmstead, gets himself recruited into the ‘organisation’ and finds himself on Trenco, one of the most imaginative planets in SF, collecting broadleaf, which is the basis for the purple drug thionite.
Conway Costigan, now a Lensman, also infiltrates the organisation on Earth, in order that the drug can be tracked from harvesting through production to distribution.
Behind this sordid web of crime and corruption is Senator Morgan, the man behind the puppet President Witherspoon and the Spaceways Agency, who are seeking to gain a monopoly on interstellar flights. They are also part of a chain of control which stretches all the way up through a hierarchy of alien species to the Eddorians themselves.
There is espionage, derring-do, titanic space battles and simple fisticuffs, but for me the sense-of-wonder moments are the encounters with The Eddorians, unknowable beings with intellects so vast that, from available data, they are able to predict a moment in the future of Virgil Samms, five years ahead, in perfect detail, where he is sitting in a barber’s chair, having been slightly cut by a razor after a cat jogs the barber’s elbow.
Despite Samms’ protestations to the contrary, the Arisians tell Samms that he will eventually forget the prediction and only remember when the barber applies some astringent, which he does.
One cannot but share Samms’ awe at the realisation that he will never be able to understand or truly know such a vast and strange intellect.
‘He offered to sell them the secret of eternal life. All he asked in return was their souls
It was always Saturday
You woke each morning with the comfortable feeling that you didn’t have to go to your job. Instead, you could climb into your brand new Jaguar, pick up your girl and go to the beach.
Except that when you looked into your shaving mirror you saw a note tacked up, written in your own hand:
This is an illusion. Make good use of your time, buddy boy.
Because the illusion wouldn’t last. And soon you would be back as an unwilling colonist on the dreary planet Mars. ‘
Blurb from MacFaddan edition of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
Definitely in the running as one the finest, if not the finest, of Dick’s novels, TTSOPE examines a whole galimaufry of human issues, including the use and abuse of power
within various relationships.
Barney Mayerson works for the company who hold the Perky Pat franchise. Colonials on Mars , whose lives are hard and bleak, are sold the drug Can-D and can experience a shared reality via the doll, Perky Pat, and her ‘layouts’. Barney is a precog and it is his job to assess objects that be ‘minned’ to be used within the layouts, such as clothes, furniture and household items. Barney’s ex-wife Emily is a potter and her new husband Richard Hnatt brings some of her work for assessment, which Barney rejects, even though he knows they would be successful. His new precog assistant and lover, Roni Fugate, realises their worth, however.
Meanwhile news has come in that Palmer Eldritch has returned from Proxima Centauri. Eldritch has steel teeth, a silver prosthetic eyeband that has replaced his eyes and an artificial hand – the three stigmata. He has also brought something with him, a new drug to rival Can-D, called Chew-Z
Much of the remainder of the novel takes place in various subjective realities of Can-D and Chew-Z and Dick characteristically unsettles the reader by confusing – in the mind of certain characters – the internal ‘reality’ with the drug-induced subjective reality; the result being that the reader is sometimes led to believe that the character has escaped from the drug trip, when he/she actually hasn’t.
The word ‘stigmata’ in the title is relevant, since Dick is comparing the communal sharing of the drug, and the subsequent shared experience, with the Christian tradition of Mass. This is of course, subverted by Eldritch’s manipulation of the Chew-Z experience, since he can control the subjective realities of the participants. Thus, Eldritch becomes the antichrist.
The visual image of Eldritch is based upon a vision Dick had in which he saw a face in the sky with metal eyes and teeth, and was overcome with a sense of the presence of evil.
Away from the main plot strand, we have Richard Hnatt, Emily’s new husband, who negotiates a deal with Eldritch for her pots to be ‘minned’ for the Perky Pat layouts. Hnatt uses the money to take his wife and himself to a clinic where ordinary humans can be upgraded evolutionarily to be turned into ‘bubbleheads’ – evolved humans with greater mental functions and a horny ridged skin.
Unfortunately in some cases, the treatment causes the patient to regress and devolve, and Hnatt fears that this is what he has done to Emily.
Barney’s boss, Leo Bulero, is a bubblehead. At one point, under the influence of Chew-Z, he travels into the future and meets two ‘further evolved’ males, who have come to visit Leo’s grave. They tell Leo that he is a hero, the man who killed Palmer Eldritch.
During the conversation it becomes clear that the evolved humans are no more evolved than anyone else.
The great irony of the central metaphor (Can-D representing the sharing of the wafer and wine of the Christian mass) is that Dick is suggesting within the novel that the colonists have only the choice between the two drugs. To try and exist without the drugs would be unthinkable (although Barney did initially state that he was going to live on Mars without resorting to using Can-D)