‘ 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.
‘With its vast subterranean cities and extraordinary organic technologies, Nulapeiron is a world unlike any other. However, such wonders mean little to the majority of its inhabitants, ruled over by despotic Logic Lords and the Oracles, supra-human beings whose ability to truecast the future maintains the status quo.
But all this is about to change.
In a crowded marketplace Tom Corcorigan is witness to the brutal killing of a fleeing woman by a militia squad. His shock turns to horror when he recognises her as the stranger who, only the day before, had presented him with a small, seemingly insignificant info-crystal. Only now, as the fire in her obsidian eyes fades, does he realise who – or what – she really was: a figure from legend, a Pilot.
What Tom has yet to discover is that this crystal holds the key to mu-space, and so to freedom itself. For he has been given a destiny to fulfil – nothing less than the rewriting of his future, and that of his world…’
Blurb from the 2001 Bantam paperback edition
Meaney’s marvellous and intricate tale of the rise and fall of Tom Corcorigan begins somewhat blandly, but soon shifts into high gear and rampages along to the brilliant finale.
The fourteen year old Tom is the son of a market trader on (or rather in, for this is set in a subterranean world of class-based levels somewhat like Wingrove’s Chung Kuo) the planet Nulapeiron. One day he meets a strange woman who gives him a gift, only later discovering that she is a forbidden Pilot when he sees her killed in public by the local police.
There’s an odd Dickensian aspect to this novel. It’s almost a futuristic David Copperfield. Tom loses his parents (his father dies after his mother is seduced away by an Oracle, one of the rulers of the world, who can see into the future) and not being old enough to be eligible for housing is sent off to a school.
There he is bullied by both teachers and pupils and one day is falsely accused of stealing, has one of his arms removed at the order of the local aristocracy and is indented into the Lord’s household.
This is the turning point in Tom’s life. He begins to exercise and to learn martial arts from Maestro DaSilva, and here is born a plan to murder the Oracle who took his mother away and ruined his life.
Tom – who has devoted as much time to the development of his mind as well as his body (partly being taught by Modules stored within the Pilot’s crystal) is awarded a rare accolade and elevated to the aristocracy as Lord Corcorigan.
Only then does he achieve his aim and finally (in a complex and convoluted plan) kill the Oracle.
This however, awakens hope in the underground revolutionary groups who wish to remove the Oracles from power, and Tom becomes the figurehead and chief-architect for a plan to bring down their rule.
The novel is interspersed with excerpts from a kind of diary of a Pilot which Tom finds within the Pilot’s info-crystal.
There are echoes of Gene Wolfe and Jack Vance here with the weird but oddly credible mixture of feudal society and advanced technology.
Meaney however is a very individual and stylish writer and will no doubt be another important British writer of the 21st Century.
It is the 27th century and Robin is recovering from a voluntary memory removal procedure. Human society is now multi-stellar with space-habitats, planets and vast ships connected by T-gates (which are basically wormholes). A-gates on the other hand, can break down one’s body and reassemble it, sometimes somewhat differently; rejuvenate and repair; assemble any artefact or object whose pattern is in storage, or backup one’s entire body just in case one is killed.
Humanity is recovering from a war in which a tailored virus called Curious Yellow rewrites one’s memories and loyalties – and therefore public history – and through its spread the Human Polity broke apart into quarantined republics which sought to guard its borders against Curious Yellow.
Robin, on the advice of his therapist, decides to sign up for an experimental project whereby he will be locked into a sealed environment, along with many other people, for a minimum of three years. He is keen to do this as, for one thing, someone is trying to kill him.
However, when he emerges from an A-gate backup he finds himself in the induction room of the project and also discovers that his body is now female.
The project is ostensibly a sociological one. The participants have to live in a stereotypical society of the Nineteen Fifties. They are divided up into groups and each group is awarded points based on whether the individuals are conforming to the social mores of the time.
However, things begin to get sinister and Robin (who is now known as Reeve) starts getting messages from her old self in her dreams, telling her that she has been placed there undercover to find out exactly what is going on in the project.
Stross seems to like his feisty female characters. Granted, this is a male whose mind has been placed in a woman’s body, but to all intents and purposes it’s a female character. Despite an initial preference for men’s jeans and boots, Robin/reeve settles down and embraces his new gender with some aplomb.
Stross also has a lot of fun with looking at the society of the (American) 1950s from the perspective of the 27th Century, especially since a lot of records and history were lost in the war, and much of the rest compromised by the effects of the virus.
Every Sunday the residents must attend Church where the Rev Fiore (one of the three founders of the project) publicly scolds those who have transgressed moral laws and praises those who haven’t. At one point they also sing the ‘hymn’, ‘First We Take Manhattan’ which, for those of you who know this Leonard Cohen song and imagine it being sung this way, is a very surreal experience.
It’s much darker novel than ‘Singularity Sky’, although just as inventive in terms of the infrastructure of the background to the text.