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Vurt
Jeff Noon
Pan, 370 pages

Vurt
Jeff Noon
Jeff Noon studied Combined Arts (Painting and Drama) at Manchester University. In his final year, he wrote a play about the aftermath of the Falklands War. Woundings, went on to win a Mobil Prize and was performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, where he was writer-in-residence for 18 months. To support himself, he took a job at Waterstone's bookshop in Manchester. While there, a writing request resulted in Vurt, which won him the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction in 1994. Jeff Noon won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Jeff Noon Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Martin Lewis

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A debut novel by unknown author for a tiny publishing house that had never released anything before, Vurt went onto achieve both critical and commercial success culminating in the Arthur C Clarke Award.

Its biggest selling point is probably its fundamental oddness. It's almost like cyberpunk as written by someone who has never heard of computers. Though set in the near future, vaguely dystopic setting and lowlife, it is a long way from Gibson and Co.

Instead of being obsessed with computers or smack, these punks are hooked on feathers -- as in the things that cover birds. Vurt feathers are a clever synthesis of both drugs and virtual reality, sort of like programmable acid. The feathers act as a gateway to the Vurt, a dream world that is both real and not.

There are different echelons of feathers, the lowliest being blue soap opera Vurts. They reach all the way up through pink Pornovurts and illegal blacks to the dangerously powerful yellows.

Noon gives his own synopsis of the novel halfway through, with altered names since it is the guise of a feather simulation, so I'll quote that:

"This is how it starts: Wendy comes out of the all-night Vurt-U-Want, clutching a bag of goodies. You're a member of this gang of hip young malcontents. They call themselves the CRASH DRIVERS, so that's what I'll call this feather trip. The hero's name is Scratch, and this is one yellow shining journey. Golden yellow. Boy, have you got problems! First off your sister, Shona, has been caught in Metaland, swapped for a lump of alien lard. Your job is to get this Shona back to base earth. Of course that's virtually impossible; nobody's managed it before. Still you can't stop trying anyway, because of the deep love."
In the novel, the hero's name is actually Scribble and this is his quest: to get back down the rabbit hole and pull his sister out of Wonderland. As such the novel is a frantic, messy chase to find the feather she is trapped in -- the yellowest of the yellow -- Curious Yellow.

Jeff Noon gives us a loosely sketched but perfectly realised future that is familiar yet totally alien. The novel is set in Manchester, a city of perpetual rain and a mythical music scene (in some ways England's Seattle), where we are told that:

"There are only five pure states and their names are Dog, Human, Robo, Shadow and Vurt."
The denizens of this future Manchester are the products of multiple miscegenations of these states producing dogmen and robopuppies and, for some, the word 'pure' is an insult. One product of this is the dog-only quarter of the city with the poetic name of Turdsville. This is one of a number of striking images Noon conjures up. They also include two lovers permanently joined together by their dreadlocks, a man pierced by a fractal bullet and, of course, the ubiquitous feather swallowing. This is an action every bit as evocative as putting a needle into a vein or indeed onto a record; a prelude to ecstasy.

The novel is something of a rough diamond but the exuberance that leads to this impression is part of its charm. At times though its extremely poignant and certain sentences, such as the opening "A young boy puts a feather into his mouth...", take on an almost mythic resonance. Vurt was a breath of fresh air at the time it was published and it remains so today.

Copyright © 2002 Martin Lewis

Martin Lewis lives in South London; he is originally from Bradford, UK. He writes book reviews for The Telegraph And Argus.


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