Book Group Report – a trippy, tribey SF alt-Manchester from the 1990s

We’re nearing the end of the alphabet in our book group – we haven’t decided yet if we’ll return to the beginning or do something else when we finish. Meanwhile our ‘V is for’ book this month was a novel I was very happy to re-read.

Vurt by Jeff Noon

I discovered Vurt in the mid 1990s when Pan published the first mass market paperback (cover above) of this novel after it won the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1994. It was originally published in 1993 by Mancunian small indie press Ringpull, who are no longer in the business. Of course I couldn’t find my original paperback, I’m sure I still have it somewhere, so I had to buy a beat up old Ringpull reprint copy.

It’s fair to say that back then, I’d not read anything as weirdly spec-fictional for around a decade – William Gibson’s Neuromancer in the mid 1980s, and before that the 1975 Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. Jeff Noon’s debut novel had the USP of being set in an alt-Manchester rather than the USA. It’s a version of the city where the drug of choice is ‘Vurt’. Administered via colour-coded feathers which you suck on, Vurt offers a variety of experiences from legal happy blues and porno pinks to illegal knowledge blacks and the extremely dangerous yellow feathers. If you share a feather with a friend, you can have joint experiences in the Vurt alt world.

Ringpull paperback, reprint edition

Scribble lost his sister, Desdemona, whom he loved so much, to a ‘curious yellow’ which appeared inside the black feather ‘English Voodoo’ they were sharing. Scribble couldn’t take the yellow, but Desdemona did; instead he jerked out of the feather and found she’d been swapped for the ‘Thing from Outer Space’, a sort of amorphous octopus (don’t ask!). Ever since, he’s been trying to find another English Voodoo feather to go back in to rescue her.

Scribble is part of the ‘Stash Riders’ – led by Beetle, who can drive. Bridget, who is a psychic shadowgirl and Beetle’s lover, and new recruit Mandy make up the foursome. They spend their spare time looking for that elusive black feather, and hiding the illegal Thing from the shadowcops who are always on their tail.

In between the initial chapters, we have inserts from the Game Cat’s periodical who shares his knowledge all about Vurt.

Noon’s city is a mixture of edgy almost normal estates with their own tribes like ‘Bottletown’ which is full of smashed glass, and the turd-ridden surreal ‘Dogtown’ where the residents have started to be human:dog hybrids. The stash riders must brave visits to both in their quest. There are shadow robocops who are like streams of info, spelled ‘inpho’, there are robodogs – robot:dog hybrids, androids too, as well as Murdoch – a traditional body and soul cop.

It’s not always clear what is real and what is ‘vurt’ in this world, and who is controlling whom, (The Matrix would be six years away at time of Vurt’s publication). The vurt world is also quite different to Neal Stephenson’s ‘Metaverse’ (yes he got there first!) in the marvellous Snow Crash, published the year before. While people can be connected ‘vurtually’ via shared feathers, they are not avatars as in the Metaverse.

I couldn’t possibly tell you more about what happens. It’s weird, and you’re either intrigued enough to read it, or it’s not your thing! Although it won a major SF award, it’s not a very SF novel outside of the Thing and the hybrids, and the Vurt world is more urban fantasy as we’d categorise it these days (if we must). There are several references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice – a club called the Slithy Tove, and the Game Cat who appears now and then rather like the Cheshire Cat – Noon’s third Vurt novel, Automated Alice, takes this even further bringing Carroll’s protagonist to alt-Manchester.

While Vurt blew me away when I first read it, I was so much more familiar with this kind of spec fiction by the time Alex pitched the book to our book group, and it came out of the hat. I found myself reading it looking for intertextual references, but still enjoying the experience. It does get a bit samey, and the plot does meander rather, it could have done with some editing but, what imagination Noon has!

Our book group actually had a good discussion about this book. Five out of six read it fully and only one of the five really disliked it.

Jeff Noon continued to write more novels set in this world, and since has written a series of SF detective stories which I’ve now acquired. Most recently he’s turned to conventional crime thrillers with the first two in a traditional police procedural series set in the 1980s which I loved. His DI Hobbes is a wonderful character, and the first in the series Slow Motion Ghosts is suffused with rock’n’roll when the lead singer of a glam rock tribute band dies. The second House With No Doors is also superb and very claustrophobic. Both of these are highly recommended.

Source: Own copy Ringpull paperback, 371 pages. BUY used from Blackwell’s (affiliate link)

4 thoughts on “Book Group Report – a trippy, tribey SF alt-Manchester from the 1990s

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I still have my proof of this one from bookselling days long, long ago. I think Noon did his time as a bookseller, too. I remember really enjoying it despite not being an SF fan. Glad to hear it’s stood the test of time.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      That will be very collectable! First editions already go for quite a bit. It did hold up really well, (if you ignore the advent of the internet = inpho of course) it’s not dated much at all and I’m keen to revisit more of his early work now. I have the other Vurt novels on my shelves still – and know where they are this time!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      His recent crime novels set in the 1980s are superb, and his protagonist, DI Hobbes is very interesting!

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