Review: Vurt and Pollen by Jeff Noon

In the indeterminately futuristic Manchester of Vurt, a gang of half-streetwise kids hooked on feathers and the Vurtual reality state they induce live between a decaying squat and a battered van. One member of this gang, Scribble, lost his sister to the Vurt in what’s known as an exchange; something from the real goes in, something from the Vurt comes out. In this instance it’s a glooping mass of sentient jellyflesh that the gang – the Stash Riders – affectionately refer to as the Thing from Outer Space.

It’s a sad blob, the Thing, hooked on feathers and unable to communicate with the Riders but they lump it around with them because Scribble’s on a quest to get his sister back and for that he also needs a certain black market feather which – he hopes – will facilitate the counter-exchange. Most of the rest of the gang just dig the feathers, but Scribble’s a part of their fucked-up family and so they’re all along for the ride.

Meanwhile, a few cops – predominantly a tough-faced pro called Murphy and a no-faced shadowcop out of the Vurt named Shaka – are hunting down the Stash Riders. What began with a botched feather exchange and heavy-handed policing escalated into the murder of a poor dumb fleshcop and that Murphy and Shaka just won’t brook. These two won’t give up, any more than Scribble will, and so their quests weave in and out through the real and the Vurt, respectively driven on by hard-nosed professionalism and something a little less pure than familial bonds.

Vurt was originally released in 1993, winning the Archur C. Clarke award, and a sequel, Pollen, followed in 1995. Both novels are rooted in Manchester, Noon’s home for much of his life, and the deep familiarity born of love – or deep love born of familiarity – shines through both novels. They are also tightly bound to the pop-cultural scene of the time, both the early acid house rave culture of the late Eighties and the Madchester scene that followed. I was eleven when Vurt was published so I can’t speak with too much authority here but my take is that Vurt is a love letter to the liberatory freedom of drugs, dreaming and the counter-culture that characterised these scenes, whilst Pollen is in some ways a more nostalgic novel and in some ways a more conservative one.

Pollen opens with an extract from a book in which a far-future historian looks backward in time, an opening which establishes several key facts from the outset. Firstly, it renders the dreamy psychedelia of Vurt’s counter-cultural wild ride in the handwavey pseudoscience of SF, anchoring its oddness with an element of the mundane. Secondly, it makes reference to the Looking Glass wars and how they began with an incident known as the Pollination, telling us upfront that what we are about to read is the first significant skirmish between the Vurt and the real.

Pollen is a very different book to its predecessor: less an underworld tour through hedonism, ugliness and beauty than the story of the continuing struggle which underpinned Vurt thematically. Structurally Pollen reaches into the toolbox of murder mysteries, at least for its first acts, and so it is that we are introduced to Sybil Jones, a flesh-and-blood shadowcop, one of the best on the beat (cliches are part of this toolbox, okay?) but also a Dodo, one of the Unbeknownst, an unlucky sod who is incapable of dreaming and cannot access the Vurt.

We’re also introduced to Coyote, the best black cab driver in Manchester, a dog-man with romance in his soul and a map in his head. We spend quite a bit of time getting to know Coyote before he meets a sticky end, including witnessing him bring a fare into the city from out in the zombie-infested wastelands outside the city. This is a girl called Persephone and all evidence suggests that she is trouble.

And from this point on the flowers begin to grow and the pollen count begins to rise.

You can read Pollen in a couple of different ways once you’ve associated it with the history of British and Mancunian music, politics and culture but whatever your take, it’s clear that this is a novel grappling with the issues of the time. The danger and excitement of underworld counter-culture versus the safety and security of those cultural forces once leashed and commodified: the boot of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act descending to end the free party scene followed by the rise of the commercial megaclubs.

The same struggle between independence and order appears elsewhere in Pollen, such as the modern Xcabs offering safety and comfort with their computerised city maps and alliance with the cops versus Coyote’s learned and lived local knowledge and willingness to stray outside legal bounds. It is not a clear-cut struggle, mind; several of our sympathetically-rendered protagonists are cops, the enforcers of the status quo, whereas the local pirate radio DJ is an old Sixties hippy who talks big about resistance and revolution but, when it comes down to it, he’s all bark and no bite. In Vurt, too, we see no shortage of the ugliness of a world obsessed with feathers and dreaming. One member of the Stash Riders, Beetle, is described as “a man without dreams. He dreamt other people’s dreams, through the feathers.” The Beetle is not an unusual man: a world with Vurt is a world dominated by escapism. Small wonder that such a state of affairs should eventually come to war.

I should note that there are problematic elements to these novels. Vurt is such a ride that at times its pacing is a little loose; it meanders at points, stumbling on broken bottles and there’s only so much that wild imagination can do to distract from moments of purposelessness. Pollen is a tauter novel, more focused on what it’s trying to say, but unravels somewhat toward the end, the stakes having been built so high that the eventual resolution would have fallen short even if its weren’t only half-coherent and unconvincing. Elsewhere the prose can try so hard to be hip that it comes out nonsensical; what, for example, are we supposed to imagine that a “petal-growl” sounds like? Both books are also heavily heteronormative, which isn’t particularly unusual, but if a lot of sex that is very focused on domineering masculine desire isn’t your thing, well, forewarned is forearmed.

For me, none of this matters as much as just how entertaining, inventive and unique these novels are. I can forgive imperfect endings or a drunken stumble if the rest of the journey is this entertaining and thought-provoking and I can forgive stylistic mis-steps because most of the writing really is brilliant. On the other points, well, hasn’t our political, literary and social culture come a long way since the early Nineties? It certainly has but not far enough that the yearning for freedom that underpins both of these vivid and inventive novels does not still resonate.

[This review was published in issue 274 of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association. This version of the review should be identical to the print version.]

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