Jeff Noon
Vurt Cover

Jeff Noon - Vurt (1993)


"Deja Vurt. Must be. That's the name of the feeling you get sometimes, in Vurt, when you've done this one already, but you're in the Vurt anyway, remember? And you're thinking it's real. So a loop is made in the head, and it becomes a kind of Haunting. Memories of your previous trips start to play on the feather dreams, shifting them out of phase, like a feedback wave. Maybe this was the answer. I'm in a Vurt, getting a real cool Haunting."

Jeff Noon's 'Vurt' is The Pavement to Philip K. Dick's The Fall. 'Vurt' is explicitly PKDickian, from the way the title and the sly Vaz advert echo 'UBIK' to the way the plot plays out as a sort of 'greatest hits' of elements from some of Dick's strongest works. As well as 'UBIK', there are touches of 'The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch' (dimension-hopping drugs), 'The Game Players of Titan' (dimension-hopping Lovecraftian horrors) and 'A Scanner Darkly' (state surveillance and drugs). Two of the female characters, Bridget and Mandy, could even be expies of the interchangeable brunette and redhead doomed femme fatales that crop up in most of Dick's novels. Yet, in much the same way that Pavement's debut LP 'Slanted And Enchanted', for all its obvious Fall influence, still manages to sound vital and relevant, 'Vurt' is able to reconfigure these ideas in a way that is engaging and timely, as well as being a damn slight more streamlined than a lot of PKD's own work.

To give credit where credit's due, 'Vurt' is still a sublimely odd fish. It manages to fit in nicely with the then-current cyberpunk milieu without actually featuring many cyberpunk elements. Perhaps this is one more artifact of Philip K. Dick's influence, seeing as he was so influential on the cyberpunk movement. However, there's a bit more to it than that. While nothing in 'Vurt' is particularly 'cyber', it is quite explicitly 'punk'. Perhaps moreso than any SF novel since Thomas M. Disch's '334', 'Vurt' focuses on the down-and-outs. This is not so much William Gibson's vision of the street finding its own use for technology as a bunch of kids on the dole in Manchester council estates finding release where they can. The setting is vividly and memorably evoked, and is one of the things that gives the book its own distinct feel, despite its obvious predecessors. 'Vurt' also has a lot of fun with language. Jeff Noon was influenced by dub music and the idea of 'remixing' his text to come up with something similar to William Burrough's cut-up technique. 'Vurt' is never as radical as Burrough's work - indeed, it's probably not as radical as Norman Spinrad's similar experiments in 'Bug Jack Barron' - but it's a compelling and ambitious idea that gives rise to some startling, effective passages.

'Vurt' is set in a recognisable but distorted Manchester, in which robots, psychics, talking dogs that can interbreed with humans and humans coexist. Vurt itself is a sort of shared dreamspace that you access by sucking on feathers. Objects, feelings and people themselves can be transferred to and from Vurtspace, providing they are replaced by an object of equal value. Our protagonist, Scribbler, lost his sister/lover to the Vurt in this way and woke up with a tentacled Lovecraftian horror that they nickname The Thing From Outer Space. In a retelling of the Orpheus myth, the book follows Scribbler's quest to exchange the Thing for his sister so he can rescue her from the Vurt. He is helped by his gang, The Stash Riders, when they're not all too blitzed out of their skulls on feathers to do anything, and hindered by the police and their sophisticated surveillance robots.

What makes 'Vurt' truly Dickian is the upsetting of the hierarchies of reality. From fairly early on, it's insinuated that the Vurt is not merely a psychological space but is also a series of alternate dimensions, arguably as 'real' as our own. The Thing is a nice subversion of the standard H. P. Lovecraft story of malevolent unknowable beings encroaching on our own reality; the Thing is here entirely by accident, all it wants is to get back home, and it winds up being as much a victim as anybody in the book. The twist at the end features another UBIK homage, which also functions as a cute reference to Lewis Carroll's 'Through The Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There'. Scribbler manages to rescue his sister, but the price he pays is that he has to stay trapped in the Vurt, where he learns that they are all stuck inside the dream of a sleeping woman, and all of the various realities will simply disappear if she ever wakes up. Scribbler is being groomed to eventually take her place.