I recently come across some reader reviews of one of my all-time favourite books on a web-site that will remain nameless, and was quite shocked by how bad some people thought it was.
The book in question is ‘Vurt’ the début novel by Jeff Noon. I bought the original Ring-pull Fiction version of this book when it was first published way back in 1993, and was instantly hooked. It went on to win the rather prestigious ‘Arthur C. Clarke Award’ in 1994. So my initial reaction to some of the scathing reviews was astonishment, quickly followed by confusion. Then againe, the main-stream publishers of the time weren’t interested in Vurt, so the small independent publishing house named ‘Ring-pull Fiction’ was set up by a publishing acquaintance of Mr Noon, more or less, in order to publish the book. And this may be the crux or the matter, because Vurt isn’t your ‘normal’ book, and this was my first clue to the origins of the rather scathing comments.
If you don’t know, Vurt follows the adventures, or more accurately the misadventures, of Scribble and ‘the stash raiders’ a group of society drop-outs generally on the wrong side of the law. Nothing miraculously original here, but where Vurt shines, for me, is in the fantastical pseudo, part hallucinatory, part virtual, reality that Noon constructs. This world along with the cut-and-slash fast-and-loose use of language is what makes Vurt for me. These were also the two most complained about aspects of the book. The fast pace of the text and copious use of slang and sometimes juvenile-sounding terms won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it does lend itself well to Scribble’s world view. I think you have to accept this view in order to fully accept and understand the book.
And so to the plot: basically, Scribble’s sister has been lost in the Vurt and replaced by a goo-oozing many-tentacled creature, referred to as ‘the thing from outer-space’. The story follows Scribble in his attempts to find his lost sister in the most dangerous layers of the Vurt, leading to mad chases to find meta-feathers that may or may not exist, close escapes from the shadow-cops, and encounters with robo-crusties, dog-men and zombies… none of which are exactly what you think they are.
The main plot-device in Vurt is the use of specially treated feathers to enter the strange shared reality of ‘the Vurt.’ These come in many flavours from the harmless to the potentially lethal. Enter the Vurt and you will become familiar with terms like ‘curious-yellow’ and ‘English-voodoo-garden’ as you eagerly seek the feathers and the meta-feathers, creations that only exist inside the Vurt.
The book has a strong undercurrent of tongue-in-cheek pseudo computing terms. These can be fun, if you recognise them, and manifest themselves in the structure of the Vurt and the techno-entwined ‘real’ world, as well as in characters such as ‘the sniffing general.’ But don’t worry if you don’t get the references, unlike some harder sci-fi it isn’t necessary or fundamental to be aware of the presence of this layer of the book. Vurt is all about layers, the corruption of the apparent ‘real-world’, the various levels of the Vurt, and meta-Vurt. The story plot’s its fevered way through all this, to what some called an anticlimactic ending, but things don’t always end with a bang, sometimes much-ado ends in a whimper.
Vurt was described on the site I read as ‘ a Cyberpunk novel’ and to those who deem themselves knowledgably in these things, that invariably invites direct comparisons to the 1984 ‘Neuromancer’ novel by William Gibson. Vurt is, in my opinion, nothing like this, and I don’t think it was ever intended to be. So if that was someone’s watermark expectation, I can see why a Vurt-feather may leave a bitter taste in heir mouth.
This book seemed to polarise a lot of readers, with some exalting it’s virtues, and others sighting accusations of ‘childishness’, ‘incoherent ramblings’, and even ‘destroying the English language.’ Wow, if one book was able to do that, surely it would truly be a book of note.
I’m not saying Vurt is a work of genius, but I did think it was a good, fast, and fun piece of nonsense, and what’s wrong with that? Surely not every book needs to have some deep profound meaning. Even my wife, who almost exclusively reads Star-Trek novels, couldn’t put Vurt down until she finished it in one reading.