Monday, August 1, 2016

Review: Vurt by Jeff Noon

Vurt by Jeff Noon
Published: Ringpull, 1993
Series: Book 1 of Vurt
Awards Nominated: Locus First Novel Award
Awards Won: Arthur C. Clarke Award

The Book:

“In a future UK, everyone hungers for the ultimate drug: Vurt feathers. They can comfort you, titillate you, terrify you, or take you places that no conscious mind should go. As the Vurt expert Game Cat says, “Be careful, be very careful,”--Vurt sometimes comes with a terrible cost.

Scribble, a member of a small Vurt-focused gang called the Stash Riders, knows this all too well. He has lost his beloved sister Desdemona to a deadly yellow feather.  He woke up from the Vurt experience to find her gone and only a “Thing from Outer Space” at his side. He is determined to get her back, no matter what the price.” ~Allie

This is the first book I’ve read by Jeff Noon, and I listened to it as an audiobook during my commute.  The audiobook narrator, Dean Williamson, was fantastic.   He had a great ability to portray the different accents and speaking patterns of all the different characters. On one last note, Noon has a few new books coming out soon from Angry Robot Books.

My Thoughts:

Vurt takes place in an unusual near-future world, which it drops you into with the expectation that you’ll figure everything out as you go along.  I’m generally fine with novels that are light on initial explanation, but this one left me uncertain as to what kind of a novel I was picking up.  I wasn’t really in the mood for a drug addict story (e.g. A Scanner Darkly) or a gangster story, so I very nearly put the book down.  Despite the set-up, though, the basic surface plot of Vurt is a simple save-the-damsel quest story. Beneath this, there is also a level where the story is about the experience of trauma and the unfulfillable desire to escape. There are plenty of missteps and disasters in Scribble and the Stash Riders’ journey, and I appreciated how often they met with failure.  The intended rescue was a nearly impossible goal in their universe, so the story would have felt cheap if they’d been able to easily find their way forward.  

It takes a while to get a good sense of the structure and details of Noon’s world, but I enjoyed the process of learning.  The novel feels cyberpunk-ish, but with more of a fantastical flair than I’d expect in the subgenre.  Most of the technology has very little explanation, such that it might as well be magic.  Disregarding how exactly they work, I could see how Vurt feathers would be so addictive (especially the comforting variety).  I’m not really sure I understand why exactly anyone would want to do a yellow feather, though, since most of them seem mortally dangerous and not fun at all.  There is a bit of weird background sexuality to the story as well, both from Scribble’s love for his absent sister and the presence of other sentient modes of being (robo, vurt, dog, and shadow).  As long as this doesn’t bother the reader, the world is very vibrant and creative, and it still retains some mystery in the end.

The language is another aspect that I enjoyed about the novel.  I’m curious to read another of Noon’s books, to see if the style works as well written as it does while listening.  The audiobook narrator gave an poetic shape to Scribble’s rambling narration, with its frequent repetition and emphasis, giving it a naturalness that made it feel like the story was meant to be performed.  The unusual style also made me feel closer and more sympathetic to Scribble, who had already endured so much before the novel even started.  I enjoyed seeing through his perspective, especially since he grew so much throughout the story. He moved from a passive young man trying desperately to avoid his own pain, to someone who could face the ugliness of the world and take action.  His journey was difficult, but I appreciated how it ended.  

My Rating: 4 /5
I was not sure what to expect from Vurt from the beginning, but it was a very engaging and creative novel.  It was also particularly fun as an audiobook, so I would recommend that format.  The story concerns Scribble’s efforts to rescue his sister from the alternate reality of a yellow Vurt feather, as well as his own desires to escape pain through various means (such as drugs).  The world and the fictional drugs were really interesting, and Scribble’s journey was emotional and compelling. I can see why this debut novel received award attention, and I expect I will read more of Noon’s work in the future.

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