Jeff Noon Essay - Critical Essays

Noon, Jeff


Jeff Noon Vurt

Born in 1958, Noon is an English novelist.

Set in Manchester, England, in the near future, Vurt (1993) concerns a character named Scribble and a group of friends consumed with the search for legal and black market strains of "vurt," a hallucinogenic drug that transports the user into a dream-like world. By placing a colored feather in one's mouth, an individual is able to enter a multilayered world of virtual reality, or, in the Manchester slang of the future, vurt. Ostensibly a love story and mystery, Vurt focuses on Scribble's search for his sister and lover, Desdemona, who remains lost in the vurt; the siblings became separated while on a drug trip inspired by a combination of the "Curious Yellow" and black "English Voodoo" feathers, and Scribble must find a way to retrieve his sister. The novel also features such fantastic creatures as dreamsnakes, robot cops, mutants, and the "Thing-from-Outer-Space," a living, organic manifestation and materialization of the drug vurt.

Winner of the 1994 Arthur C. Clarke Award for Fiction, Vurt was first published in England in 1993 and has been praised for its bleak yet intriguingly conceived portrait of the future and its original and, at times, lyrical language. Much of the critical attention surrounding Vurt has focused on its fragmented narrative and on attempts to classify the novel within a specific genre. Detractors have argued that Vurt fails as a piece of science fiction because Noon refuses to examine the relationship between his dystopic future and the moral and ethical dilemmas posed by contemporary society and technological advancement. Other commentators, however, have favorably compared Noon's "cyberpunk" portrait of the future with other notable works of fantastic literature, including William Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962), and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872). Many reviewers have also seen in Scribble's quest for his sibling an update of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth.

Principal Works

Woundings (drama) 1986
Vurt (novel) 1993
Pollen (novel) 1995

∗This work published in the United States in 1995.

†This work is a sequel to Vurt.


David V. Barrett (review date 21 January 1994)

SOURCE: "Madchester," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 286, January 21, 1994, p. 41.

[In the excerpt below, Barrett relates the plot of Vurt, praising it as "an astonishing novel in story, style and emotion."]

[In Jeff Noon's Vurt] Vurt is a type of virtual reality (but without computers), and a kind of drug. You put a coloured feather in your mouth and you're in a dreamworld—or a nightmare. Scribble is searching for his kid sister (and lover) who went into a Vurt world with him and never came back. He roams the backstreets with a gang of friends, trying to find a dealer who will supply him with a Curious Yellow feather, so he can go back to the same world to find her.

The Vurt worlds are appealing and terrifying, mystical and murderous; the real world is gritty and realistic. Noon's Manchester has Bottletown, a housing estate with a couple of unemptied bottle banks. "When the banks were full, and overflowing, still they came, breaking bottles on the pavements and the stairs and the landings. This is how the world fills up. Shard by shard, jag by jag, until the whole place is some kind of glitter palace, sharp and painful to the touch." The last sentence is a perfect description of the novel, as is this: "Such is beauty, in the midst of the city of tears. In Bottletown even our tears flicker like jewels."

Vurt is an astonishing novel in story, style and emotion. In places it has the lyricism of Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, mixed with the weird and wild fun of Chester Anderson's cult hippy-SF novel The Butterfly Kid and the streetwise cynicism of Kurt Vonnegut at his best. It may be too harsh for hippies, too beautiful for bikers; but its spikiness should appeal to the punks, and its obsession with danger and death should grab the goths.

Russell Letson (review date April 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Vurt, in Locus, Vol. 32, No. 4, April, 1994, p. 23.

[In the following review, Letson offers a mixed assessment of Vurt, arguing that the novel's disparate generic elements do not cohere.]

I know I'm in for trouble when I'm able to finish a book, recognize its virtues, and still not like it—especially when it's an ambitious book that I know is going to be loved by some readers. In the case of Vurt, a first novel by Jeff Noon, and a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, it was mixed feelings at first sight. Take the following ingredients: a gritty welfare-state urban landscape; a gang of young people with not much to do except knock around looking for thrills; drugs or drug-like somethings that supply said thrills; sex and rock & roll (just to keep the trinity together); virtual reality, nanotechnology, artificial intelligences, robots, and bioengineering. Science fiction, right? In fact, probably cyberpunk or one of its cousins.

Now add a multiverse of dreamworlds of varying degrees of reality; a lost love swallowed up in one of those dreamworlds and replaced by a changeling Thing; a mysterious and powerful guide/guardian who knows the secrets of these worlds and can walk up and down in them; a search for an object of power that will give the protagonist access to the world where his lost love waits. Have we fallen through a rabbit hole into another genre? Should that matter?

"Vurt" is future-Brit slang for virtual-reality experiences: not individual drug-dreams, but something more like role-playing games that can be shared with one or more companions. Vurts are products with standard titles and recognized levels of sophistication and danger. The language that describes them combines terminology from film, sound recording, and computer gaming: they are acted, edited, remixed; some have menus. But there is no indication of how they actually work, nor of the economy of which they are part. What's really strange is that the delivery medium for a vurt is a feather, placed in the mouth as if it contained a drug.


(The entire section is 884 words.)

Faren Miller (review date September 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Vurt, in Locus, Vol. 33, No. 3, September, 1994, p. 21.

[In the review below, Miller lauds Noon's use of language in Vurt.]

[In Jeff Noon's Clarke Award-winner Vurt, we're] amongst the Stash Riders, a bunch of druggy kids on the dole in near-future Manchester UK, scruffy, unromanticized, as aimlessly amoral as the worst of Kress's Livers and considerably less picturesque than [William] Gibson's usual cyberpunk lowlives. The virtual reality that gives the book its title is the world of a strange drug (taken in the form of a feather), rather than a realm accessed by computer. The cybernetic element here is the prevalence of robots and cyborged humans with random bits of tech in them—human/machine combinations just as seedy as the ordinary humans, as sad, as hungry for the dreams that only Vurt can provide. Even Gibson's hackers would seem a more energetic variety of outlaw, not content to sit and drool, bleed, or rust away in an inner-city doorway.

Vurt provides dream-triumphs, sensual pleasure, even knowledge, for a weary European country decades ahead of America in its acknowledgement of defeat. An expert known as Game Cat describes the effects of the drug known as English Voodoo: "There is a dream out there, of a nation's second rise: When the dragon is slain and the good queen awakens from her coma-sleep, to a land capable of giving breath to her."...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Richard Gehr (review date February 1995)

SOURCE: "Feather Underground," in VLS. No. 132, February, 1995, p. 14.

[In the following highly favorable review, Gehr offers a stylistic and thematic discussion of Vurt.]

Right away I found myself describing Vurt to interested parties as—ahem—"the Neuromancer of psychedelics," knowing full well I was probably doing both of these socalled science fiction novels a virtual disservice. There would be no Vurt without Neuromancer, of course—just as there would be no Neuromancer without The Crying of Lot 49 or Goldfinger. Like William Gibson's genrewarping cyberpunk howdy, Jeff Noon's debut novel comes nearly out of...

(The entire section is 1437 words.)

Scott L. Powers (review date 3 February 1995)

SOURCE: "Inventive Vurt: Getting High and Lost in Cyberland," in The Boston Globe, February 3, 1995, p. 50.

[In the following positive assessment of Vurt, Powers argues that the novel breaks new ground in the genre of "cyberpunk" fiction and praises Noon's pacing, "visual style," and focus on music.]

In the future—as in the past—there will be drugs. Lots of them. In the future of Jeff Noon's first novel, Vurt, bands of youths moving to techno-trance and occasional punk beats will devote their lives and deaths to drugs, determined to slip through cracks in this world to a separate reality, searching for continually different and higher highs....

(The entire section is 835 words.)

Tom De Haven (review date 5 February 1995)

SOURCE: "The Fickle Feather of Fate," in The New York Times Book Review, February 5, 1995, p. 19.

[An American editor, author of books for children, and educator, De Haven has written several fantasy novels and was instrumental in adapting William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer into a graphic, "comic book," format. In the negative review below, he laments Vurt's lack of moral and social vision, which are typically considered characteristics of science fiction.]

Whether it's set on Planet Earth or Planet X, next week or next millennium, most science fiction pays close, even persnickety attention to the ethical, political and technological facts of life....

(The entire section is 827 words.)

Hal Espen (review date 13 February 1995)

SOURCE: "Virtual Reading," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 49, February 13, 1995, pp. 86-7.

[In the review below, Espen offers a negative assessment of Vurt.]

Virtual reality, true to its name, continues to recede into the brave new digital future. Except for a few tacky theme-park versions, the technology remains a vaporware phenomenon that has yet to escape from the labs and into the real world. For more than a decade, however—certainly since the publication of William Gibson's Neuromancer, in 1984—V.R.'s imaginary analogues have proliferated in the subgenre that Gardner Dozois, the editor of Asimov's Science Fiction, christened "cyberpunk." More...

(The entire section is 1423 words.)