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Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of Jeff Noon’s cult classic, VURT

11 April 2013 Tom Hunter

Originally published in 1993, Jeff Noon's novel VURT went on to become one of the most popular ever winners of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and an instant cult classic. London Calling caught up with Jeff on the day TOR UK publish a new anniversary edition complete with three new short stories and a highly original introduction by fellow Clarke winner Lauren Beukes

London Calling:  In Vurt you write about an alternate Manchester. Was there a particular energy about Manchester when you wrote this that you found particularly inspirational? Was there something about this particular city and this particular era of the early 90s that attracted you?

Jeff Noon: I was never really involved in the whole rave and ecstasy scene in Manchester that much; my inspiration for Vurt comes more from the Punk era. I’ve never been one joining movements, with the sole exception of Punk. So that era – 1976 to 1979 – was my only real engagement with the music scene of the city in any direct, plugged-in manner. I went to gigs every week no matter who was playing, I just went for the social scene. Although, thinking back, even then I was the type to stand on the edge of circles, looking in. I think, and hope, that I write primarily for and about people who find themselves in similar situations.

So, although a lot of people said that Vurt corresponded to their lives and their feelings about Manchester during the 1990s, for me, personally, the novel is more about the late 70s. There was any energy in the city during that time that I felt coursing through my body, whenever I listened to the music, or even just walked down the street. The clothing, the sounds, the way that people looked; it all held a ritualistic power. Of course, I did pick up on some of the (very different) energy of the 1990s version of the city, for the novel, but not nearly as much as the punk era. Manchester, in its various guises, fuelled most of my early novels and stories.

LC: How do you go about extrapolating a city you know in the real world into an alternate near-future place? What was your inspiration for doing this?

JN: Actually, I wanted to create a Virtual England, more than any particular city. It sounds very power-crazed! I can remember talking to friends about a graphic novel in which I imagined an entirely different version of England coexisting with the real one, and that certain characters could jump from one world to the other; they would have different identities in each version of reality. That was my first inspiration.

So, when I started writing Vurt for real, as a novel, that whole Virtual England project suddenly dropped down into a very intense focus on the Manchester that I was seeing around me. I started from the huge, and the suddenly focused on the small. I think Vurt took some power from that plunge into the details. Then I just extrapolated from my own and friends’ lives, exaggerated the events, and sent the narrative off into a real/imagined/virtual space.

LC: What do you think has come true/almost true and what hasn’t come true, looking at your future vision in Vurt?

JN: I found an old copy of Mondo 2000 recently, which was an American magazine of the time that really preached the whole smart drugs, virtual reality goggles, fractalised existence thing. It now reads like a hippy dream. They really imagined that we would all be walking around with these giant headsets on! Science Fiction is as much a victim to fashion as any art form, no matter how much it tries to look to the future.

I’ve never considered my work in terms of predicting a future reality, but as describing my crazed dream of Now. You know, when I first read J.G. Ballard, I thought he was painting my world into place for me, allowing me to think about it in a new, and more interesting way. I believe we are slowly moving into a more liquid state of existence, which I think is what I was really talking about in Vurt. The borderlines between different cultures and modes of living are dissolving. The dream feathers are metaphors for that melting of boundaries.

Probably the best ever offshoot of Vurt was that somebody actually graffitied the phrase ‘Pure is Poor’ on a wall in the Hulme estate (the model for Bottletown in the novel.) I love that bleed-through from fiction into reality.

LC: Do you think non-genre fiction readers would be tempted to get into fiction with a speculative element that’s set in a recognisable landscape, such as a city that already exists?

JN: Maybe, in the sense that a lot of people are put off by SF’s distance from everyday reality, in terms of space travel, aliens and time travel and so on. Of course, they have no problem with these concepts in movies. But novels are very different; they are still tied to a 19th Century aesthetic in so many ways, despite all the experimentation of the twentieth century. So, yes, for some people, an imaginative world that is more obviously connected with their sense of ‘reality’ might be tempting. I’m probably not the best person to ask this question: for me, all art entails an imaginative leap of some kind. A standard Hollywood romcom or a Booker shortlisted literary novel about a married couple’s tribulations are just as far removed from reality as a space opera is. All stories are codified in some way; part of our pleasure as an audience is in the deciphering.

LC: Do you think there is more mainstream fiction with a genre twist published now than there used to be, when you wrote Vurt in the early 90s?

JN: Well, the borderline between the mainstream and science fiction and the genres in general is certainly more porous than it used to be, that’s a fact. I think there can be even more traffic in both directions. But my personal take on this is a bit different from most people’s. This whole idea that one day a science fiction book should win the Booker Prize is, to me, a mistake. To win the Booker you need to write a novel that satisfies certain middleclass tastes; I would hate for SF to have to do that. I think SF should be proud of its pulp origins. I actually see a clearer connection between pulp and the avant-garde than I do between the middlebrow and any of its neighbours. Pulp is the lifeblood of writing; I see it as a laboratory away from the standardised eye where all these weird little experiments are undertaken and strange offshoots are explored. This is, without a doubt, one of the main reasons why I love writing SF so much: it’s driven by an overwhelming desire to explore the ragged, fertile edges of culture.

The 20th anniversary edition of Vurt is available as a gorgeous new hardback book and includes three original new short stories by Jeff, all set in the same vividly imagined world as Vurt, and also features a brand new introduction by Lauren Beukes

Interview by Tom Hunter, editor-in-chief for LondonCalling.com. If you have a great story or event to share with us, you can contact us here

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