Jeff Noon’s debut novel Vurt was a game-changer when it was first published, breathing new life into the genre and winning the Arthur C Clarke Award in 1994. Many people reading it in the early 90s recognised themselves and their lives in this story of young people, northern urban deprivation, diverse communities living side by side, drugs and clubs. I was not one of them, having lived a sheltered and conventional life in rural Dorset, but I still loved Vurt for its freshness and vibrancy when I read it.
Vurt is the simple story of a man on a quest to find a lost treasure, assisted by his friends. The twist is that the lost treasure is Scribble’s sister, Desdemona. She has been lost to the Vurt, a dreamlike world that is part drug, part immersive video-game, accessed through feathers, some rarer and less legal than others. Desdemona has been swapped for a mysterious alien being that Scribble has dubbed The Thing and hopes to swap back for his sister.
Around this core is built a world that is part aching cool, part Alice in Wonderland fairytale strangeness. Noon’s near-future Manchester is a place of deprived and dangerous council estates full of dogpeople, shadowpeople and people enhanced with robotics as well as humans. Tensions between these communities are rife, despite the vibrant life they bring to the city. Scribble and his friends exist on benefits, on the run from the police and stealing vehicles. Vurt feathers are their escape from this reality, and they spend their time chasing the rarer and most dangerous ones. Scribble, of course, is looking for the mysterious feather Curious Yellow, which was responsible for the disappearance of his sister.
Even 20 years on, Vurt still feels fresh and relevant. The themes of a diverse and multi-cultural society full of tension, and the desire for escape are ones that still have currency. Scribble’s search for Desdemona is a way of dealing with his feelings of grief, guilt and loss. While the odd reference in the novel jars (for example the references to Jimmy Savile as a much-loved cultural icon), Vurt still has a lot of insight about our contemporary society, as the best science fiction should do.
Goodreads rating: 5*