December 4th, 2012
In which two men enter and one frisky little blog post leaves…
With his feather-frazzled early fictions (Vurt, Pollen, Automated Alice and Nymphomation), Jeff Noon presented the world with a distinctly British (no, wait – English!) version of cyberpunk – one that side-stepped all those designer shades and phallic head jacks in favour of something that was a little bit less ashamed of its fantastical status. In his short stories (Pixel Juice, Cobralingus) and transitional ode to musical Manchester Needle in the Groove, Noon drifted even further from traditional modes of science fiction, working to match the ever-adapting techniques of then-contemporary electronic music and – in Cobralingus – offering a “how to” guide to the curious reader in the process.
Until recently, 2002′s Falling Out of Cars looked like it might be the last Jeff Noon novel. If the fractured mirror landscape of the book often proved to be as startling and dissociative for the reader as they were for the characters then that was probably a feature rather than a bug – Falling Out of Cars made the fact that all of Noon’s adventures in wonderland had been tainted by life on this side of the mirror horribly clear.
This notion was always there in Noon’s work – no amount of strain is going to make a looking glass show something that isn’t already here waiting to be reflected, after all – but in Falling Out of Cars it became inescapable. This made the subsequent absence of a “new Jeff Noon novel” seem more explicable, if still somewhat tragic – what better note for an author to stop writing on than this, a story about people whose very ability to comprehend the world and words around them was slipping away.
There were some signs of writerly life though, like 2008′s 217 Babel Street - a collaborative hyperlink fiction the served as the real world scaffolding on a fictional location – and 2012 has seen Noon’s strange pollen corrupting the air stream on a previously inconceivable scale. Noon’s endlessly imaginative twitter account is one of the best follows out there for those in a Mindless frame of mind, and if his microfictional “spore” fictions leave you craving more there’s always the echovirus12 account, to which Noon also contributes.
For those who like their fiction to occupy a more traditional form, there’s also a new novel, Channel SK1N, the story of a pop star who finds her skin overridden by the signals all around her as she transforms in a way that blurs the line between broadcaster and receiver. I’ve only just finished reading the book, and I hope you’ll forgive the ecstatic tone of this introduction because Channel SK1N combines the lysergically enhanced rush of Noon’s early fiction with the queasy comedowns of his later work, and in doing so reaffirms sci-fi’s status as the best tool available to writers who want to explore a future that’s here somewhere, already hidden.
Still buzzing off my contact with his SK1N, I got in touch with Noon to discuss his dazzling reemergence as a self-publishing internet invader…
Illogical Volume: It’s been ten years since you slipped through the darkly reflective cracks of Falling Out Of Cars; ?dlrow rorrim eht ni emit ruoy saw woH
Jeff Noon: Falling Out Of Cars seemed like the end of a period in my life, work-wise, and also I’d just left Manchester (my home town), so it felt like a good time to make some changes. I fell into screenwriting, and had some fun days and some bad days in that world. I was working on various scripts for a number of production companies. I also went back into the theatre, which was my first love in writing terms. I did a play for The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield about the early days of the Mod movement and a science fiction audio play for Radio 3. I still hang onto hope regarding the film scripts, but it’s a difficult media to succeed in, no doubt about it. Eventually, I realised that I’d been without a proper audience for 10 years, so I started writing prose again. I dug out Channel SK1N, which I written a draft of a couple of years previously, and started working on that. And that was the transit point.
IV: Has it been difficult to transition back to Universe A, or have the many micro-realities of twitter helped to buffer your re-entry? I mostly ask this because for a writer who rose like a fluorescent Batman from the gaudy Gotham of a pre-internet Manchester, your writing seems uncannily well-suited to these times of ours, as both the image overload of Channel SK1N and the spooky precision of your twitter “spores” so skilfully illustrate.
JN: I’d never actually given up on writing stories and such, during the “dark years”. I mean, I experiment every day with words, shifting them around, searching out new combinations, new coinages, new alchemies. I love all that. The structure and subject matter of Channel SK1N allowed me to incorporate some of those experimental techniques into the narrative. So, on those terms, it wasn’t too difficult to get back on track. It was a matter of refocusing, more than anything else. I just tried to just have fun with the novel, and not worry too much about outcome or reception. To just write and see what happened. And then when it was finished, we decided to go down the self-publishing route, to explore the new possibilities of that sphere. I believe these next few years will be filled with experiments, and only self-publishing gives authors the freedom to do what they want, when they want. Regarding twitter: the spores are an outpouring of my natural self, as an ideas-creator. Twitter gives me the perfect medium to express those ideas via a more or less daily output. I love the engineering aspect of it as well; having to express a story or a feeling within such a tiny realm.
IV: Do you plan to collect your spores in the future? Twitter is almost as cruel as time itself when it comes to swallowing the past, after all…
JN: I will definitely be collecting the spores together in the near future. The volume will be called Pixel Dust, and will include other material as well, including some remixes. There are a number of other very exciting projects coming out of the spores, in music, in digital arts and so on. More news on all that, soon. It’s really funny, because when I started the spores I had no inkling that they would turn out the way they did; lots of different people seem to be very keen in using them as starting points for their own creations. That’s ideal, for me. A short story contains its own interpretation, so it’s quite difficult to follow on from it. But the spores are so tiny, they can be interpreted in many different ways.
IV: I read Channel SK1N after a heavy Ray Bradbury binge and it seemed to have some of the late, great author’s poetry about it – any dark rituals you want to confess to or does this connection only exist in my head?
JN: I read more or less everything by Bradbury in my late teens, early twenties, and I’ve re-read a few of his works over the subsequent years. I really loved his imagery and his atmosphere. I think he was an influence on my books. He was the SF writer who really understood the poetic, romantic nature of the material. And I see myself as following a similar pathway. Also, he had a very personal style, you know? I like writers who you can recognise from a couple of sentences, and Bradbury has that quality. So, with him it’s not just about the plot and the characters, but also with how the tale is told. And he has an extra element, a certain darkness that is never really expressed fully. It’s underlying. Form, content, the shadow. He was the whole deal.
IV: While we’re talking about the poetic nature of your work, did you have any difficulty balancing the sinister with the romantic in Channel SK1N? I’ve never a read a novel that was so in tune with the romance of the busy screen or so attentive to the way these screens consume us, so to experience both feelings in the one book was pretty startling for me.
JN: I’m glad the book affected you this way, because this is very much what I’m aiming for in my work. I really don’t get on with art that tries to coerce you into believing the same things as the artist. So, I always try to present a subject from all angles, to presume that everyone is operating from their own hearts. All the characters, all the machines, all the systems; they all have their own intentions. I try to show these various aspects, as best I can. So Channel SK1N isn’t a novel, I hope, that just says television is bad for you, or that reality documentaries or talent shows are bad, or that commercial pop music is bad. I really wanted to look at the pulse behind all those things. So the protagonist of Channel SK1N, Nola Blue, is trapped in that mediated world to begin with, then she starts to question it, then she attempts to escape it. She’s a human being who has direct contact with the media as a living entity; the TV signal is taking over her body. Sometimes that appears to be a parasitic relationship; later on it’s more symbiotic. But it definitely is a dynamic, changing relationship, it’s not just victim and oppressor. Merging the sinister with the romantic creates a worldview and a way of writing that allows the characters and the subject matter to flourish, to be explored fully.
IV: Having mixed words with music on the Needle in the Groove CD, would you be tempted to go further in this direction? It strikes me that audio-novels could adapt well to the current tech-heavy landscape with the help of crafty thinkers like yourself.
JN: There is a company showing interest in audio novels, but I think just with an actor reading them. I agree it would be very interesting for people to create more involved versions using noises, music, dialogue, description and so on. It would be cool. Maybe, one day.
IV: Your Vurty fictions were formative for many a Mindless man, so I was wondering if there’re any comics built into YOUR foundations, and whether you’ve ever experimented with that form?
JN: I love comics. Always have done since I as a kid, collecting Marvel and DC comics back in the 1960s. In fact, it scares me to think of what I’ve lost over the years: complete early Spidermans, Daredevils, Fantastic Four, and so on. Of course, we were just kids; we loved them for the adventures and the fantasy elements, not for their future value. We didn’t view them as being art, or collectable in any way. We have a great comic shop here in Brighton called Dave’s Comic Shop. I love browsing in there, and I usually end up purchasing something of interest. I really like the way that comic writers and artists have such freedom when it comes to style and subject and form; they offer such a wide variety of formats and storytelling modes, it’s just crazy. Especially when you think of the novel, which in contrast always seems to be a story inside a box. I wish that novelists had the same freedom. So yes, I would love to write a comic one day. It’s on the bucket list. I’d always like to be involved in games creation. There are many ways to tell stories, and I really want to explore all the possibilities.