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Living In A Gloopy World
interviewed by Tom Matic
Born in Droylsden, Manchester in 1957, Jeff Noon has become almost as synonymous with the city as Joy Division and The Happy Mondays, through his futuristic fictional world of Vurt feathers and Vaz. However, before embarking on his novelistic career, Noon's primary writing form was as a dramatist. In 1985, his play Woundings about the Falklands War won a playwriting award at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, where he briefly became the playwright in residence. When his initial success foundered, he resigned himself to a career selling other people's books at Waterstones. Then his luck changed again, when Steve Powell commissioned him to write a novel for his new publishing company Ringpull.
Without further ado he sat down at his typewriter and bashed out the opening sentence:
"Mandy came out of the all-night
Vurt-U-Want, clutching a bag of goodies." Vurt (1993), the stream of
wild and hallucinatory adventures that followed, won the 1994 Arthur C. Clarke Award. In
1995, he followed this with the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and Pollen,
a futuristic thriller set in the futuristic yet familiar Manchester of Vurt, about a
lethal relative of hayfever that anticipated the SARS epidemic of 2003. Disease is also the
subject of his latest novel
Falling Out Of Cars, this time
an epidemic of a more mental kind, the 'Sickness', which infects the very fabric of the
novel itself, whose haunting tagline is "if you can read this, it means you're still
alive." Pollen was followed by Automated Alice in 1996, and then came
Vurt's prequel Nymphomation, which satirised the National Lottery. If
Nymphomation had game theory as its subject matter, one of his latest pet projects
is the online writing game Mappalujo and he has been collaborating with Steve Beard
on the website.
Because of his long association with Manchester, I was surprised to find Noon living down south in Brighton, which itself features in some chapters of Falling Out Of Cars. However for the most part it takes to the open road, though as Noon and I discussed, once you scratch the surface, it is perhaps not as much a departure from his earlier work, as it seems at first. So fasten your seatbelts as Jeff tells us about fictional gender bending, genre-bending, surreal estate agents, digital meltdown and writing the script for the Vurt film (but he doesn't like to talk about that much).
In the realm of the senses
I just wanted to start with your thoughts about where you think the science fiction genre's going, whether it's going anywhere, just having read your latest novel Falling Out Of Cars, it seems like the genre elements are quite toned down.
Yeah, I suppose so. I mean I still think it's a kind of classic science fiction in the sense that it's a fiction about science - it's about the science of information theory rather than anything hard. So I mean in that sense I'm just trying to do a different kind of book about a different kind of science, so there are genre elements in it, given that I did want this time to write a different kind of book. I don't know really. I think one of the things I've kind of been missing from science fiction (it's going to sound weird this), but it's detail. And by detail, I mean science fiction has a great temptation to write big things, about giant spaceships, or like you know describe the inside of a computer and visualised world, always quite big. But what you hardly ever get is the sensation of what it's like to touch things that are weird and strange. So as I started to write this project - and my projects always just arrive out of different things, I don't sit down with some master plan - I started to realise that Marlene the narrator actually had an intense relationship with the physical world. And that gave me a real opportunity to really key into the different senses of smell and taste and touch and so on. So I wanted to write a book that was crammed with detail, but the big picture was just a blur. And Marlene's condition, which is this kind of noise sickness, replicates that in a sense. One character at one point says, "there's no big picture any more," and I think that's kind of true of the world as well.
Yeah, it does seem like that. Was it a conscious decision to write a novel as a first person narrative with a female perspective?
As I started to write it, there's always a kind of fluid period, when I first get an idea and I first start writing. Nothing is fixed. And in that moment, which can say be about 50 pages in, the sex of the characters can change, the tense of the book can change, the viewpoint - it might be the third person to second or to first person and so on, and I can't remember the exact details of that. But there would be a moment maybe when all of those people in that car, not all of them would be the sex that they are. But as I started to write the book, for some reason I started to think of it as a kind of female book. Sounds daft, doesn't it? But in the sense that there was just something about the story and about the way that the noise was affecting people, that seemed to (I don't know how I'm going to say this without sounding really wanky), it seemed to be about feelings rather than rational processes of the mind. And it seemed to be about, as I said before touching things, and understanding things through touch and things like that. So I thought there might be a kind of female sensibility to the book, a kind of yin, I suppose, might be a better way to talk about it, rather than yang.
Because I do get the sense from reading some of your other work, and reading some interviews as well, there's a sort of feeling that you're trying to counteract the sort of machismo of a lot of SF, the obsession with - like you say - big thrusting metal spaceships. And a lot of the technology you write about, like the Vaz, it's all very liquid, fluid and...
Yeah, I love all that.
I think we live in a gloopy world to be honest. I mean I think that's where all that comes out of. There are no fixed boundaries any more, and that's an exciting and a dangerous thing. So I think we should celebrate that as much as we can, and I'm really firm about that. I suppose I'm against that kind of machismo. At the same time, I'd like to just say that sometimes my subject matter is masculinity, and sometimes I will just look at that in a certain way. So I don't want to be a kind of hippie about it or anything, sometimes I just focus on different things. Some of my books, definitely I would... It's like the French you know the French have the different male and female nouns for everything?
I suppose you could go through anybody's books and say that's a female book, le book, and that's la book, that's how I would see it.
Seeping through the boundary
Just going back to the SF genre in general, I know you don't see yourself exclusively as a genre writer. Do you feel like the SF genre is going nowhere, or do you feel it's got anything left to do?
There's a lot of contradictions in the SF genre, and that in itself should make it very interesting. Whenever things are contradictory, I get excited then, because if you said to me "Jeff, is your work science fiction?" I could say 'yes' with complete conviction. If you asked me again, "is your work SF?" I could also say 'no' with complete conviction. So the question's slightly wrong, because you're asking me a question I can answer 'yes' or 'no' to, and they're both equally valid. So in that sense I kind of keep all my options open on that. SF should by its very definition be about change, it should be about looking at the world in a different way from mainstream fiction, it should be about grasping the modern world, about looking at the modern, contemporary world through a distorting lens, in an interesting way, so you get a different viewpoint, a different angle on reality. That, I think, is when SF is at its most powerful and its most useful, etc.
The other thing of course that SF does immensely well is pure escapism, and there's a kind of battle I think that goes on between those two things, and different authors pitch themselves in different places in relationship to those two urges towards challenging fiction and pure escapism. If you saw the genre, genres, any genre is going to have a set of rules about it, crime, romance, SF, fantasy, those rules are what make that genre what it is. The fact that there are rules there also makes it inherently quite conservative, because if you follow the rules, you can produce the goods. If you saw SF as a kind of space, a land if you like with a boundary, at the centre you would have pure, escapist fiction, along the boundaries you would have the really extremely challenging stuff. Now outside the boundary you've got mainstream culture. Now what mainstream culture does, is it has a relationship with SF at two points, and the main point it has a relationship with is at the very centre - it reaches in, grabs from the centre. So Star Wars, The Matrix - things like that, they're grabbing from the very centre. It also has a close relationship with the boundary, and the boundary's where I really get excited, because the boundary's porous, things seep through; they don't grab, they just seep through. So you could see something like The Naked Lunch as a book that exists on the boundary. People are influenced by it. They don't go to see it in their masses, and spend lots of money to see it, but it seeps through into society and has an effect, and I hope that my work can have some little effect in that way. What I'd like to see is for SF as a genre, as a whole to give more emphasis to those boundaries, because there's some exciting stuff there. And I've noticed just in my career - because I started to feel trapped and tied to escape, and I made a really conscious effort to get my books in the mainstream fiction sections of bookshops, etc. And stuff like that. But I've seen people that started out at the same time as me - right, I'm not going to name names - but writers that I'd think were "OK, we're together, this is good, it's exiting, it's a new kind of British SF," what happens, as your career progresses, if you don't make it in that area, there is a great tendency to move towards the centre. You must agree, you've seen writers do that, yeah? So again it's really sad when that happens, because the boundaries are great, you know, we should live in the boundaries.
Do you think that would have happened to you if Ringpull hadn't commissioned Vurt?
I don't know. It's difficult to know. Steve Powell, who started Ringpull, asked me to have a go at writing a novel. He asked me at a certain point in my life. If he'd asked me say a month later, I might have produced a really mainstream novel for him. If you go back to what I was writing about before I wrote Vurt - I was a playwright for about eight years - my subject matter would range over a lot of different areas. Some of it was really kind of nitty-gritty political stuff, a lot of stuff about relationships between men and women, stuff about pop culture and so on. So if he'd asked me at a slightly different time, he would have got an entirely different book, so it's difficult for me to go back that far. But also it's difficult asking writers questions about their first novels, because when you write a first novel, you don't know what you're doing, you don't know what you're standing for, you don't know what you represent or anything, you're just writing. And it's only later on that you start to have an inkling of "oh, that's what that's about." So just to clarify that, I wasn't trying to set myself up with Vurt as some kind of cutting-edge figure or anything. I was trying to do different things entirely. One of the things I was trying to do was to create a novel about Manchester that no-one had written before, and give a language to the city that no one had done before, and an alternative vision to it. So that's just one example of one of the things I was doing, which had nothing to do with SF at all.
Reading Falling Out Of Cars (FOOC), it felt at first like quite a departure in that there wasn't so much of the wordplay and the futuristic street slang. It might have been something to do with the subject matter perhaps. Was it a conscious decision to make the language plainer?
Yeah, it was conscious that, for a various reasons, just one of them, I'm just getting to a certain age where I no longer have much interest in that kind of street stuff anyway. But on a kind of artistic level, I wanted to try and control that, because I've got that, and I know that I've got all that wordplay stuff, and I love language and everything. But I wanted to write a book where I controlled it more, and I let it out, let it seep out. So as the book progresses, the language starts to change, because the book is the journal of a person who's essentially going mad, and the journal is infected as well with the disease. And I knew that as the book progressed, and as I come to the later stages, that disease would start to affect the words and so on. And so Marlene starts to lose the power of describing things. And then she seems to go through that, and a sort of poetic sensibility arrives, where she starts to... The day I wrote the page where she goes up in the lift - do you remember that bit?
Suddenly the language starts being really poetic. And that came as a real surprise to me, and I thought, 'Oh God, she's entering a kind of realm here! Something's happening to her.' And so I kind of pushed that, and then by the time you get to the last page, this is pure poetry if you like, it's a pure lyrical outburst, which I see as a kind of hope, I suppose. Because I knew that the book was going to be quite downbeat, quite melancholic, and I didn't want it to have a cheesy ending or anything, I tried to use the language to give a sense that Marlene was changing and that she was different. She starts out as a pure journalist and ends up as a poet.
The other thing I noticed about the ending was the direct address to the reader.
'If you can read this sentence...' The whole way that I wrote this book is so weird. It's the weirdest book in terms of just me sitting down to write, but the first sentence I ever wrote of this novel, was 'if you can read this sentence, it means you're alive'. And I can remember saying that to some friends of mine, 'I've got this idea, and it starts with this sentence and they were really excited by that.' And the sentence goes through the novel in various ways. So that was the beginning of it. I had a lot of different ideas in my mind, different stories, and none of them seemed to be that connected, and... It sounds mad this, I don't know if it's of interest to you, but I was really stuck and I didn't know what to do, and I had this vague idea about noise, I had this story about the teenage girl called Tupelo who was obsessed with chess. And I had this old short story that I didn't collect in Pixel Juice, because I knew the idea was too good, and that was about a bunch of people who were kind of chasing after the pieces of Alice's mirror. And I thought, 'OK I won't put that in Pixel Juice, because I'm going to go back to that, and it's too good to chuck away on a short story.' So I had that idea, but none of it seemed to go anywhere. I didn't have a style or a voice or anything, so basically what I did was I opened myself up to chance, and to do this I went back to the notebooks.
When I first started being a writer as a playwright years and years ago, I started keeping notebooks, and I'd just jot down every idea I had. There's about 500 more ideas jotted down. And I opened it random and picked an idea. And I said, 'whatever it is, whatever page I turn to, no matter what it is, that's going to be the opening.' And I won't go into details about what was on the page, but it was about some people in a hotel room and some of them were soldiers, and one was a journalist. So I started to write this scene with this journalist, and I made him into an ex-soldier, and put Tupelo in. I kind of extracted Tupelo from this other story I'd started, and the chess and all that, I put all that in. I just started to write, and before I knew it, Marlene had had this attack by the noise and she'd been overwhelmed by it, and she's kind of collapsed and fainted. And I've got this chapter from something or other. So I turned to another idea in the notebooks, and that led me to write the episode where Peacock goes into the caravan.
Yeah, good bit that. And I realise that this chapter actually had to take place before the first chapter I'd written. But for some reason I kept it where it was. So what we've got at the moment is Chapter One, some people in a hotel room. Chapter Two speaks of an incident after the few hours before Chapter One. I then went on to write Chapter Three. Chapter Three carries on from Chapter One. Marlene goes into the toilet, looks in the mirror. That's when it all started to come together about the mirror and about Alice. All these stories started to come together then. And I thought, OK you can actually do this. This could be a really interesting way to structure a novel. So actually that's how I wrote it: I would write a chapter that led on to the future, then alternately I would write chapters that led back to the past. I had this great scheme in my mind that the penultimate chapter you would read would reach right back into the past and tell the beginning of the story. The last chapter you would read would tell the end of the story. So that's how I actually put this book together. When I'd done the first draft and I showed it to people, of course people were completely and utterly confused by this forwards and backwards in time thing. So what I did is I unravelled it, put it into chronological order. When I started to read through it for the second draft, these really weird kind of jump-cuts and these kind of fractures as I call them appeared, because I hadn't written it straight on. And I see that as a kind of metaphor for the broken mirror. So it's almost like the book is putting itself together piece by piece. That's what it really felt like, because there were these jagged edges of each chapter. It's an incredible way to write a book! It's a great way to write a book, to start in the middle.
Yeah, because there are often chapters where it all builds up to this climax or crisis, and it seems that in the next chapter, it's all been forgotten about. It does have that fragmented feel to it.
Missing pages from the journal, the missing bits from Marlene's psyche... So that didn't answer your question about the direct address. 'If you can read this sentence, it means you're alive', then again that's part of the kind of hope, the little nugget of hope at the end of the book, because it means that in some way the journal has been cleansed. And I had the idea of the lucidity engine, which I mention a few times and people just dismiss it. So that kind of sets something up there. I didn't want to write a book that was kind of obvious and had an ending, because I wanted it to be a journey and I wanted the journey to continue right to the last page. That was really important. So it wasn't a kind of closure book at all.
Curiouser and curiouser...
I want to relate it (FOOC) to Automated Alice, because Alice features in that of course, and she features in a lot of your other books.
Alice is mentioned by name in every book I've written, except for Cobralingus, where just the title Through The Looking Glass is mentioned I think.
Yeah, because in Automated Alice, she goes into the clock, so it's kind of about time travel.
It's about pieces of the jigsaw as well.
Again yeah, and the idea that time travel is actually fiction, it's the writer who makes the character travel in time.
It is strange, isn't it? When I got the idea that you could actually reuse the idea of the broken mirror - I love that idea - that gets smashed into 30 pieces of glass, I started to think, 'Oh God, but it's like a fairy tale, we don't want to go back to all that, we want to move on, we want to write a book about today's world.' It'd have to be really dark, the way I did it, and I suddenly realised, 'hang on a second, this is a book that I'm writing, so why shouldn't the world of one book seep into the world of another book.' It's not like the world of the book is seeping into reality, it's seeping into my novel. It's almost like there is fiction world, where every book exists and you can take characters from different novels, and they would exist in this world [laughs].
The accidental novelist
Yeah, I was going to ask you if you were going to write another book that deals with time travel (although you've said in a sense that FOOC does, because of the way that time is fractured, but not overtly).
I don't know to be honest; I don't know what I'm going to write next. I had a really great idea for a novel, and I just picked this J.G. Ballard up and he's got the same idea in one of his short stories, so that's that one gone. [Laughs] I have various ideas at the moment, I don't have a kind of masterplan; it's very accidental what happens next.
You've been a punk musician, playwright, started out as a painter. You've gone back to playwriting recently, haven't you?
I tried to, yeah, because we had a play on at Sheffield, The Modernists. It wasn't a fantastic success unfortunately. I wish it had been. But it is something I'm still interested in, and if I get ideas that are dramatic I will go with them.
And also you're getting into screenwriting as well, for film version of Vurt.
Could you tell me more about that?
[Laughs] I don't want to! No, I will, I'm just writing a piece for the website any way. It's really bad, man, really depressing. But basically Pathé have not renewed the option, so the rights are now back with us, and Ian Softley the director's still interested, keen, I think, I hope, and he's looking to find new producers for it. It's bad. It's depressing. And everyone warns you that it's difficult, then it happens and you've got to start again. So it's not something I particularly want to talk about.
Keeping it weird
I asked you about the sense in which FOOC is kind of a departure from your other work. Basically I read most of it, then I'd read a bit of Vurt as light relief, because FOOC is quite sombre in tone. But then I realised that there's a quite a few similar things going on in both. There's a writer/narrator, who's constantly turning to writing to help deal with the various things that are going on around him/her, who's also coping with loss and pain. There's quite a lot of pain there.
It's something that goes all the way through my work, the idea of the kind of broken family. In nearly every book I write, there's a group of people who have created a kind of artificial family for themselves to replace their own broken families. You can't escape your own subject matter. It's really weird, the more you write, the more you realise it, you can't escape your own subject matter, and you really try to sometimes, and it just seeps back in, it's really strange. We were talking about Ballard before, and he can't escape his subject matter. It just comes back. It's interesting that subject; why that happens, what it means. Yeah, I don't see FOOC as a massive departure myself, I can see it as a book on a line of me writing and discovering certain things and trying different things and that. But I'm still Jeff Noon; I've still got my themes. One day soon, it might be the next book, I don't know yet, I really want to have a go at writing a straight, down-the-line novel in which nothing weird happens, just to see if I could try, because I have tried in the past, but weird stuff always happens [laughs]. But that's one of the kind of little tasks I've set myself in the future at some point, because I've got a lot of stories that aren't weird, and it'd be good to get them out there. Because I've always got the language thing anyway, and it'd be good to turn that language on reality in a much more obvious way than I've been doing up to now.
Talking about your use of language, in Nymphomation the words almost seem to copulate with each other, in keeping with the game theory stuff about numbers mating with each other.
Nymphomation was the start of my period in which I really started to experiment with language. And that's a kind of dub remix energy of prose, and that kind of goes through Needle In The Groove and into Cobralingus. Really that was a kind of thing I had going there. Books are really strange, because as the 20th century went on and you got all this kind of modern art and modern music and so on, and people railed against it, but eventually they started to come round to it. And in almost every art form, the avant-garde affects the mainstream. In novels, it's different. We are essentially 19th century novelists writing for a 19th century audience. We view books in the same way, and we look for stuff that a Victorian reader would look for when we praise good storytelling, well-turned prose, good characters and stuff like that. So in the world of books, it's really frustrating if you are kind of experimental in any way, it's quite a frustrating art form to be in, because you do tend to find yourself battling against these walls all the time, saying 'you can do this with language, you can do that with language, but you can still be a storyteller as well!'
Could I just ask you to say some more about the analogies you were drawing between novels and other art forms, e.g. the most mainstream popular music is in fact experimental, whereas the novel's stuck in the 19th century.
There are certain writers who come along, like Thomas Pynchon and William Burroughs, people like that. But it doesn't seem to seep through to a kind of mainstream expression. That's the problem. It remains kind of ring-fenced almost. Go on, ask me another question.
What music were you listening to when you wrote FOOC?
I've been listening to classical music a lot lately, believe it or not! But the big influence on it was kind of free, improvised jazz, if it you call it jazz - improvised music, Charlie Parker, Derek Bailey. When they go the theatre, I actually had it on the outside wall, 'Derek Bailey is God' in graffiti in the early draft! But that went. But it seemed to me that that was the kind of music that would work there, improvised, music. So when they go into the club, that's the music I describe. That's what they're listening to essentially, improvised music. Because the Noise destroys melody basically, so people rediscover a different kind of music making, a kind of collective music making. But I listen to music, I just love it, just devour whatever. What have I listened to recently? Bhangra, that's good. Bollywood music. All stuff like that, I've been getting into. Strange stuff. I'm always really very curious about how people express themselves with music all around the world, and at different times. I've been listening to a lot of mediaeval music. That's good stuff.
Because music was a theme of your previous novel, Needle In The Groove.
Yeah. Also I've used music as a way of making language. I've taken a lot of ideas from music, and tried to apply them to words. So that in sense, as well as subject matter, it's also had a lot to do with the form of the words. That period of my work is most probably coming to an end.
What are you working on at the moment?
Have you seen the website, Mappalujo?
I'm doing that as a book basically with Steve [Beard]. We've done a lot of work on that, with absolutely no money at all. We're absolutely crazy, y'know. But I really love books. I'm actually quite anti-digital in a lot of ways. So we've done a lot of work on that, we've added stories, and it's going to be quite interesting I think. There was a real kind of game-playing thing going on between us, and I think it'll really work as a book, as quite an exciting visual thing, and lots of different styles, and some really, really interesting stuff in there. Again that's the kind of really experimental side of me that has to be satisfied every so often. And then I've got to do a novel really. I did a lot of work on the Vurt film, and that really ate into my time, and that's kind of been stalled, so I've got to get back on it and write a story - and make a living.
You wrote a stage version of Vurt.
I did, yeah, that was good.
Have you got any ideas for new novels?
I always have about three ideas. That seems to be the standard thing. I get bored of one, so I jump to another, and hopefully something will click, like 'OK, that's what it's about, I can do that now!' But until that happens, you're exploring in the dark.
Chart-topping elves and surreal estate agents
What do you think of genre tags that people talk about now, like 'slipstream' and 'the New Weird'?
Is it science fiction? Another thing that we haven't really talked about...
Cross genre fertilisation, and so on.
This really is very specifically to do with Britain. In the paper about three weeks ago, they did a little mini-chart, Top Ten SF books, and none of them were SF, they were all fantasy. So basically...
What like elves and dwarves and things like that?
Or Terry Pratchett and stuff like that. So as far as I can tell, there's only one British SF writer who gets in the Top 20 every time, and that's Iain M. Banks, and the only reason he does it, is because he's known in mainstream fiction. Now I know Iain loves SF, and that was his first love. If Iain M. Banks had made it as a SF writer, I don't think his books would get into the Top 20. It's really difficult in Britain if you're an SF writer, just because the genre doesn't sell that well, compared say with crime.
There's no equivalent of someone like P.D. James.
No, nothing like that. The closest you'll get is somebody like Pratchett, but that's firmly in the kind of fantasy and comic genre. But SF, no, people don't take to it. Oh, they're quite happy to go in their billions to see The Matrix, but they don't to buy SF books in the same numbers. So there's a problem there, just getting yourself above the radar. I mean, I'm not above the radar, and I'm one of the more well-known SF writers in Britain, I think. But I'm not above the radar in any way. I'm not a person the mainstream media talk about, and so it's difficult. So you can mention things like 'New Weird' and the cutting edge of British SF and whatever's going on, but whatever's happening, it's happening in the dark. And that's great, and it's good fun, and it's really great to do that, and you can have a really exciting time doing it. But eventually, coming back to that point I've made quite a lot in this interview, the cutting edge has to infiltrate the mainstream. If it doesn't, it dies, y'know? It just becomes a group of people in the dark celebrating their own weirdness, which is nothing more than fun for a select few. I don't know what the answer is, I really don't in Britain, I don't know what you have to do to make the British public sit up and take notice of written SF in the same way they do of Star Wars and The Matrix and everything. Do you have any ideas about that? It seems to me it's a real quandary, and I've often wondered if the British SF community actually asks itself this question.
Well, it probably doesn't.
It probably does in really obscure little journals. So there's a problem. You can be as weird as you like, but if you're not affecting people with it, you're not affecting society, you're not talking about society in a certain way, it becomes just another kind of escapism. Neuromancer's a kind of fantastic, cutting-edge book, but by the time you reach The Matrix, it's kind of about real estate, some people fighting over real estate... Surreal estate... Unreal estate! That's why they're dressed as estate agents. So it becomes quite conservative. It's just about two groups having a fight. Cyberspace is such a fantastic idea. My take on it was that it was basically a kind of internal landscape, it was about the human and psyche and a way of exploring that, and that's what I try to do in my work. So basically what's happening there, if you go back to that image I had at the beginning of SF as a space, so the idea of cyberpunk travels from the boundary to the centre. And now, when people talk about cyberpsace, they talk about it in the same way that they talk about outer space, as a really interesting, groovy, fantastic thing to look at and experience, something weird and wonderful. So it loses its quality of... You know, Neuromancer's great because it had that quality of looking at the world in a really exciting way, d'you know what I mean? When I first read, it was like, 'wow, yes, that's exactly what the world's like!' But he just filtered it through his own particular lens. And so again with the whole digital culture thing I think is quite interesting. And SF's relationship to digital culture almost is some kind of bizarre marriage now. And until they get divorced, I don't know what they're going to do! So you'll get something like The Matrix, which is about digital life, but it's produced in the most kind of unreal way, where it's not people hitting each other any more, and they're not actually flying through the air, they're on strings, and it's really bizarre, how it's become. You know the last 15 minutes of Blade Runner?
What that awful, cheesy car advert they tacked on?
No, not that! The fight at the end.
It's just that sense of two people hurting each other in a confined space. But with digital culture you tend to lose that. Digital culture as it goes on has actually become quite bland. There's no visceral physicality any more. So that's one of things I'm really interested in doing with FOOC, to talk about what happens when the digital age ends. And that seems to me a really legitimate thing for SF to look at, to sever its bond with cyber-culture and all that, because it's been going on for 20 years now, come on! What happens when the digital age ends? What will that be like? How will we decode all this information we've encoded? What will we do with it all? That's going to be a really interesting problem for society, because the last time we encoded information to such an extent I think was the invention of the alphabet most probably. I mean, it's that massive. Of course, it's a lot more difficult to decode stuff than to encode it. So that's quite interesting. FOOC is almost like it's moving through the funeral if you like of the last days of digital culture, and the empire of signs is in ruins, it's collapsing around them. So one of the things I'd be interested in looking at in another book later on is what happens after digital culture, what replaces it and how we would cope with that. I'm giving too much away here.
That's fine, you give away as much as you like!
A grain of truth
Going back to what you were saying earlier about how to get SF into the mainstream, one of the things you did with Pollen and Nymphomation, was to incorporate elements of a genre that has done so to a greater extent: mystery thriller, crime and detective fiction.
Yeah, that's something definitely I want to look at again. Really. Certainly.
There's some of that in FOOC as well.
Yeah, it seems to me that that is a really great thing to do now. The way that I was talking before about how there's no big picture, it's all about grain. I'm talking about grain. I love talking about grain. My favourite works of art in any genre or form are the ones that have grain in. And by grain, I mean the marks that Vincent van Gogh makes, or the finger squeak when someone plays an acoustic guitar. Grain: that's the physical aspect of doing stuff in the world, and that's the other reason digital expression interests me so much, because you don't get the idea of grain in it. And the idea in FOOC, that there's no bigger picture, just moving through the objects, it's almost like there's no map of the wood, it's just these leaves. And you move from a leaf, and put together the end of a twig, there's a branch, and a tree, and 'oh, look', and how that tree relates to that tree. You walk, and you make your own path through the wood. That's what FOOC is. There's no map. The three-act structure of Hollywood is the map of the wood. That's how they start: here's the map of the wood. You've got to get from A to Z. I'm staying no, you start from Q, yeah? And you move and you explore the trees, and you move and you find your own path through the woods. What was the start of this question?
I was just asking about the elements of mystery thriller and detective fiction in your work.
The great thing about a mystery thriller, even a really conservative one, is that what they're actually investigating is grain, if you think about it. It's like, 'ah, a spot of blood: why is that blood six feet away from the body. It's like Columbo. It's like saying, 'ah, yes, the milkman arrived at 9.30, why didn't you bring the milk in?' It's plucking up grains and just looking at them. And then slowly you put that together, and a solution starts to arrive. So I think the detective thriller is a really good structural template to explore the world that we live in, where the big picture disappears. So if you look at something like James Ellroy, he starts off with grains, slowly he puts together this massive picture that involves corruption at a really high level, so he's put together a web. So, yeah, definitely, I'll come back to that. And I'll come back to it in a much more obvious way, a really straight-down-the-line Raymond Chandler tough guy kind of thing, because I do like that kind of stuff.
Yeah, because it's also about identity as well.
Oh, I love all that! That's my big thing that! That really is, and we've had such fun with Mappalujo, with all that. Yeah, FOOC, identity, who the hell am I, and how do I know in this postmodern fucked up, crazy world. And what do I look like?
Because (for those who haven't read it) the characters in FOOC can't look in mirrors, due to the all-pervasive Sickness.
I wrote The Modernists about at the same time as FOOC. In The Modernists, because that's set in the time of the mods, they never stop looking in mirrors in that play. They're checking themselves all the time, in their mirrors, and on their scooter mirrors, everything. So it's almost like I was writing these two things, one about a group of young men who can't stop looking in mirrors, the other about this woman who mustn't look in mirrors.
How would the mods cope with the world of FOOC?
They wouldn't. They'd kill themselves. They'd go crazy. They'd be the bloke in the next room, you know, who kills himself. On Wednesday, I'm seeing these people about the film version of FOOC. It's really early days yet. I'm trying to get funding from the Arts Council. I'm really excited about that, because I can see how you could do that as a film. You'd have to clarify it, make it a bit clearer, but there's a good story there if you strip away all the stuff, it's actually quite a good story about Alice and all that. And I'd really enjoy that.
But it could work. Have you seen the film version of Morvern Callar?
No, but I was thinking of something like Memento. Now that's a real grain movie if ever there was one, investigating the grain of your own life...
So that's the way forward then.
Incorporating the mystery thriller into the mix.
Oh yeah, keeping it weird. I'd like to do that, if possible. But also keep it real. I'm just absolutely rambling now.
Yeah, I'm sorry, I'll let you get back to work.
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Fiction by Jeff Noon
Automated Alice (1996), Cobralingus (2000), Falling Out of Cars (2003), Needle In The Groove (2000), Nymphomation (1997), Pixel Juice (collection, 1998), Pollen (1995), Vurt (1993)
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