The Many Faces of Science Fiction: A Review of Vurt and Pirate Cinema

After my ambivalent response to The Vorrh I was not looking forward to the other two science fiction novels on the wobbly “to read” pile next to my bed. So I avoided them for as long as I could. Starting off with some nonfiction – Richard Grant’s Dispatches from Pluto, which I highly recommend – I moved on to safe territory with Armistead Maupin’s Mary Ann in Autumn, a welcome return to the Tales of the City universe. Eventually, however, there was no escaping Jeff Noon’s Vurt and Cory Doctorow’s Pirate Cinema. Sure, I could have returned both books to the library unread, but I like to finish a task once I’ve started it. Besides, don’t they say you should not judge a book by its cover?

Whoever “they” are, they are right. I’m glad I persisted. Pirate Cinema, for starters, has something The Vorrh desperately lacks: a coherent plot. Telling the story of Trent, a sixteen year-old northerner who runs away to Big Bad London after this downloading has caused his family’s internet to be cut off, the novel reads like a funky hybrid of young adult fiction and dystopian literature. It’s not very science fiction-y in that its world is very similar to ours, except for a Big Brother-like government that forces even more stringent copyright laws upon its citizens than ours. For our protagonist, who likes to create new cinema out of existing films, this is obviously a problem.

Pirate Cinema, contrary to The Vorrh, is easy to read. No stylistic experimentation here, which makes it suitable for younger or less confident readers. Its depictions of the anarchist underground group Trent joins, and their fight against the government’s interfering with their creativity, are funny and uplifting. I love a bit of good old activism both in real life and in fiction, and boy, Pirate Cinema has plenty of it.

Unfortunately that’s also the novel’s main weakness. The story is clearly inspired by Doctorow’s extra-textual fight for digital freedom, often so much so that it gives the story a preachy vibe. Some scenes consist of nothing but long dialogues about the pros and cons of copyright laws. These sections slow down the narrative, make it feel boring and longwinded, and thus undermine the very message the novel is trying to get across. Which is a shame, for online legislation is something we should all be concerned about. But by discussing the issue to the point where it feels like it’s being shoved down your throat, Pirate Cinema sabotages its own effectiveness as a political text.

That said, at least it made me think, and even if it doesn’t have the same effect on other readers, it’s still a cracking read. Pirate Cinema gave me that warm fuzzy feeling I get when I discover a new writer and realize that they have written loads of other books I can now find and enjoy. Whether the same applies to Jeff Noon, I’m not sure yet. Before I try any of his other books I need to recover from the outright mindfuck that is Vurt.

In Vurt, people get high by shoving feathers down their throat. This causes them to enter the parallel world that gives the novel its name, an experience so exquisite that most people seem incapable of caring about anything else. Protagonist Scribble is harshly jerked from this joyful existence when his sister – with whom he has an incestuous relationship, obviously – disappears during a particularly heavy trip. In return, he finds himself stuck with the Thing From Outer Space an alien with long sticky tentacles and a tendency to attach itself to anything within its reach. Bad deal, indeed.

Compared to Pirate Cinema Vurt is decidedly weird. Its style mirrors its subject matter: if you enjoy the likes of William Burroughs you’ll love this novel. If you don’t, then perhaps it’s not for you. I did like it, even if I sometimes struggled to keep track of the plot. This may seem surprising given my moaning about The Vorrh’s lack of direction, but Vurt always gives you something amazing to look at, even when the plot becomes too dizzying to follow. To give you an idea, we meet a couple who love each other so much their hair has grown into one big dread which permanently links them together. Dogs and humans can and are allowed to mate and have offspring. During his trips Scribble explores magical gardens and meets fascinating creatures, including the aforementioned man-dog hybrids.

While I’m not sure what the novel’s ending was all about, I’m left with a dazzling array of images and ideas to munch on, whereas The Vorrh left me with nothing but frustration. Noon has written several other novels and Pollen seems to be a sequel to Vurt, but at this point I’m not sure I’m quite ready for it yet. I feel like I’ve got a lot more thinking to do before I can handle another ride. I’m sure I’ll give it a try eventually, if only to see what other craziness Noon is capable of.

I’ve been thinking a lot about taste and personal opinion lately, and how it shapes literary studies as a discipline. I’m sure I’ll write about that more coherently at some point. For the moment, I’ll resort to celebrating literature’s diversity, as well as the need  for readers to push themselves beyond their comfort zone. I’ve always loved books that challenge me, take me to worlds I couldn’t possibly imagine myself, and force me to reconsider both my own ideas and my response to confrontations with otherness. Both Pirate Cinema and Vurt have achieved just that and for that reason alone I highly recommend these books.

Image grafixart via Pexels

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