Vurt is set a future/alternate Manchester. Society now revolves around consciousness-altering feathers that grant access to “vurts” – alternate realities gelled out of humanity’s collective desires.
Noon doesn’t get bogged down in details on what the vurts actually are. Dreams? Cyberspace? An alternate dimension? For story purposes, it’s just another form of “jacking in”; that tireless cyberpunk workhorse.
Blue feathers might lead to Soapvurts – you get to experience life on your favorite TV show. Pink feathers might lead to Pornovurts – detailed sexual fantasies. Yellow feathers are death vurts – trips to places where there might not be a way back.
The book involves a young crustie called Skribbles, along with his vurt-addicted gang, the “Stash Riders”. They cruise Manchester, seeking out new feathers, and new thrills. Some vurt feathers are legal and can be bought in stores, others must be stolen or fought for.
Naturally, the Stash Riders soon get over their heads. Scribbles’ sister Desdemona (who he has sex with inside a vurt, because why not) swallows a yellow feather, and disappears into a vurt within a vurt. Can Skribbles get her back? And what to make of the disgusting slimy creature that came back from the vurt in Desdemona’s place?
Few things were more hip in 1993 than cyberpunk, but Vurt doesn’t fit next to Gibson and Sterling. It’s older, and odder, and not really about technology so much as drugs. It’s a very British book, written in the years when Manchester was Madchester, and MDMA changed the face of the city. It’s steeped in things like rave and acid (musical and otherwise) and captures some of the throbbing, dark madness of the era.
There are no dry reveries to technology, no “like tears in rain…” navel-gazing. I don’t recall one scene where a character uses a computer. Instead, it’s about psychosis and the way personal madness, multiplied out across a multiple people, warps culture in its image. It’s about body heat on the edge of fever, smiles on the edge of rictus, dancing on the edge of demon-possession.
If you want a good book to compare it to, forget Neuromancer. It’s more like those hundred-year-old works of French décadence like A Rebours and Les Chants de Maldoror. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland would also be appropriate.
And unlike most cyberpunk, it’s an exuberant book. Hopeful. Most cyberpunk novels are set in grim hellscapes. Vurt describes a place you’d really want to live in. Yes, the feathers are wrecking many peoples’ lives. So did large rocks in 10,000BC.
We get some genuinely brilliant ideas, such as Tristan and Suze: two soulmates who are literally tied together by their hair – a six-foot-long tangle of dreadlocks that can only be separated by shaving. Countless weird critters make an appearance: there’s a Morpheus-like figure called the Game Cat who helps “kittlings” navigate (again, shades of another famous literary cat, from a hundred years prior).
Vurt is zany and colorful…to a detriment? The book suffers from Tim Burton Syndrome: the setting is so cartoonishly over-the-top that there’s little sense of wonder/dislocation when a character swallows a feather. Alice is already in Wonderland, so to speak. And that’s bad for the characters, who frequently lose track of whether they’re in a vurt or the real world. This does mean the book’s central conceit is robbed of impact.
British 80s science fiction (V for Vendetta, Max Headroom, certain Judge Dredd stories) tended to be “Thatcher, accelerated”. Vurt is more like “drug culture accelerated”, but with many classicist touches that set it apart from something like Trainspotting. Getting “high” with feathers is the world’s least subtle drug metaphor. But it’s also a reference to Icarus’s wings – particularly since the feathers melt once you’ve used them.
Cyberpunk underwent a mainstream explosion at the start of the 90s. But a lot of those books haven’t aged well, because another explosion happened a few years later (the internet), and few cyberpunk authors actually “got” what online worlds would be like (I except Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash).
Cybernetically-modded lowlives and chrome-hipped android girls now just seem weird in light of the turn society actually took. Pollution and crime went down. Megacorporations now own most things, as predicted, but they are more benign than expected – Chiquita hasn’t staged a third world coup d’état in over seventy years, as far as we know.
Even the technical side of cyberpunk now just feels off. Cybernetic implants do not exist as culture-defining products. We are not trying to improve our cruddy bodies but escape them entirely: vurtlike worlds exist everywhere like bindweed: if want, you can be Naruto, an anime catgirl, or Eric Harris’s girlfriend. Johnny Mnemonic involves a “data runner” with 160 Gb of rentable storage in his head – the movie makes this sound like an incredible amount. In 2022, BackBlaze rents that much cloud storage for $0.80 a month. As in, zero dollars and eighty cents.
The future we’re living in is characterized by conformity. Or rather, by individuality expressed in tightly restrictive ways. You can choose the color that surrounds your profile pic on Twitter. But you can’t really speak your mind: you will either face algorithmic or social repercussions. The social aspect is more visible: if Ice Spice started smearing elephant crap on her face to reduce her pores, a million impressionable teenagers would copy her. But the algorithmic aspect is the reason you know about Ice Spice to begin with.
Maverick hackers seem few and far between. The places on the internet that claim to be devoted to free speech immediately become hellish and radioactive. Cyberpunk, in hindsight, owed more to the past than to the future. William Gibson’s “console cowboys” gives the game away. His stories were actually built out of fairly old tropes. They now have value less as predictions of the future than outright fantasies, something Vurt recognizes and leans into, all the way.$i;?>
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