An Interview with Jeff Noon

Potrait by Grant Gee

Jeff Noon was born in Manchester in 1957. He trained in the visual arts and drama and was active on the post-punk music scene before becoming a playwright, and then a novelist. His science fiction books include Vurt (Arthur C. Clarke Award), Pollen, Automated Alice, Nymphomation, Needle in the Groove, Falling Out Of Cars, Channel SK1N, Mappalujo, and a collection of stories called Pixel Juice. He has also written two crime novels, Slow Motion Ghosts and House With No Doors. The four Nyquist Mysteries (A Man of Shadows, The Body Library, Creeping Jenny, and Within Without) explore the shifting intersections between sf and crime. Twitter: @jeffnoon.

IZ Digital: ‘Thank you, clicking person’ feels very current, a story of our time, but also a story riffing on that timeless idea of machines seeking to understand the meatbag world:

We meet where the world is split into a grid of nine squares. Perhaps one day I will see as you see, and view the world in a completely human way.

It is wonderful, and very eerie. When did you first hit on the idea of writing a story that used CAPTCHAs to explore late-Anthropocene insecurities about the future of humankind?

Jeff Noon: I heard about the concept that these grids were being used to teach AIs. It’s one of those stories that might or might not be true. I wanted it to be true! So I applied my usual technique of exploring an idea to its very limits… and seeing what was thrown up. So a voice and a mind arrived, the mind of the AI as it explores the edges of its own possibilities, learning about humanity from these empty, cold, Ballardian landscapes. I wanted the tale to be simple in execution, and not to go on for too long: every story has its natural length. I developed a ‘cool’, slightly detached voice for the machine, but then giving it moments of poetic insight, of emotion even, just here and there: little sparks of fire in the algorithms. Machines and humans are moving closer and closer together, in this story, and almost reaching out to each other. One more paragraph might bring them together… But that would be too much, in short story terms. Sometimes it’s better to let things hang in the air.

IZ Digital: There is something intoxicating about your Twitter feed. I can happily lose myself in it as I scroll down to read more of the fantastika flechettes you fire out into the world. Do you go back and read through your old tweets? Or do you send them out and forget them?

Jeff Noon: I wrote thousands of these tiny, tiny stories years ago for Twitter: it was a major part of my creative flow. That has slowed over the years, but every so often I will come up with a new batch, and also explore the earlier ones, choosing some to retweet, often changing them a little. I was very excited by the idea of creating a story in just a few lines, implying a bigger story that hovers in the background: that was always the ideal. So yes, I do reread them, on a semi-regular basis. Some I erase completely: why, why why did you think that was good enough! But some of them I like enough to make part of bigger stories, and novels. The final lines of my novel Creeping Jenny began life as one of these tweets, for instance. The tweets have a continuing life as a source of ideas.

IZ Digital: Palgrave is publishing Andrew Wenaus’s critical companion to Vurt. From the blurb:

With Vurt, Noon begins his project of rupturing feedback loops of control by breaking narrative habits and embracing the contingent and unpredictable.

That idea of attempting to rupture feedback loops of control is right there in ‘Thank you, clicking person’. Retrospectively, does Vurt seem to you like the beginning of a literary project? As you wrote it, did you have any sense that it would become such an important work?

Jeff Noon: I had a lot of knowledge of science fiction at the time, especially of British SF, so I was aware that a certain kind of story was missing from that body of work. The book existed in my head as a void, as something I wanted to read. Of course, I did not suspect at all that I would end up writing that story! Novel writing crept up on me by surprise: Vurt actually grew out of an abandoned play script. Once I’d started, it all flowed out with little control beyond a nudge here and there. It was the times, the nineties, just  the madness of those days, the celebration of life, and the freedom of expression, the complete lack of fear, the new edges of technology, drugs, music, remixes, the craziness of youth: all that! The culture clashes of the era. It was tremendously exciting. I wanted the words to escape myself, that I might escape into them. I have lots of differing contradictory feelings for the novel, but these days, as I get older, I’m very happy to see that it still lives on, and that new readers are discovering it.

IZ Digital: I was talking to someone today who said that when they read Vurt, they “had the sense that rules were being broken, and something new, rough-edged but beautiful and vital, was being made.” How conscious are you of breaking rules as you write and edit? Is that punk DNA always there in your process?

Jeff Noon: Prog leading into punk leading into rave: it’s all still there, a long-lasting spirit, guiding my hands on the keys. Obviously, your intentions and interests change over time, but I hope my work is always reaching forward, beyond the map’s edge. Science Fiction writers are explorers of strange realms. I’m willing to be surprised by these new realms, as they reveal themselves. And I still write using the same basic method I used back then, one chapter at a time, improvising, taking chances with both form and content, with minimal thinking ahead… until a signal lamp is seen in the distance, a startling event, a moment of revelation, something I can travel towards. I’m very enamoured of story, the pure tale, so any kind of experimentation will always serve the narrative and the characters, rather than being for its own sake. That’s the avant-pulp spirit at work.

IZ Digital: In an interview with Polly Marshall in Interzone #142, you noted that there is a strong streak of conservatism in science fiction. You also talked about moving your books, and books by writers like Pat Cadigan and Paul J. McAuley into the general fiction section of bookshops, so that you don’t lose out on readers who don’t come in looking for science fiction. Today, two decades on, what, if anything, do you think has changed?

Jeff Noon: Oh God, you’re quoting from my youth! I’m much less of a firebrand now, much more open to there being many different types of expression. I don’t keep up with sf to anything like the same degree I used to, so I can’t speak of contemporary works that well. But I think Science Fiction and Fantasy will always have a shifting, perhaps even a love/hate relationship, with mainstream culture, and maybe that’s how it should be. Semi-porous borders are interesting and fascinating both in nature, and in culture. Some interesting things might pass through them, and be transformed by the process. It should be a mutual mutating, shall we say. But for a science fiction novel to really make an impact on the mainstream, it’s needs to be supplying the zeitgeist before the zeitgeist has happened. We see this with Ballard, with Gibson, a few others. I’m not sure if such a book has happened for a while, certainly not to any great extent. Maybe I’m wrong. I’d like to be wrong! The question then becomes: why? What has happened to sf and to society that negates the Shock of the New? How does a work of art stop itself from being simply drawn into the cultural mix, and quickly losing its power?

IZ Digital: Which writers do you admire most stylistically? Which writers do you find yourself continually coming back to?

Jeff Noon: I’ve been reading writers from the decade of my birth, the 1950s. I have a soft spot for novels written in the typewriter era, because of the limitations of the medium, and the way in which it forces writers to get it ‘right’, earlier on; so books from that era can seem fresher than books which have been endlessly rewritten on word processors. I know, because I do it! Guilty as charged. So I’m quite jealous of those earlier writers, in a way. I’ve been reading the short stories of John Cheever. His story ‘The Swimmer’ is a prefect expression of a singular idea (a man decides to travel home by swimming across all the swimming pools along the way, in people’s gardens, public baths, etc.). It gets weirder as it progresses, and he starts to suffer from severe personal dread. And the ending is great. It was made into an equally brilliant film starring Burt Lancaster. Stylistically, my tastes change. I don’t have one particular style that I come back to. I like Iris Murdoch, I’m addicted to Simenon’s Maigret mysteries. I read and reread Patricia Highsmith with great pleasure. All very different writers. Many of the writers I used to read, I no longer look at. But they’re still there, as a background to my work, and my world. As for writers I keep coming back to… Well, I’m currently reading Stephen King’s It for the third time. I can’t imagine I will ever get bored of that story, not so much the horror aspects, more the characterisations of the people, both as adults and children. And the novel’s structure appears to be all over the place, but a tighter grid-work reveals itself through time.

IZ Digital: What stories are you working on at the moment? What can Jeff Noon fans look forward to next?

Jeff Noon: I’m working on a big collaborative novel with a fellow writer, Steve Beard. I guess it’s closer to Fantasy than anything I’ve done before, our take on that genre. It grew in an interesting way. For years now, Steve and I have been creating, recording, cataloguing an imaginary city. We have histories going back to the arrival of the first people, we have origin myths, systems of magic and science, different creeds, races, tribes, etc. Politics, religions, buildings, place names. But we never knew what it was going to be. It started out as an outline for a TV series. We also had a period where we thought of it as the basis of tabletop role-plying game. And then one day Steve mentioned an idea, of a contemporary reimagining of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a journey up the Thames, through London, onto the source. I said, well that could be our Fantasy City story. That was the starting point, the seed. So we concentrated all out efforts into that project, using the massive amount of material we’d built up over the years as a trove of images, events, characters, slang terms, etc. It’s great fun working with a partner on a novel. Usually you’ll all alone in the decision-making process; now I have a sounding board. I feel this imaginary city will hold a number of stories, over the coming years. Another strange realm to explore.

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