Pollen - Jeff Noon

culture

Pollen - Jeff NoonThis is my second or third reading of this book, and I still feel drawn to it, which should tell you something about how extraordinary it is. 'Pollen' is a kind of sequel to 'Vurt' (his first novel), and it expands on some of the odd things mentioned only briefly in that book. But even if you haven't read 'Vurt' the story stands on its own very well, has an exciting, twisted plot, as well as one of my favourite fictional heroines of all time.

Boda (short for Boadicea) is an Xcab driver, who rides around Manchester in her cab called Charrie (short for Chariot). Her hair is shaved off, and she has a map of Manchester tattooed all over her body and scalp. Xcabs form a hive mind, literally forming the map of the city as they travel around. Xcabbers have their memories wiped and their heads shaved when they join, so Boda can remember nothing about her pre-cabian life. At the opening of the book, her lover-to-be, Coyote--a rogue black-cab driver, and half-dog--is killed after picking up a mysterious young girl called Persephone as a fare. Boda sets off to find out who killed him, and in the process has to let go of everything she has known and break free of the Xcab hive.

The Vurt universe is a richly organic one. Where other cyberpunk writers concentrate on hardware, wires and chips, Noon is more whimsical and psychedelic. The Vurt--a combination of dreams, drugs and a computer game, which has an independent existence of its own--is entered by placing a coloured feather in your mouth. You also almost certainly noticed (with some bemusement) that I said that Coyote was half-dog. In Pollen, Noon explains that due to some kind of environmental catastrophe, human fertility crashed to unsustainable levels. The Government introduced the drug 'Fecundity 10' to counter this drop, but it had unforeseen effects; it lowered the cellular barriers between species and raised libido (genetic engineering meets viagra), so that in the time of this novel, there are six main types of humans, and infinite mixtures of these types: human, vurt, shadow, dog, robo and zombie. His description of all this strangeness reminds me of one of those flip-books you might have had as a child, where pictures of people and animals are divided horizontally in two places, and you flip the pages over to create weird and wonderful mixtures.

Jeff Noon's writing reminds me most of Lewis Carroll--indeed, Noon has written a third 'Alice' book called 'Automated Alice', so he must be a fan. His characters are deep and strange, the language odd but convincingly modern ("Imperial driving, dogboy"), and he leaves tantalising and funny clues unexplained. For example, everyone smokes cigarettes called 'Napalms', which have messages on the packs like "Smoking is great after sex - his majesty's official mistress". He also weaves myth and legend in to his stories. Persephone appears on May Day, as does John Barleycorn, and other echoes of mythology (like Boda and Charrie) appear here and there.

This is a fantastically imaginative, thrilling book[1]. In the blurb on the jacket of 'Vurt' there's a quote from the New Statesman; "Too beautiful for bikers, too harsh for hippies." That's just about right.

[1] I should warn anyone thinking about reading this that there is a lot of bad language, sex and some violence. And yet I still like it, so don't let that put you off.

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