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Portrait of the Author as a Vurtual Man: Jeff Noon talks to London Calling’s Tom Hunter

11 August 2012

Author Jeff Noon's first novel, VURT, was a cult sensation that went on to win the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction in 1994. Now returning to novel-writing in a very different digital publishing era, the man once dubbed "the punk Aldous Huxley" talks to London Calling about his first virtual venture into ebook publishing

London Calling: Can you give us a little introduction about Channel SK1N and your return to this genre (no big spoilers mind!)

Jeff Noon: I was a young teenager when those first, otherworldly musical signals arrived from David Bowie, in the early 1970s. It was one of those periods when science fiction coexisted with the pop charts. In particular, Bowie’s song “All the Young Dudes” really excited me. He wrote it originally for the group Mott the Hoople to sing. Over the subsequent years, I’ve always enjoyed the song whenever it turns up on the TV or the radio. There’s a line in it, something like: “Television Man is crazy, saying we’re juvenile delinquent wrecks.” Actually, the latter half of the phrase never really registered with me: but I would often find myself singing that one phrase: television man is crazy.

Television man is crazy, television man is crazy, television man is crazy...

Just over and over. So, a few years ago, I was singing this song to myself, as you do, and that line really started to take on a new life. I started thinking about Television Man. I think I actually had capitalised him by that point, and made him into a superhero type figure. And I started to see this human figure actually channelling television signals, using them as weapons in some way. “Beware the deadly cathode rays of Television Man!” That kind of thing. And then click! What if a person was actually taken over by TV signals. How would that feel, what would be the consequences? And what kind of story would the subject matter produce in terms of looking at contemporary society? This idea percolated for a couple of years. And then when the whole Reality TV/Big Brother era began, the idea took on a new significance. We were opening ourselves up to the signal, more and more, allowing the cameras to follow us everywhere. In a sense, it feels like we want to join with the signals, (these same signals that actually pass through us, through our bodies, on a daily basis). So the novel grew from those ideas and feelings. Yes, the root of the Channel SK1N story grew from a single phrase in a David Bowie song! This is how the mind works: one little image can be enough to spin out into a whole novel, even if it takes years for it to come to fruition.

Another seed would be discovering the work of Ray Bradbury, again when I was very young. In particular “The Illustrated Man”. Not so much the stories themselves, but the linking passages describing the man with the tattoos that cover his entire body, tattoos that come alive and turn into stories. I was fascinated by that, I remember: the living skin, the storytelling skin, the body taken over by narrative.

At some point in the process, the Television Man became a television woman, Nola Blue: no longer a heroic figure, but a pop star, a celebrity infected by the TV signal. So it’s a story that explores the current media-saturated landscape, projecting that into the future a little way, and looking at how the media might increasingly interfere with the human body, both for good and for ill.

LC: How linked is this to your Vurt Cycle of novels? I’m sure I spotted a few subtle references dotted around...

JN: Yes, it’s linked into the Vurt Cycle, but only in a small, tangential way. I’m not the kind of writer who would ever really build giant, multi-book narrative structures that make perfect interlocking sense, you know? I’m not a world builder, not a map-maker. I work in a more liquid way, letting stories and images flow into and across each other, and seeing what comes out of the mix. Sometimes mirror images will appear, sometimes definite linking points, and sometimes I will contradict myself. But, yes, there is a link to Vurt, but it’s tiny. Channel Ski1n is a stand-alone novel. 

LC: In your earlier books the virtual was something people went into, whereas in Channel SK1N the media world is pushing out and invading our physical space and selves. Is this an accurate reading or am I just applying my own sensibilities your work? 

JN: I’m interested more than anything in borderzones, edges, transition states, weird linkages, crossbred life-forms, hybrid creations. I can’t really get excited in things after they’re settled into place. I love to place my work on the edges between states of beings, and to see what kind of stories might live on the various borderlines. For a number of years I was obsessed with music and how it can be seen as a body of information, and how that musical information might coexist with and indeed infect the human body. I love infection! Obviously, not in a real-life sense, but as the engine of a story. So I see Channel SK1N has following on from, say, “Needle in the Groove”, where I took an early look at the music/flesh interface.

But with Channel SK1N I wanted to write a very personal, very close-up, very physical book. I wanted to really examine this woman’s body as the TV signals possessed her. But I didn’t want to write a first person novel: instead I saw myself as a camera, a handheld camera moving in on its subject, really close at times, and never letting that subject escape the camera’s gaze, and just to look in detail at the process of change, both mentally and physically. So Nola Blue is a pop star, a manufactured entity, someone who has given herself over to the process of artificial change; she’s a part of the music business, pure product, in a way. But then the TV signal infects her, and her life changes. In a sense, I think, I hope, that Nola becomes more real from then on. The book follows her journey over a couple of days and night. 

LC: Your work has always been closely linked with remix culture – what’s the continuing attraction for you?

JN: I will always love the remix. It goes back to first hearing dub reggae during the Punk era. So, what I’m trying to do is to use words for two purposes, simultaneously: 1. For storytelling, and 2, as a medium in their own right. That simultaneous usage is the ideal, and often it doesn’t quite work out like that. But just to have that fluidity of expression, to grab some of the freedoms of mutation and transformation that musicians take for granted, these days, and to utilise these in prose. For instance: almost every software music sequencer will have button that allows you to randomly change a series of notes into other notes. But even  the fanciest word processors don’t have a remix/random button. So to do that I have to go online, to find a remix engine. But technology and art move hand in hand: nobody expects us to want to randomly mutate language, in a musical manner. When in fact, I love doing so! But this is not just an experimental technique, for me: it’s a way of uncovering and creating new stories, and I view the field of Science Fiction to be the perfect ground for such an undertaking. Because SF is where the hybrids alive, it’s where the borderlines are. At the Arthur C. Clarke award ceremony this year I said that Science Fiction had more borderlines, more edges, than all other genres put together. And that’s because SF is a four-dimensional object ( at the very least!). And I love those edges, I really do; I love how words can crumble into different meanings along borderlines. It’s like two different languages meeting and melting together: genre language, mainstream language. So the remixing is part of that process of exploring the borders. It’s a continuing experiment.

Regarding Channel SK1N in particular, I was thinking of a process I call infectionism. “Form is the Host, Content is the Virus.” That’s the basic tenant of infectionism. In other words, the shape and structure of a story can be infected by the subject of that story, in a viral fashion. In Channel SK1N, I wanted my words to be transformed by the same parasitic signal that takes over Nola’s body. Words and flesh, both changing. There are science-fictional subjects, but there are also science-fictional processes, creative processes. It’s about mixing the two together.

LC: And, speaking of remixing, publishing your own backlist creates the potential opportunity to update and tweak on the fly. If I know you as well as I think I do I reckon this’ll be a perennial temptation, and how do you think readers will respond to the prospect of a permanently beta or mutating text?

JN: Actually, no. I think once a book is done, that’s it. For myself, I would always want to start a new project, rather than going back to change an old one. Of course, I will sort out mistakes and the like, and that’s a great advantage of the digital text. But I like to move on. I can take passages from an old work and use them as remix samples, but I think I would rather take samples from elsewhere, from other writers, to be honest, because that gives me a new seed, a fresh input. I’m always looking for ways of surprising myself, as I work.

LC: One new medium you’ve notably adopted recently is Twitter. How does the reality of the Twitterverse compare to your imagined cyberspaces and have you enjoyed its potential for storytelling?

JN: I love to do fiction on twitter, just creating these  little 140 character stories. I call them microspores. The best ones are when a whole other story seems to hover behind the text, and the reader can decode that as they please. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does it’s a good feeling. They’re like haikus, in a way: a couple of images, letting them clash together, conjuring up a ghost. And the smaller format is perfect for me, because I love to play with images. Here’s an example: The sleepwalker moved across the lawn, onto the street, and away into the night. She’s still out there, still walking in her own darkness.

That’s 138 characters: a woman, a place, a condition, a mystery. But you know it might take just a few minutes to create one of these spores, or a few weeks, gradually building up and honing the sentences. And then, if you want, you can join a few tweets together to create a slightly longer story. There are lots of online possibilities for fiction, and as people invent these new media, writers can explore them and utilise them. And, again, I do think SF is extraordinarily well-placed to take advantage of all this, because of its inherent love of extreme imagery and its interest in transformation. We can breed new creatures of text to inhabit these new worlds. You see now, I have a sudden urge to write!

LC: And finally, a London-based question since we’re, can you recommend any unmissable spots in the city that any fan of Jeff Noon would do well to check out?

JN: Well, I haven’t set much of my fiction in London, but Nola’s journey does start there, in Soho at night, which is always such an exciting locale. I do travel to London fairly often, for work and for fun. I really do love the place, especially its multicultural aspects. It’s a great city. I live in Brighton, so it’s easy to get the train to London Bridge station and then to walk along the Thames, past the Globe and the Tate, and onto the South Bank, and so on. That’s a usual journey of mine. It’s always very lively.


Kindle owners can get their copy of Jeff's book here: Channel SK1N

And every fan of Jeff should check out his main website and be sure to follow Jeff Noon on Twitter.

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