Arthur C. Clarke, the eminent science-fiction writer, is said to have pointed out that ''the future isn't what it used to be.'' As if to prove it, Vurt, a cyberpunk novel by Jeff Noon, won the Arthur C. Clarke award for fiction when it was published in England last year.
Clarke was referring to the fact that nobody bothers to write futuristic novels about gleaming, immaculate scientific utopias anymore. Pessimistic novels like 1984 and A Clockwork Orange established the bleak boundaries of our contemporary fictional tomorrow. If it doesn't promise totalitarian thugs, marauding gangs, and high-tech surveillance, violence, and chaos, we don't want to hear about it. Vurt, set in an apocalyptic Manchester, is a department store full of this by-now-standard dystopian merchandise. There are menacing shadowcops, predatory robogoths, mongrel humanoids who are half-dog, poisonous dreamsnakes, and worst of all, interactive Madonnas. And, around every corner, there is Vurt, or virtual reality, which comes in assorted dimensions. Some Vurts are everyday pornographic or bloody interactive entertainments, somewhere between movies and drug hallucinations. Other Vurts are forbidden, nearly inaccessible and nearly inescapable once encountered. Magical feathers of various colors are the keys to the various Vurts: Tickle your throat with one and you dissolve into some sweet or sour pseudoreality.
The young narrator, Scribble, and his outlaw friends drive around the dark and damaged streets in stolen vans, trying to score some good feathers while exchanging gunfire with the cops and almost getting dreamsnakebitten. But Scribble's also searching for the love of his life, Desdemona, who turns out to be his sister. He can't forget an idyllic interlude of teenage sex with her, after which she disappeared into a particularly profound and obscure Vurt.
So this is a quest novel, but the quest fails. Yes, Desdemona turns up, all right, but nothing powerfully imaginative does. Beneath the frantically inventive surface, beyond the comic-book monsters and perils, all is calm, all is trite. Nightmares I can handle, but not sentimental incest and adolescent self-congratulation. The horrific fantasy is never really startling or disturbing; on an average day you can see more genuinely mind-bending things in the New York City subway system. If you want haunting hallucinations, stick to Philip K. Dick or William Burroughs, and if you want a really nightmarish future, imagine one in which all the literary prizes go to novels like Vurt. C