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Dreampunk profile: Jeff Noon
From an online interview on May 8, 2019
First off, tell us a little about yourself. How do you see yourself as a writer?
I do one main thing when I write. I follow two rules that I invented when I was young, around 19 or 20 years old. Every narrative event, every character, image etc., in fact every single word is generated using those two rules. They are laws, actually, not rules. I have to follow them.
I don’t speak of these laws themselves very much, because it takes a while to explain them, and it’s very embarrassing to do so, because they were created by a young person’s mind and concern themselves with thoughts and feelings that only come to you when you’re young. I would never invent them now, for instance. But there they are, in place, and I use them every single second when I write. I am not exaggerating when I say this: every single second. They are my engine, and my constant guide. Without them I would not have written a single word. So my job when I’m writing is to guide the output of those two laws, as best I can, and to make sure they end up creating a story that makes sense. Or a modicum of sense!
The two laws contradict each other; because of this they act like a perpetual motion machine, always pushing and pulling: Do this. No, do that. Do this, do that. And so on. Very often I feel like I’m freewheeling a bicycle down a hill at top speed! I kept the laws secret for forty years, but a few years ago I did a talk in Nottingham to young people who were hoping to become writers, and for the first time I explained about the laws. If people are interested, an internet search might bring up something. But they’re not the kind of tips you read about in How-to-Write books: they are very personal to me, and probably won’t make much sense to anyone else.
I have these laws handy here for reference, but yeah, some context and explanation is helpful. Quoting from another interview:
All artistic endeavor fades into blandness unless you consciously fight it. Therefore, consciously fight it!
Give the reader unique pleasure.
A lot of terms get thrown around for literary movements and genres and the like. I find it all pretty silly, but still useful—and actually a lot of fun. What are some terms you’d use to describe your own work? How does “dreampunk” strike you?
Well, I really love genres and names. I love to invent names! I don’t see a single thing wrong with that. I really love sub-genres. I’m a fan of metal, so I’m used to dealing with hundreds of musical sub-genres: blackened melodic death metal, and so on.
The term I use the most to talk about my own work is avant-pulp. There is an avant-pulp manifesto drifting around the internet, but in essence it comes down to a single line: Form is the host, content is the virus: infect, infect! By which I mean the subject matter of a story should inform and infect the form of the story, in a direct way. Like a bacterium, or a virus. So my novel A Man of Shadows deals with Time as a malleable substance: and the story itself is infected with Time. I’m trying to explore the possibilities of that osmotic relationship between words and story.
The other word I like to use is sleepstream, which I guess relates to dreampunk in a way. But I think it’s important to make sure that each individual story finds its natural form and language. A large part of the initial process of writing a novel is to find the best way to tell the particular story, whether it occupies the more experimental end of the spectrum, or lies nearer to a straight narrative. I love both, and I love to explore the possibilities of both.
I published my first ever crime novel this year, Slow Motion Ghosts. No science-fictional or fantastical elements at all, and I did it as pretty much a straight novel, because that’s how the story wanted to be told. The novel before that, The Body Library, was completely different and lent itself to a more experimental approach. So I’m very fluid when it comes to this kind of thing: I always let the story and the subject matter dictate the method of storytelling. I’m not fixed to a certain idea or methodology.
In the context of fiction, how would you define a “dream”? Is there a meaningful distinction to be made between dreaming and an immersive computer simulation? What if the simulation is driven by your subconscious mind, sort of a synthetic dream? It all blurs together somewhere, right?
Sure. If such a thing is possible beyond the pages of an SF novel. We have to remember that the subconscious mind is itself a construct, an idea that fits a set of circumstances, but there is no physical evidence for it. So we’re dealing with a substance that might actually have no presence, and therefore cannot be accessed in any realistic way. There are limits to our knowledge.
I like to think of dreams as a separate world that intersects with ours through the medium of the mind. Our mind draws from this world during sleep and certain other states. The closer we draw from the border, the more realistic is the imagery: the further we draw from the border, the more bizarre is the imagery.
My dreams almost always draw from near the border, and so they look and feel like the waking world given a slight twist. But in my novels I can draw material from further away from the border, if I wish. A lot of my work concerns itself with the borderland between the two, and the substances and ideas that cross over, back and forth, back and forth…
I’ve watched the film a few times, yes. I love Cronenberg. But I must admit I do have a problem with stories like that: by about halfway through I’m asking myself, “Oh, maybe this reality is just another layer of the virtual world?” And that turns out to be the case. And then I start to lose emotional connection, because of the sense that anything can happen: actions don’t have real consequences. So then I feel alienated from the characters. It’s a peculiar problem that layered, other-reality stories have to deal with.
I hear that. It’s something I’m always grappling with in my own work. Can you point to any movies or TV shows that capture the kind of feeling you’d like your fiction to have?
My favourite VR film is Strange Days, one of the first of the genre. But I don’t watch or read much SF these days. I like to stay separate from that, so my work isn’t influenced by current themes or fashionable ideas: just a thing I have. I mainly read crime novels.
How about music?
Music? I’m of an age to have prog in the blood! I always think I’m trying to write the prose equivalent of one of the prog album covers I use to study when I was an early teen. Ha ha! But it’s true. I think the craziness, the clumsiness, and the over-the-top nature of the storytelling in prog all feed into my work: at that young age, it all goes in, and forms a bedrock of what comes later. And then I got into glam rock, punk, dub reggae, and they all certainly had an influence on my work, as did techno and house. Music has always drifted through my words.
Say that some new technology allowed you to enter into a virtual world where each hour that passed in reality felt like a week in the system. How would you use that extra time? I’m assuming you’d get a lot more writing done. What else?
I would like to go back to one of my abandoned loves from yesteryear: mathematics. I keep meaning to take up the study of it again, but the time just isn’t available. So yes, differential calculus, hypercubes, folds in eight dimensions. Oh, be still my beating heart!
Wow, you surprised me with that one. But yeah, I can see it. What role would you say dreaming plays in your creative process? Have you ever taken anything from a dream and pulled it into a story?
I don’t remember dreams that much, but I do like to walk through hypnagogic landscapes and pick up ideas and images. Sometimes they are very useful. I have the kind of mind that can dream entire plots, and make every incident make sense.
The other night I dreamt that fellow SF writer Ian McDonald had published his own expanded version of Vurt. It was three times the size of my version, and all the things he’d added were in bold print. It was amazing! He’d spilt the protagonist, Scribble, into four different characters, for different times of the day. So there was Dawn Scribble, Day Scribble, Dusk Scribble and Darkness Scribble. Each of these Scribbles had their own version of the novel’s central quest: which was why the book was so thick! I only had time to read the first couple of pages in my dream, so I don’t know what happened later on.
That’s a pretty brilliant premise. Ambitious, certainly, and I love the systematicity. How do you feel your style has changed over the years? Like if you come back to the Vurt series, will it blend right in with the other books, or not so much?
As I answered earlier, I think my style is quite fluid: sometimes it’s fairly extreme, and then a few days later I might be more interested in pure storytelling. So I try to balance those two impulses out, over time. So, I think it totally depends on the story I’m telling at the time. I do plan to return to the Vurt world at some point. But of course, so many years have passed since 1993, when I first started to write the novel. I will try to plug into that original feeling, but at the same time I will be writing with an older hand, and that’s a fact. And the world has changed, and that too will have its effect. But I am looking forward to the challenge of it, the adventure.
What are you working on right now? Can you say?
For the last few years I’ve been writing a series about a private eye called Nyquist. Each of the Nyquist Mysteries takes places in a different city or town, and each location has a very different fantastical aspect to it. The first city, called Dayzone, was split into areas of constant light and dark. In the second novel Nyquist has moved to a city obsessed with storytelling, where words and language can infect the body. In each city a crime is committed and Nyquist’s investigation interacts with the city in increasingly complex ways. That’s the basic concept.
I am currently writing the third in the series: another location, another set of strange circumstances. I’m enjoying it. Nearly reached the end of the first draft. I never plan my plots, so it’s always a bit scary, trying to make everything fit. But I’m sure I’ll get through to the end somehow. Basically, I set Nyquist going, and I follow him. He always leads me to interesting places, previously unknown. Which is why I love to write science fiction.
The Vurt series (1993–1997) by Jeff Noon
Vurt is a feather—a drug, a dimension, a dream state, a virtual reality. It comes in many colors: legal Blues for lullaby dreams. Blacks, filled with tenderness and pain, just beyond the law. Pink Pornovurts, doorways to bliss. Silver feathers for techies who know how to remix colors and open new dimensions. And Yellows—the feathers from which there is no escape.
Update: Jeff contributed to the dreampunk short story collection Somniscope (2023)!