Versus Battle! 2: Noon v. Mieville
Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the second of the Versus Battles! Tonight, we have a vanguard of the British nouveau-SF writers, Mr. Jeff Noon against the world-class genre-masher, Mr. China Miéville. In this battle we have Noon’s first book Vurt, against Miéville’s first novel King Rat. It’s basically going to follow the same sort of format as the first Versus Battle, but a few little changes (and maybe, just maybe, some improvements. Let’s not get too carried away though). Oh, and a warning that there are some plot spoilers in here, but nothing you can’t handle, I’m sure.
The Weigh In
Vurt was first published in 1993, by Ringpull Press – sadly that’s not the edition that I have, I’ve got the Pan Books 2001 edition. I first read Vurt when I was a mere slip of a girl in the late nineties, and SF still felt kind of verboten, like it was something I shouldn’t like because I was a girl. Phew, but let’s not get into the psychology of that statement… Vurt runs to 325 pages in the Pan edition that I have. The ISBN of said edition is 9780330338813. King Rat was first published by Macmillan in 1998, but the version I got from the library is the 1999 Pan Books edition. 421 pages all up, and an ISBN of 0330370987. This is my first reading of King Rat, but I’m not a first timer for China Miéville’s work – previously, I’ve read and enjoyed (and had my word power extended by) Perdido Street Station, Un Lun Dun and Kraken. I feel like these two books are pretty evenly matched in terms of size and subject, so we should have a good fight on our hands.
Round 1: Plot
Vurt is set in the Manchester of the near future, maybe fifteen years time. It focusses on Scribble, who is searching for his lost sister, Desdemona. Desdemona was ‘exchanged’ accidentally in a Vurt feather called English Voodoo and Scribble is on a seemingly impossible mission to swap her back. The book dumps you into the world, kind of like I just did there… I can practically hear all of you non-Vurter’s going “Wha’?”. Nowadays there are a few books in the Vurt cycle (Nymphomation, for instance, explains about it’s discovery), but since Vurt was Jeff Noon’s first novel, there was nothing to explain the ins-and-outs, which I really like. I mean, I guess some people find it annoying, but to me, especially when a story is told in first person (as Vurt is) it’s more true to life – a character is pretty unlikely to stop everything to tell the reader some history.
King Rat is set in (roughly) present day London. Saul’s father is murdered on his return home from a camping trip, which Saul doesn’t find out about until he’s awoken by the police trying to smash in his front door. Nice. There are a lot of things that Saul doesn’t know, but as he wades through through his the benefits and torments of his genetic heritage, things develop very interestingly. I know that’s super-vague, but I know that if I start giving you a proper summary, I’ll give everything away. And I wouldn’t want that. It’s told as a third person narrative.
There’s nothing much that I can get from this round, apart from the fact of how similar these books actually are – apart from the city thing, which I’ll talk about later, there is a strong tie-in with electronic music (Scribble is a DJ, Saul is at least a peripheral part of the Junglist scene), a transgressive undertone which is never made much of (again, we’ll get to that later), and a love of language which shines through the text. And please, don’t get me wrong; I don’t mean ‘similar’ in a copyright-y kind of way. Similar in a good way.
Round 2: Authors
You remember the ‘city thing’ I was talking about, about four sentences ago? Well, it must be later, because here I am about to talk about it. Jeff Noon sets Vurt in Manchester, like he seems to do with lots of his books. There is a strong personal connection with that city – he grew up in Droylsden, which is sort of like a satelite suburb of Manchester these days, but was a mill town in the mid-19th century. There is something in the Manchester rain of Noon’s works – cleansing, cathartic, and almost mystical. Noon himself is quite the accomplished figure – he’s not only an award winning author, but also an award winning playwright, a musician and a painter. Talk about well rounded.
There is a ‘city thing’ in Miéville’s work as well – his city is London; he’s always been a Londoner, and (like Noon), professes love for his city by making it into almost a character in it’s own right. There is, in King Rat, such an intimate knowledge portrayed that when reading it, it almost seems a novel with a little bit of guidebook slugged into it’s genetic background, a tiny bit of A-Z brushed against the pages at a vital second of pre-print fecundity. Miéville has also been quite the award winner, and indeed has studyed up a storm too – London School of Economics, no less. Makes this girl feel slightly lazy…
No clear winner in this round either. How could you choose a winner? More awards? That’s stupid, in this one non-award-winner-person – awards, although they make you feel pretty great when you win them, are absolutely no guarantee that anyone else apart from the judging panel enjoyed them. Funkier background? People create fictions and tell half-truths about themselves to make their lives more or less interesting all the time, and authors are no exception to that. So I don’t know. I’m gonna throw this one out to you, cublings. People’s choice – how would you pick a winner here?
Round 3: Language
Oooh, my favourite. This is going to be a good round; neither of these guys pulls their punches when it comes to words. This is a bit of an aside, but there is a great book on SF called The Seven Beauties of Science Fiction, which is by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jnr. The first chapter talks a little about language in SF works – I like the bit about Dune author Frank Herbert and his massive appropriation of Arabic words and names – so interesting. But anyway, it’s sort of about how language changes our perception of time, how it takes a group and makes them outsiders by their language usage. You only have to think of A Clockwork Orange to know that that’s true. Since Noon sets Vurt not that far into the future, his language doesn’t change that much, but it has gotten lazier (not his language, language in general, which you have to admit, is kind of the way it’s going). There is a little slang, such as the word ‘dripfeeders’ to describe those that take payments from the State instead of working. But most of the new words are either abbreviations (like Vurt itself, or the term ‘robo’), or portmanteau type words (like pornovurt, or fleshcop).
Names in Noon’s work tend towards the evocative psudonym – we’ve talked about Scribble (who writes things down), but there is also the Beetle, Scribble’s… thing, there are a lot of words you could use to describe what the Beetle is to Scribble. Game Cat is probably my favourite psudonym, mostly because it’s kind of hilarious.
Miéville loves his big words, but uses them in such an interesting way that it’s hard not to be drawn in. Well, that’s maybe me giving in to a bit of bias there, because I love me a big word. Still, there are recurring words that he obviously loves reading. I haven’t noticed this so much with King Rat, but when I was reading Perdido Street Station, it really began to bother me how many times he’d used the word chitin or chitinous. Okay, yes, I get it, you like that word. And it’s very clever of you to know it, but I don’t need a description eighteen times in the book. It’s a big book, but even I found that a tad excessive. Miéville is a real describer, not necessarily a bad thing, but he doesn’t let you use your imagination very much. Description is a fine thing, and I’d be the first to complain if it went out the window entirely, but too much is… well, too much.
The more interesting thing in King Rat is the accents that the characters use – King Rat himself is epic Cockney, like, the Cockney accent to end all Cockney accents. Kind of funny, I don’t find that sort of thing distracting at all once I get used to it, but I have to admit to really wanting to read it out loud. Anansi has a sort of weird London-y West Indian patois thing going, and Loplop has… nothing. He’s described as having the kind of accent which veers madly around Europe, but it’s not written like that, which is a bit disappointing. I mean, King Rat is all rhyming slang, and Anansi keeps calling people ‘bwoy’, so why can’t you make the effort with Loplop too?
Round goes to Noon, but only just.
Final Round: Characters
Finally, we get around to the characters – this is totally my favourite round. There is quite a bit of transgression as subtext in both of these works. Well… okay, maybe it’s not that subtextual in King Rat. But anyway, in Vurt, Scribble and Desdemona are having sex. It’s never made a big thing of really, for kind of a massive subject as incest, apart from one scene where it’s implied that there is also father-daughter incest going on as well. That scene is terrifying – Scribble is trying to rescue Desdemona, it’s actually quite wrenching and horrible. The thing that bothers me most about Vurt is that it’s so grounded in the Nineties, in the scenes that were popular and the things that were important during that time, but there are overarching themes and interest enough to make it good to read nowadays too, or at least, I think so. The way the characters deal with Scribble and Desdemona (and it seems to be something which is known by most of the principle characters), it’s really interestingly done.
Transgression by characters in King Rat is also writ pretty large too. There is the whole living in the sewers and eating trash thing, but there is also the horrible discovery made by Saul that his mother was raped. It’s all very heavy, and totally changes the whole tone of the book, which is interesting in itself. It’s been a bit ‘boys own adventure’ (albeit, a very grim one) prior to this discovery. Saul himself is written, I think, quite well – he has to run the whole gamut of emotion really, and often in a very short space of time. King Rat suffers basically the same issue as Vurt in that it’s grounded in a quite specific space in time, and it’s the music that does that. Jungle is still popular, but it’s pretty niche now, at least as far as an outsider to that scene goes. I really really like the way that Saul’s dad is written into the piece too, that’s extremely well done.
There’s no clear win here – fight fans will find that they prefer either one or the other, but I’d read ’em both. As an example of populist SF and a genre mash, or the way the genre is going, you’d be hard pressed to find better examples, and both stories have enough interesting points to them to make them pretty compelling.