The BSFA holds regular events in London, usually on the last Wednesday of the month, at the Artillery Arms near Old Street. These events are free, and open to members and non-members alike. Keep an eye on the BSFA website for news of future events. In August 2017, Matthew De Abaitua interviewed Jeff Noon, author of speculative fiction and tricky-to-label experimental writing, about his latest work. Andrew Wallace tells the story …
Jeff Noon has always been fascinated by borders. His early work was full of characters traversing portals, whether formed by physical structures or drugs. He describes his 1993 debut novel, Vurt, as something brought across the frontier between this world and another.
It’s an obsession that includes his writing process. Many writers listen to music while they work; not Jeff, he has films on as well, a different one every day. He also covers the display screen while he writes to make the narrative less predictable. During this process, part of his mind is carefully planning, while the other enters a crazed state. As well as a negotiated path between dream and reality, Jeff sees composition as being analogous to a chess game between writer and novel: an engagement that seems to give the novel its own agency. Out of this process comes an organic creative vision, well-matched to the visceral SF that established Jeff with his 1994 Clarke Award win for Vurt.
His latest novel, A Man of Shadows (Angry Robot Books), explores a different kind of border: that of dusk. Inspired by Dayzone, part of Tokyo where lights and music are on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, Jeff science-fictionalised the idea to create a whole city where the lights never go off. If you look up, you don’t see sky: only lamps, flames and neon signs.
The world outside is like our own, although the novel’s main character, private detective John Nyquist, has never left the city.
The novel explores how being constantly exposed to light changes someone. For example, what happens to time when you’re cut off from the seasons? The notion of a twenty-four-hour clock also falls apart, as do traditional commercial structures based upon it. Dayzone is not a time-free zone; it just has a different chronology. People can purchase tailored time standards. For example, families find their own time units, as do lovers, depending on the levels of ardour. Time can be sponsored because it has evolved in its own ways, free of day and night.
People who live in the city love it, so this world is not a dystopia. However, time as a commodity means that there are organisations like ‘the time exchange’, modelled on corn exchanges, as well as the need for time law, and the capacity for time crime.
Although the city exists outside the ordinary rhythm of day and night, it simultaneously acknowledges that people will want darkness. They either visit an area called Nocturna, or go to one of the places where the council’s bulb monkeys haven’t replaced the lamps.
What, then, happens in the spaces between light and dark, in the realm of Dusk? Dusk is mysterious and silvery; there are several moons, while distant lamps become stars and constellations.
Nyquist hates the Dusk. As a reference, Jeff mentioned Chinatown: a self-aware film that is as much about noir as an expression of it. The Dusk in A Man of Shadows feels like Nyquist’s Chinatown, and perhaps it’s Jeff’s too; he says he is uncomfortable on any kind of middle ground.
Because Nyquist is a private eye trying to find a teenage runaway, he must go from light to dark to the mean streets of Dusk. A transitional, liminal zone where things appear to dissolve, it’s also known as the hour between dog and wolf, because in that eerie light you can’t tell which animal it is. More than a dangerous ambiguity, Dusk is like memory; a dreamscape where the dead end up.
It’s interesting how Jeff’s writing has moved from real places, like Manchester in Vurt and Pollen to imaginary ones like Dayzone. Once he left Manchester in his forties, he decided not to invest in a real space so heavily. It’s the kind of decision only an SF writer could make.
Matthew De Abaitua’s most recent novel is The Destructives. www.harrybravado.com
Andrew Wallace is a SFF novelist and blogger whose latest novel, Diamond Roads: The Outer Spheres, is available now. www.andrewwallace.me
You can watch the whole interview here.