I first encountered Jeff Noon’s works through a reading from his second novel Pollen he did in a Camden Town bookstore while I was on vacation in London. I wasn’t really reading any Science Fiction anymore at this time, but I was looking for something to do that evening when I saw the announcement and his novels seemed very well written, so I decided I might as well give it a try. And I am very glad that I did, not only because I walked away with a signed copy of Pollen from that reading but also because it introduced me to one of the most exciting contemporary Science Fiction writers, and one of the very few for whom SF is a form and a language as much if not more than a content. In that light, while he used to be called the British answer to William Gibson, I’d much rather view him as continuing in the vein of the work of the young Samuel R. Delany.
As such, he fits in quite well with a recent discussion kicked off in a review by Paul Kincaid in which he claimed that Science Fiction had become tired and authors were lacking a vision and merely clinging to genre conventions (a brief summary with links to the discussion can be found here). Being too conventional is definitely not a problem that Jeff Noon’s novels suffer from – they are all restlessly experimenting, reaching for a structure and a style that would be appropriate to the future they depict. This is helped by the fact that Noon is a brilliant writer, whose linguistic inventiveness seems to know no bounds and who has a very fine ear for prose rhythm that provides his writing with its striking and inimitable groove. And in the context of that discussion, it might also be significant that he has not published a new book since 2002, making Channel SK1N his first novel in ten years and that he is self-publishing it as an e-book (and also apparently re-releasing his older works – if you do not already have them, I recommend getting them as soon as possible).
I admit, I had some reservations at first – when it starts out, Channel SK1N seems to rehash some very old, very tired tropes: Following its main protagonist Nola Blue, a pop star who just released a third song and already sees her career failing, the novel appears to be just another variation on the theme of “artist selling her soul for success.” But while Noon does riff on that well-worn traditional, he develops it in surprising directions, and soon the novel turns out to be a meditation on mass-media and self-identity and the way they interact with each other. There still seems to be very distinct Videodrome influence in the way media and real life begin to bleed into each other until they are becoming indistinguishable, but Jeff Noon does his own, very imaginative remix. Like his previous novel, Falling Out Of Cars, this is a very dark novel, with a very ambiguous ending, missing the exuberance his earlier novels – although not exactly comfort reads either – never were completely without.
While Noon’s prose is somewhat more restrained here than in most of his previous works, there still is some tight interweaving between form and plot, style and content – as Nola’s identity becomes increasingly fuzzy, as her self is blurred between her individuality, her pop star persona and her uncanny and unexplained (there is some kind of explanation, but in typical Jeff Noon fasion it’s very throwaway and barely qualifies even as handwaving) transformation into a human transmitter, the text drifts in and out of prose into song lyrics, and in intervals is interspersed with something that reads like the ASCII translation of a hex dump. There is some added complexity by a character complementary to Nola – while she finds her life and indeed her very body invaded by the media, another girl delivers her life (and, ultimately, her very body) to puplic consumption. Both their bodies become the medium: Channel SK1N.
Channel SK1N is an intense and compellling reading experience and marks the welcome return of one of the most orignal voices in contemporary Science Fiction, and I very much hope that it is a permanent return to writing fiction and that more will follow.