In 1994, Jeff Noon won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for his widely successful first novel, Vurt. He has since written another nine novels, three of which comprises the rest of the Vurt series – Pollen, Automated Alice, Nymphomation. Alongside short stories and the theatre, Noon is also engaged in a form he calls ‘microspores’ – tiny, 140 character stories he posts on Twitter. Published independently, Channel SK1N is Noon’s first novel in ten years.
What is Channel SK1N about?
Nola Blue is a pop star. Her fame has been created by a mysterious process of extreme transformation; her former identity has been erased and a new “improved” one created for her. So she’s a imagined future version of today’s hyper-manufactured stars. But then something strange and shocking happens: Nola starts to pick up TV broadcasts on her skin. A parasite signal infects her. She becomes a screen. The infection spreads until her entire body is covered in moving pictures. It’s painful and scary and confusing for her, but over the next two days she starts to learn how to control it. Nola becomes a new interface, a human/media hybrid. The novel follows her struggle and her progress.
You write about a woman Nola meets in a bar: “Here was a woman alive in her own soap opera, her words borrowed and remixed from dialogue and scenes witnessed on the visionplex and the cinema through the years.”You seem to be suggesting that what is happening to Nola is in fact happening to every one of us. Do you view this as a necessarily bad thing?
It’s a two-way process: we learn from TV and TV learns for us. We change each other in a feedback system. I don’t see this as a bad thing; I see it as part of the evolution of the species. Our relationship with technology has been part of our lives since we first started the human adventure. Of course, there are always problems, but on the whole I have an optimistic take on this. I like the idea of saturation and mutation and semi-porous borderlines and symbiosis, and so on, so I’m always creating worlds where personal identity is increasingly a liquid process rather than a fixed object. Nola is that process examined in close-up.
Nola is a singer. She wants to express herself more fully, stop singing the sort of anodyne songs that have been written for her and start singing songs of more weight or integrity. When she starts to receive these signals on her own body I was reminded of Martin Heidegger, who says “the poet’s work is only a listening”. It seems to me that her wish therefore has been fulfilled in some sense. How important is philosophy to you as a writer?
Yes, Nola becomes an artist during the process of the book. This begins the day she wakes up with a mysterious bruise on her belly. The bruise starts to makes electrostatic noises, to speak in garbled voices, to turn into an image, a talking head. A news presenter. From that point on, Nola has the chance to escape the cage of the manufactured pop star life, but only be coming to terms with her new body and its potential for communication and creation.
I’m not directly influenced by philosophy, but I’m always keen to learn new things. I have a curious mind, always have had, since I was young. So I read a lot of non-fiction books and take ideas from there; from history, art, science and philosophy, etc, and one day a couple of these ideas will clash together and fuse and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder, what if…?” Then I take that new combined idea and just explore it as much as I can, and I try to invent a language, a new way of writing about that subject that in some mirrors the subject itself. So the Channel SK1N book is saturated with the same signals that take over Nola Blue: her skin and the book are one entity.
I’d like to juxtapose two quotes – one from Channel SK1N, one from the late Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil.“She could hardly recognize the face as her own,” you write, “so often had she been transformed by the star-making process. Made-over, made-up, powdered. Jigged and rejigged. Extended, and then digitalized to within an inch of her flesh or so it felt, post-production, until there was hardly anything of herself left up there.” In Sans Soleil, Marker talks about images his friend treated with a synthesizer which he says are “less deceptive” because “at least they proclaim themselves to be what they are: images.” Do you think that images are inadvertently attaining a new honesty these days, so abstract is the “entity who lives on the other side of the screen”?
That’s a very interesting question! I would probably have to be JG Ballard to answer if fully. My feeling is that our images are becoming more powerful in and of themselves; they have a extended, mediated life beyond our bodies. So I see them as a kind of ghost version of ourselves, or even a soul, if you like; image is the soul of the digital age. So in my work these images take on increasingly separate existences, and sometimes they break away from the body completely, and in other stories they haunt the body, like evil or benevolent phantoms. In Channel SK1N Nola becomes the repository of lost souls; image ghosts are drawn to her, they saturate her flesh. She is possessed. Initially this is a difficult process; later on in the book, she transforms herself into a new creation. In her early career she was a mere body and face to hold a pop song; now she becomes her own living artwork. The image lives on.
Do you watch much television yourself?
Not directly; I tend to wait for the DVD box set, and then watch that in just a few days, just overloading on the episodes. The usual subjects: The Wire, Lost, Breaking Bad, 24, and so on. My favourite box set at the moment is Wire in the Blood. I can devour any kind of drama or comedy or detective story or SF or horror; anything really. But I do watch a couple of weekly sitcoms on first broadcast, using them to pin my week in place, a bit like people do with soap opera episodes. I can watch TV talent shows with no problem at all: I used to really get into American Idol, for instance. I mean really obsessing over it: following it every week, and having favourites, and getting angry when things went wrong or the judges were cruel, and so on. I have a soft spot for Britain’s Got Talent, because it celebrates the extreme surrealism of people’s lives and desires. The first television programme I really loved was the original Outer Limits, a brilliant American SF series that I used to be allowed to stay up for. I’d watch it with my dad, and we’d discuss the ideas in it. This would be the mid 1960s, when I was 7 or 8 years old. My obsession with science fiction and horror starts from there, without a doubt.
How has playwriting informed your work as a novelist? There seems to me something Greek tragedy about Channel SK1N.
Well, playwriting was my first love, in terms of writing. When I left collage that was my dream: to write for the stage. I loved the collaborative process of creating plays, and the live audience’s reaction. In fact, my first novel Vurt came out of a theatre script, that I later remixed into the novel. I started writing screenplays a few years ago, and that now satisfies my theatrical bent, so to speak. I think I write in a visual manner, and that probably comes from a combination of the theatre and from painting, which I did a lot off when I was a young man. I also like to really bring words alive, and experiment with language as a thing in itself, in terms of lyrical flow and remixing prose. All of these things get mixed up in my work. Regarding the tragic aspects of Channel SK1N, I guess there are elements of that in the story. Also, the Faustus legend was definitely on my mind as I wrote it, in terms of the bargains we make in order to be successful. But there is, I hope, an element of transcendence to the story at the end. I really wanted Nola to have a new life, beyond the flesh.
You’re commonly branded as a writer of ‘speculative fiction’. Do you accept that label? What do you understand ‘speculative fiction’ to mean?
I’m very happy with that label. I really like to create microgenres that I occupy for a while, and then move on to explore something new. Also, I love the fact that labels create areas, zones of interest and imagery. Because the great thing about areas is that they have borderlines. And I really like placing stories on those borders: of genre, of landscape, of the body, of social classes and races, and so. Borderlines are my natural habitat. For me, speculative fiction explores these borders better than any other genre. It asks questions, it worships new ideas, it invents new form and new content all the time, it looks to the future, it’s not scared of being political or tender or poetic or clumsy or over-the-top. It celebrates the basic human desire to look forward and to ask: what will happen next? Where are we going?
You’ve chosen to publish Channel SK1N independently. What sort of freedom does that offer?
I like the freedom to be able to publish what I want, when I want. I can produce experimental works, and then more mainstream works, and mix and match the two. I enjoy that balance. I can set the prices I want, and keep those prices flexible. I don’t have to wait for months before publication. I can market the book in the way I want to. I can choose the cover image that I want. So, there are lots of freedoms in going independent. There are downsides, obviously: no proper money upfront, lack of funds for adverts, and the so on. But how many writers get these things, anyway, these days? Very few. So, for me, at this particular point in my life, it’s easily the best thing to do. More than anything, it’s an adventure.