“Expect to feel pleasure. Knowledge is sexy. Expect to feel pain. Knowledge is torture. ”
C/W Incest, domestic and sexual abuse, and spoilers for Vurt.
It seems undeniable that Vurt was influenced heavily by cyberpunk. Published in 1993, it makes sense that an iteration of cyberpunk would arrive at that time… but I doubt anyone saw Vurt coming. One year before, Snow Crash was published. Later it would be deemed the progenitor of post-cyberpunk, at least in so far as most academic circles. Vurt, though, is referred to as something I hadn’t heard before: Dreampunk.
Scribble has lost the one thing that means anything to him: his sister, Desdemona. She’s lost to the Vurt— “a drug, a dimension, a dream state, a virtual reality”. There are many kinds of feathers, some legal, some not. When you put these feathers down your throat you go into this consensual hallucination reminiscent of cyberspace but more mysterious as no one truly can define what the Vurt actually is. There are many theories, it appears, but it seems like an urban legend.
“The Haunting was the feeling you got sometimes, in the Vurt, the real world calling you home. There's more to life than this. This is just a game.”
In this instance, they both took a yellow feather named English Voodoo. Within that “program” they then find a meta feather within—the Curious Yellow. His sister decides to take it and he doesn’t. She’s trapped in this deeper, meta Vurt, from which there is no known escape. Scribble, with the help of his crew of misfits, attempt to figure out a way of extracting her but they have to also discern a way of even finding her. English Voodoo isn’t something you just happen upon and that is, ostensibly, step 1.
What follows is a sort of “down the rabbit hole” story as Scribble desperately careens from one point in the narrative to the other in desperation and hope of getting his sister back.
“...I pulled the feather out, jerking him away from the dream. Just like he used to do with me, when I went in alone. The play was shifting, and I knew how bad it felt, to have your dream dragged from your mouth.”
The fiction is frenetic, just like most first wave cyberpunk. The writing style and prose make this story more interesting than it otherwise would be; coupled with a world that pulls you in with questions that only lead to more questions. It ends up being a compelling page-turner. But it also features some of the shortcomings of first wave works. I’ll get to that.
In this world there are people with Vurt in them, allowing them certain connections to this microworld. There are implications that their worth is higher, at least to people within the Vurt. There are also robo people, with cybernetics and plastic; splices, humans mixed with animal genes; a subset of people with shadow in them, able to read and speak directly to someone’s mind. Then there are the corrupt cops shining inpho beams that sweep the grit and grime for people between the cracks using non-legal feathers. People like Scribble.
“He got one finger cut off when he was young... The cafe paid for a replacement put some nano-plastic in there. The kid got hooked. It happens. You get some plastic in you, you just want some more...Some more of that strength. Because that's what it is. Strength. The Strength to persist.”
As an unreliable narrator, it’s hard to figure out how representative Scribble’s lens is of the rest of this sub-culture. But that’s all the information the reader gets, so if you want to be critical of it, you have to take it, along with the implications of the narrative, at face value.
Embedded in the fiction are some things that maddeningly do not serve it well and detract from any themes it may have been trying to explore. For instance, Scribble and Desdemona are lovers and domestic abuse victims; Desdemona herself also a victim of sexual abuse—all of which stem from their father, which they share.
This incest angle does next to nothing for the plot and is treated in the same way every marginalized individual is in the book: to build a gritty, sexualized aesthetic that, while serving the prose and speaks to Scribble’s state of mind and lens, doesn’t actually cogently or coherently establish an interesting theme.
There are a lot of references to purity, generally as a bad thing in this underworld. The uniqueness of an individual being prized. Yet, the only value any individual finds is in regard to their sexuality, which distills down to pure escapism from things we are actually never shown. There is no real kinship found in the community beyond hatred for cops. People use each other and throw each other away continually. Those that don’t, die. Most often completely abandoning their principles and morals.
There is no clear throughline and there should be when the characters are victims; either of circumstance or of, presumably, society. But that’s never put “onscreen”. It is very difficult to care about anybody’s story, including Scribble. He throws away his objective probably a half dozen times but will also throw away his friends in service to it. It’s hard to feel how much he actually cares yet it’s mostly what we are reading to find out.
Every decision each character makes seems frivolous and impulsive like this, feeding into the depictions that they live like animals. While there’s a sense of freedom in this lifestyle, what does it actually matter when there is no real sense of kinship or community, despite gestures that they are one? Incest and fetishization with various forms of pornography all help to merely frame this sub-culture as degenerates. It fails to humanize the people of the story you spend most of your time with, making it hard to care about a single person in the narrative.
The priority is always the psychedelic imagery and prose, without seemingly any thought given to how the people ended up here. What is this society like? We have no contrast. We don’t even know why the cops are bad because we have no context of the larger world. It seems they want to live this way but there are gestures at oppression that is never seen or felt or heard.
The cops that Scribble’s crew runs into are jerks, sure; busting them in a sort of sting operation with a monitored feather they all take which is traced by the cops to their physical location. Their actions perhaps make the most sense! They go to arrest the crew using feathers that aren’t legal and get killed or messed up by them for doing so. We’ve actually seen the result of these feathers, right? His sister is LOST in the Vurt due to these things. It makes sense that society tries to curtail the use of them with enforcement. The surviving police pursue the crew throughout the story with a vindictive streak. But that also makes sense; they murdered one of them. There is a gesture at the cops being “bad” when one goes after Scribble and he says that impure people make the best cops. But there is a missed opportunity for describing the world in better detail. People with compromised morals make good police. Meanwhile, the people in the sub-culture also have no moral principles guiding them. At least, none that are important enough to adhere to.
“Murdoch's gun was the only thing in my life, the only thing worth living for. It gets like that sometimes, with instruments of death.”
All of it is maddening because it adds up to these small series of gestures that are never substantive. When morality is a grey line that applies to no one, what is the value of being punk?
We see this crew of people living on the edges of society, but we don’t know what stratification of class actually looks like in this society. We know that the Vurt is policed because there are some feathers that people can’t handle and get lost in. Some, like pink ones, are pornoverts. Are those legal? Porn is used to further drive home depravity. There’s a sex worker in an open relationship that isn’t de-humanized…yet she’s also used by her friends to make him feel bad. It seems like only “legal blues” might be the only legal feathers… but we don’t get context for why that is. There are bad trips like bad drugs. But is society bad because they enforce laws around them? We get the impression that these people are oppressed… but the only thing we learn about is the ways in which these marginalized people use each other up like a commodity. They live in grime and dirt and sleep with each other in it.
It’s a fun ride that I think is well written. But ultimately, I was hoping for an exploration that validated these characters defined as victims. Something that tells me what this life on the edge is beyond the fugue state of hallucinogenics and drug culture that adds up to a selection of different kinds of drugs curated by connoisseurs and the more privileged in this sub-culture.
In the end, a person like Scribble feels like they literally belong nowhere.
There is a vulgarity and ruthlessness depicting the sub-culture that would have played better with a larger context. It feels like it depends on the shorthand and assumptions of cyberpunk notions without ever actually displaying the world. I liked reading it and I enjoyed it. But that enjoyment was dampened by the ending. There is only a kind of limbo for people like Scribble. It feels like the ending was made to put in a sort of jail for his actions because of his actions. Incest is gross, got it. Just like the lives of all the people on the edge and their proclivities, reveling in the profane. The end result is a vilification or indictment of everybody in the story, even the victims.
“In Bottletown, even our tears flicker like jewels.”