Jeff Noon's 'Pollen': a fantastical future


"Pollen," by Jeff Noon. 336 pages. Crown Publishers. $23 As technology becomes more and more intrinsic to our everyday lives and computers insinuate themselves into our leisure time, writers like Jeff Noon will have a field day capitalizing on readers' expectations and fear of the future.

"Pollen," a sequel to Mr. Noon's award-winning debut, "Vurt," is a hip, fantastical blend of science fiction and pulp fiction. Both "Pollen" and "Vurt" are set in the dystopic future-world of Manchester, England - a city now populated by strange hybrid creatures such as dog-people, robot-dogs, and Zombies (the spawn of humans and corpses).

Television and movies have been replaced by an advanced form of virtual reality called Vurt, an interactive, communal dream world accessed by sucking on special feathers. There are erotic Vurts, fairytale Vurts, prison Vurts for convicts, and even the "Rio Bobdeniro" Vurt - a feather which "allowed the Vurt traveler to enjoy the collected dreams of Mr. Bobdeniro."

The trouble is, the Vurt has sprung a leak. Manchester, a "weak point in the barrier between dream and reality," is being bombarded with pollen seeping from the virtual world, and it's causing death and chaos.

Flowers begin to smother the city, mucous is flying and the pollen count is spiraling. The first victim of the incident now known as the "Pollination" is a rebellious cab-driver. He is killed by blossoms which take root in his lungs. His death stirs popular sentiment, and police woman Sibyl Jones is called in to investigate.

Sibyl, "Pollen's" narrator, suspects that the city's powerful taxi cab-boss and her own police chief are somehow involved in the conspiracy. During her search for the villains, she crosses paths with her long-lost daughter Boda. A young cab-driver with the map of Manchester etched into her bald head, Boda was Coyote's paramour and is determined to find his killer.

"Pollen" starts off well enough, with its crisp prose and goofy good-humor. Mr. Noon garnishes the text with jokes, like the brand of cigarettes called "Napalm." He dubs a violent incident in which a woman is killed by a mob of hayfever-sufferers "the big sneeze," and then presents the official cause of death: "victim's lung burst by bullets of snot. Death by proxy sneezing." However, the humor and originality that emerges so charmingly at the start of the book is soon buried under the weight of hoary cliches and frantic, impossible plot twists.

Readers unfamiliar with "Vurt" may be somewhat confused to begin with. But "Pollen" grows increasingly convoluted as it heads toward its climax, when Boda and Sibyl must face down the true enemy: Vurt characters who want to take over reality.

As John Barleycorn, a mythical Vurt figure, tells Sibyl: "I am a tasty story your ancestors once dreamt. The story of the world under the world. Of your fear of death. Out of that fear you made me." "Pollen" becomes not so much a war of good and evil, but a battle between human reality and dreams.

Mr. Noon is a daring writer, and "Pollen" buzzes with energy, imagination and ideas. Not enough to save a badly-plotted book that runs out of steam three-quarters of the way through, of course. But enough that readers should keep an eye on Jeff Noon and his fantastical fiction in the future.

Joy Press co-authored "The Sex Revolts." She is a contributing editor at Spin and British Elle and has written for New York Newsday and the Village Voice.

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