Jeff Noon has always been fascinated by borders. He describes his first novel, ‘Vurt’, as something brought across the frontier between this world and another. His early work was full of characters traversing portals, whether formed by physical structures or drugs.
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 a Clarke Award win in 1993.
His new novel, ‘A Man of Shadows’ (published by Angry Robot Books) explores a different kind of border: that of dusk. Inspired by Dayzone, part of Tokyo where lights and music are on 24/7/365, 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 main character, a private detective called John Nyquist, has never left the city, although the world outside is like our own.
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 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 time standards; for example, families find their own time units, as to 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 the corn exchange, as well as the requirement for laws and capacity for crime.
The city exists somewhere outside normal time, while simultaneously acknowledging 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 Jeff’s too; he says he is uncomfortable on any kind of middle ground.
Nyquist is a private eye because 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.