Channel Sk1n by Jeff Noon
Reviewed by Rhiannon Lassiter
30 November 2012
Channel Sk1n marks a shift in media for both author and text. After a ten year hiatus from science fiction writing, Noon returns with a new concept and a new format. In contrast to his previous traditionally published titles available in hard copy formats, this title is self published and only available as an ebook. The text is just as experimental: an expansion of the lyricism and surrealism in prose and concepts of Noon's canon to a heightened and fevered pitch.
Nola Blue is a young pop star whose rise to fame has been manufactured by music mogul George Gold: renamed, reinvented, remixed, and rearranged. But under the shell of her new identity she is revealed as a doubtful loner who is already having doubts about whether she can sustain her image and success. Her latest single "I Just Wanna Feel (The Real You)" has just dropped and only scraped into the status rankings—the equivalent of the Top 40—at thirty-sixth place.
Nola is described as always having had a gift for lyrics but now she is distracted, forgetting words and melodies as soon as she's invented them. Channel surfing through the fragmented digital signals of multiple content streams, she falls asleep in front of the television, strobed by the static-ridden flicker of light.
When she wakes the next morning she is crackling with that fuzz of static, losing focus and concentration, hearing sounds buzzing in her brain. On her stomach is a technicolor bruise, a wet bloody wound she doesn't remember receiving, a bruise that begins to show moving pictures. Nola has become a living antenna, a broadcast medium for the digital visions of a saturated society.
Betrayed by her body, her career collapsing around her, Nola embarks on a journey of exploration through both the real and virtual worlds, endeavoring to make sense of what has happened to her. Increasingly she focuses on Melissa: the focus of a reality television experiment who has been trapped in a "Pleasure Dome" for months in an increasing state of psychosis. Coincidentally, Melissa is the daughter of Nola's manager, who himself begins to crack under the strain of what's happening to the young women in his life. The question becomes whether Nola and Melissa have accessed an altered state and if there are insights to be gained and an escape route created from the pressure of being a canvas for other people's dreams and nightmares.
Noon doesn't explain this all at once. The text is deliberately disjointed, fragmented, and allusive. Nola's stream of consciousness dominates the novel, interspersed with static-ridden strings of words and sounds hinting at the nature of the connection that’s being established.
The text is almost a prose poem and this aspect intensifies as the narrative proceeds, with segments presented as songs or ballads interspersed with a narrative point of view written in the present continuous, whose authorial voice is part Nola, part Noon.
Nola, picking up broadcasts.
Surrounded by words, flashes of heat, of noise, fuzz and flicker. All broken, all scattered, fragments of meaning. Feeling the signals as they danced, feeling her skin respond, to burn and itch.
Traffic reports, blips of info, rolling news, pirate radio callouts, shrieks and moans.
The latest hits, the fallen songs.
Nola in pain. Her one desire now, to escape, to outrun the feelings, the charge that was taking her body over, that threatened her.
The narrative aims at an immersive experience, capturing the feelings of connection and disconnection as much in the medium as in the message. Unfortunately this does detract from its accessibility. While Noon's existing fans may find clues and hints and puzzles in the prose, and enjoy the experimental nature of the concept, it's not likely to appeal to the casual browser—the bookshop equivalent of the channel surfer. The ostensible synopsis of the plot is something that might easily have appealed to a modern teenage or young adult reader but the story is not so much explicit as implicit. There's not a great deal of narrative action and the events of the plot are choked with emotive exposition. This has knock on effects on the build up of tension and how much it's possible to identify with the protagonist.
The poetic prose is also problematic. Since Nola has been characterized as a lyrical prodigy whose early demo tapes show promise and whose trick talent is making up her own lyrics to existing songs, it would have been an advantage if her lyrical skills could have been rendered accordingly. Many forms of music involve this kind of off the cuff lyrical invention but Nola's songs are either deliberately banal pop clichés:
I just wanna TOUCH you
just (wanna) touch you, the REAL you
Or fragmentary attempts at something more meaningful:
No blues like gemstone blues, shining.
No blues like a white moon shining.
And her own exposition voice:
I was asleep but my skin came alive.
For my head is filled with dreams and my hair with the rain of the night.
And my hands they drip with pictures, and my flesh sings with dreams and memories.
None of this reads like contemporary pop music, or singer-songwriter indie, or extemporaneous scatting or jamming or rap battling or even free verse. Perhaps all the deliberately expressed text is intended to be read as ironic or symbolic but then what skill does Nola actually possess? How does she serve as a modern voice when her own voice is so far removed from the practice of lyricism?
The narrative thread has similar issues to the conclusions of Michael Marshall Smith's Only Forward (1994) and Spares (1996), and to Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (1996), which also explore the connections between fictional narratives, digital dreams, and altered consciousness and concludes with a mystical connection between two women, one of whom serves as mother/sister figure to the other. But where the signal to noise ratio of Marshall Smith and Stephenson's novels degrades in their final sections, Noon's is deliberately fuzzy throughout. It's as though he's been liberated from conventional publishing, editing, and narrative conventions all at once.
The press information for this book makes much of the experimental nature of the work, but aside from the unconventional formatting of the slipstream "static sections" and the free verse of Nola's mindstream, it doesn't draw on any specific advantage of electronic literature as did, for example, Geoff Ryman's 253, published electronically in 1996 and in print in 1998. Ryman's experimental ePublication took place sixteen years ago and there have been exponential increases in the possibilities of digital publication since. Indie and electronic releases can come with tie in games (Jennifer Government, independently published by Max Barry, 2003), website experiences (The Broken World, Tim Etchells, 2008), and digital privacy how-to explanations (Little Brother, Cory Doctorow, 2007). Channel Sk1n has a rudimentary page including a list of "neologisms" without definitions, starting with "Ahhfgrhhhazjhhhhjarghhcxxzhhhhhghhhhhh" and ending with "zzhhmmmxt": obviously the words Noon had to add to his word processor dictionary to remove the annoying flags from its spellchecker.
If Channel Sk1n is an experiment, it's one without a hypothesis, method, result or conclusion. Although the author obviously enjoyed writing it, it's not clear what the role of the reader is. Ironically, given the subject matter and the cynical view of the media it offers, it does reduce the reader to a passive consumer: in theory immersed or absorbed but also removed and distant. There's a fourth wall present which would exist in print or electronic publication. Perhaps an editorial eye would have helped break this down and either construct or deconstruct the text differently.
In conclusion, the core ideas and the USP of the book are compelling, but the execution is so experimental that all responses will be highly subjective and dependent on how much the individual reader is able to connect with the stylized prose. Definitely not an entry-level text for this author. Read Vurt (1993) or Pollen (1995) first.