Pollen by Jeff Noon

(8.0/10) Pollen does not quite equal the power of its predecessor.

Pollen returns us to the future Manchester of Noon’s remarkable first novel, Vurt. This time the city is threatened by an outbreak of murderous flora and a dangerous alliance between creatures of the Vurt dream world and power-hungry individuals in Manchester.

Its central character, Sibyl Jones, is a Shadow cop, and, at least initially, this reads like a police procedural story. Coyote, a dog-man black cab driver, collects a mysterious fare from the zombie-filled wastelands beyond the city and in bringing his passenger, the plant child Persephone, back into Manchester, he becomes the means by which she can unleash her botanical assault. This marks an opening battle in the Looking Glass War, a struggle between dream and reality. Coyote’s death sets in motion investigations by both Jones and the cab driver’s would-be girlfriend, rival cab driver Boda.

The plot’s steady increase in tension is reflected in the ever rising pollen count which chokes the city’s air and gradually transforms Manchester into a flora-filled dreamscape. Boda is eventually revealed to be Jones’ daughter, and in their attempt to stop the attack they venture into the Vurt to confront John Barleycorn, a Vurt entity seeking entrance into reality.

Pollen reinforces Noon’s reputation as a powerful storyteller with a talent for the surreal. Characters are nuanced and well-drawn. The plot is filled with intrigues and twists until the end, and beneath the surface there are powerful allusions to numerous mythologies, folklores, and quest narratives. The novel shares the inventive and almost hallucinogenic imagery of Vurt whilst fleshing out Noon’s strange future world. We learn about the origin of the species blending that made the first novel so original, and the nature of those who possess shadow abilities. Yet, oddly, Noon’s explanations tend to diminish the power of his fantasy world even as he expands upon it. Vurt had the courage to cast its readers into a strange world and the confidence to know that they would just accept its’ weirdness. By contrast, Pollen explicitly spells out a relationship between the Vurt and reality that had remained intriguingly ambiguous in the first novel. Rather than a realm marked by strange exchanges, the Vurt now becomes a conventionally intrusive threat to reality from the forces of dream and collective storytelling. The idea of a conflict between imagination and reality, and the desire of story characters like the demonic Barleycorn to have control over their own existence, are both (overly) familiar fantasy genre motifs. At times, Noon’s surrealism also tips over from the wonderfully weird (Coyote is resurrected as a dog-man-plant hybrid) to the just plain silly (the detonation of a snot bomb).

As such, whilst it is an inventive novel in its own right, Pollen does not quite equal the power of its predecessor. Whereas Vurt took readers to a place they had not been before, Pollen goes some way to returning them to a sense of the familiar, not so much in terms of revisiting Noon’s reimagined Manchester as through the novel’s underlying conventional conceit of fantasy’s war upon reality.

Pollen by Jeff Noon
(Tor, 2013)

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