What are they?

A few years ago, 2005 perhaps, I was recommended by my local bookstore owner, Sean (Bent Books, West End Brisbane), to read a new author. Well, new-old. Jeff Noon is a Brit sci-fi author whose career had waxed, arced, then waned or whatever other limiting and incorrect adjectives are used to describe a sporadically publishing author's career. I guess it seemed that Noon had done his best work, and since he had not put out anything substantial since his last work, Falling Out of Cars (this has to be one of my favourite and yet most depressing reads of this century), the critics declared him 'not quite dead'. I just jumped on his homepage a minute ago and it bears an update from "April 2005" - not a websmart move. But so what. Noon writes brilliantly and his works are etched in titanium somewhere in my mind.

I think I was with many other cyberpunkers in enjoying his Vurt series of novels above his other works. They helped define cyberpunk, a genre that I have always had trouble trying to seriously explain to a non-fan. The novels that made up this series were:

Vurt 1993

Pollen 1995Jeff Noon

Nymphomation 1997

Okay so what is it that ties these works together? The protagonists do not overlap, but background characters - e.g. the Game Cat, Celia Hobart, all help provide a common framework to build a picture of dystopic Manchester. There is a drug presence in Vurt, and to a lesser degree in Nymphomation - young Jaz likes to try the Ultra-garlic from his father's Indian restaurant, and it seems to have narcotic effects.

(I am ashamed to say I have never read Pollen. I just emailed my parents this sad neglection of my cyberpunk duties, pointing out that Christmas beckons...)

But what started me writing this article was, well, honestly, I was watching a Star Gate Atlantis Season 2 Episode 8 - Conversion. And the little buzzy Wraith-forebear bugs reminded me of my mental image of the blurbfly from Nymphomation.

This novel tied together so much great stuff - mathematics, being young and gay, homelessness, a nation's addiction to gambling, and so much more. It has memorable characters - little Celia (who I believe reappears as in Vurt when she's grown up). Vurt itself means for Virtual Reality. Which you may remember was 'a big thing' in the 1990s. CPU speeds were taking off and Moore's Law suggested that they would just keep speeding up - doubling every 18 months or so. Primitive helmet and glove virtual-reality-interaction sets were tolerated, mainly because their creators saw them as the prototypes that technological advance would tear away overnight. With a decade or so's adherence to Moore's Law, the number of calculations a CPU would be able to do would be enough to render a totally convincing environment in realtime.

But as is always the way, Virtual Reality did not turn out like the movies (Lawnmower Man) or books (Philip K Dick). Moore's Law hit a snag or two, and top speeds have been the same for a few years now. CPU manufacturers are looking at increasing the number of 'cores' on a chip instead of increasing the speed. I guess 4 CPUs runnig at 3gHz can do as many calculations in a second as one 12gHz core (if you can architect the inter-chip communications needed). I see in Second Life the modern form of VR. A Chinese artist had an installation in Brisbane's Institute of Modern Art in mid 2009 that was a virtual City, Cao Fei. She built it online in Second Life and the detail is meant to be breathtaking.

There are people who make their livings trading online - 'Farms' of Chinese youths are paid to trawl World of Warcraft for items that can be resold online for real currency. Others create clothes for your avatar to wear in Second Life or other creations...And there are real estate brokers for virtual lots.


So maybe the blurbflies don't buzz outside my third story window singing me sweet songs of commerce and consumerism. But the tale of how Jaz caught a blurbfly, ripped it open to find ..... not technology but gooey slimy guts ...... is a tale that encircles my little accountant's heart. I have a quiet dream of AI, and sometimes I feel all the human race is around for is to give AI a helping hand. We are the bootstrapping generation, the to-be-forgotten ancestors. One day perhaps little AIs will talk about us the way we talk about pagan beliefs of woodspirits, or Adam and EVe, and then their science will commit us to fairytales. But we will have done our job, which is all you can say of any great-great grandparent once you remove them far enough in time.

There's a bit of similarity between the way I see us forgotten by AI descendants, and my inability to find an image of a blurbfly, even with Google Images (btw, Google rolled out its own DNS service today, putting them more central in some's sights as the new Microsoft. They're either trying to take over the world, or just cannily position themselves as central to the Information Age.) I am used to Google answering my every informational need, and I have arrived at a point where if I cannot find an answer (or a pic of a blurbfly) I blame my primitive querying skills rather than consider teh possibility that maybe there are no blurbfly pix on the net.

Some have suggested that the idea for a blurbfly came from Philip K Dick's 1966 novel, The Simulacra, where they talk of commercial flies.

I guess I am a little glad that I did not find a blurbfly image for this page. It's reassuring to know that not everything you may want is just a few keystrokes away. It puts me back into a mode of thinking - 'How could I do this myself'? And I start considering using my own creative skills to bring a blurbfly to life....Next time you hear a strange noise outside your window, and think you can hear a TV playing out there, sharpen your eyes, maybe it's one of my blurbflies darting commercially through your garden.