If I hadn't just read Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland I wouldn't have got much further than the first couple of chapters of Automated Alice. But then I wouldn't have got much further than the first couple of chapters of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland if a pristine copy of Jeff Noon's book weren't sitting on my shelf, unopened since buying it twenty years ago. The two were inextricably linked, just like Alice and her 'twin twister' Celia.
Noon's Alice is exactly the same child who had those Victorian adventures. In this story she's visiting her Great Aunt Ermintrude in Didsbury, Manchester where the young girl "was beginning to feel very drowsy from having nothing to do." Her mind wanders. Whippoorwill the pet parrot poses her a riddle. Alice lets it out of its cage and when it flies into the grandfather clock she follows, falling through a long tunnel of numbers and landing in an underground corridor in the year 1998.
The blurb on the book jacket calls it 'cyberpunk', but the writer rejected this label. No need to go haring off to find examples of the genre then. Noon says it's an 'avant-fantasy', and a 'trequel' to the Victorian Alice tales. The story is certainly as fantastical as the original adventures.
I enjoyed Noon's word play, as I did that of Lewis Carroll in the original. Here are some of the other things I liked. One character, "Captain Ramshackle wants to know which number, when multiplied by itself, will give the answer minus one". My maths education not being up to this, I asked a geek, but you could as easily google it. The answer is i, an imaginary number, which is rather apposite for a work of the imagination.
There's an element of metafiction in the book when Jeff Noon himself turns up under a pseudonym. He tells Alice, "perhaps I'm already writing the book called Automated Alice, and we two are merely characters within it?" He suggests she should look up her history in the library.
So I was delighted to find Alice and her 'twin twister' Celia running around Manchester Library, where I once worked, in search of 'Reality and Realicy'. The book briefly explains, 'Existence' consists of 'Reality', 'Unreality' and 'Nureality'. It follows that 'Alistence' consists of the 'Real Alice', the 'Imagined Alice' and the 'Automated Alice'. Well, you can't argue with that, but I did sympathise with the young girl who exclaims "Oh, poppycock! ... Who wrote this rubbish?" Quite so.
At least the writing style in mimicking Lewis Carroll makes it easy to whizz through the book. I didn't warm to many of the characters, although one of them, a hybrid 'Catgirl', went by the fabulous name Whiskers MacDuff. If ever I have a cat, this will surely be its name. I doubt I'll search out anything else by Jeff Noon 'tho. It just isn't really my type of thing.
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