Englishman Noon, a former punk musician, has written a searing and surreal first novel. Reality and technology take on a slippery, hallucinatory quality in this arresting sci-fi vision of near-future Manchester. Maybe that's because everyone except the cops is stoned on Vurt. Part drug, part software, Vurt is the gateway to a dangerous, Dali-esque virtual playhouse. It comes in the form of color-coded feathers with names like Talking Bush, Honey Suckers and English Voodoo. Each brand, when tickled against the pharynx, ushers you into a discrete transcendental state. The story is told by Scribble, a druggie who is engaged in an Orpheus-like search for his sister (and lover), who entered one of Vurt's vast virtual arenas and never emerged.
The language throughout contains the most poetic street vernacular since Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. (Bionic thugs are called robogoths. A movie theater is a shimmy.) In fact, Vurt's only significant flaw is that its reach far exceeds its plot. After creating such an original and transporting atmosphere, Noon isn't quite sure what to do with it. But he has written a memorable book, one that manages to make the virtual almost palpable. (Crown, $22)