Jeff Noon's Channel SK1N (2012) posits an oddly believable future, one that's heavily rooted in our own media-saturated present. The author's first new novel for a decade, SK1N is a stylish post-modern gospel, depicting the transcendence of celebrities into something even more ubiquitous.
The concept (and creation) of celebrity is one of the underlying assumptions in SK1N. Manufactured icons battle for their fifteen minutes on the top of the social standings (which are carefully measured and audited). Blandly attractive talent is recruited, trained and blurred to the point where they all become interchangeable, commercial pap; each star flaring up and then fading into its successor.
The center of the noise - or at least the focal point - is the ultimate reality show: the Pleasure Dome. The Dome holds a single person (carefully selected from a host of competitors). That person - or prisoner - then lives in total isolation, with their every thought amplified and reflected in the surface of the Dome itself. They're not just living in their own head - they're broadcasting it.
The Dome has fans (cults, even) ranging from the analytical to the shamanic, looking for meaning in the Dome's every flickering move:
Here we meet on each side of the glass
To sizzle and purge
and plug our souls in.
To lick the screen for static
To burn our eyes with dazzle...
In Channel SK1N, the Dome's resident is Melissa Gold. She's a frustrated young artist and, after three weeks, one of the Dome's longest inhabitants. People have survived the Dome, but none have ever left completely sane. Given the length of her stay, interest in Melissa has reached a fever pitch: half the crowd has deified her, the other half waits for a bloody suicide. Although Melissa is not, ostensibly, the hero of Channel SK1N, she is its fulcrum. Despite being the ultimate victim - the martyr of a billion televisions - (and completely bonkers) Melissa ultimately has authority over her own actions. Everyone is watching her; she only watches herself. As SK1N flows from start to finish, Melissa quietly/publicly wrestles with her demons, fighting a battle that everyone can see, but only she can understand.
While Melissa is perpetually in the background, SK1N follows Nola Blue, a manufactured pop star - so heavily 'digitised' that she can no longer recognise her own image. Her Geppetto is George Gold, Melissa's father and a cut-throat music mogul in the best tradition of Simon Cowell. George finds, moulds and discards pop stars with frightening regularity - Nola is, at last count, at least the tenth of his disciples.
The beginning of the book finds Nola undergoing two terrifying changes. The first is as a celebrity: her last single, a painfully generic anthem, is a disappointment. Nola can already see - first in her mind's eye, later on television - the "where is she now?" commentary that marks the passing of her ephemeral career. She's understandably panicked. She has no connections besides George (who isn't answering the phone), an assistant (hired by George), a car (a gift from George), fans (who barely recognise her) and lovers (carefully recruited for one night stands). Nola - after spending her entire life becoming a carefully-crafted demigod - is about to be cast back down with the plebeians.
Except there's the second change. A mysterious bruise on Nola's stomach keeps growing. And interfering with her television signal. And, as it grows, showing the television. The latest digital switchover is to 'fractal waves' and it seems that Nola's picked up a virus as a result. This is, to Mr. Noon's credit, not just complete gobbledegook, but complete gobbledegook that's chucked out and then never mentioned again. The why, at least, in the non-ontological sense, is meaningless. Nola is becoming television.
SK1N speeds towards the inevitable meeting between the book's two key entities: the woman whose thoughts are on every television and the woman who's becoming television. George, despite his temporal power, is merely a spectator. His daughter is beyond his reach and Nola is transforming from an autotuned poptart to a collection of high frequency waves. She's got problems that can't be solved by clout alone.
With the exception of the "fractal wave" catalyst, there's very little in Channel SK1N that doesn't already exist in our own world - making the book a wonderfully flexible metaphor. The constant monitoring and ranking of Nola Blue's 'social status', the ubiquity of cameras (professional and amateur), the conspiracy theorists and mystics on sad searches to find higher truths in reality television, the fleeting nature of celebrity and the tension between artist and institutional structure. This last point will invariably get the most airplay, given that Channel SK1N, Mr. Noon's first book for ten years, is self-published. Given that, it is hard not to seek out some sort of polemic in the text. But Mr. Noon tastefully avoids raging against that particular machine. Nola is as exhausted by the iconoclasts, "media hackers, culture jammers and Renegades of Noise" as she is the Powers that Be. She's nostalgic about what she sees as her 'suppressed natural talent', but she credits George Gold and his discipline with giving her the success that she craved. The artist and the institution are both willing participants, even if neither is fully sated by the result.
Where both text and context come together is in SK1N's complex conclusion, with the positing of a third way. While Nola begins as her statistics: her status, her sales; she becomes her art - "no longer the victim of a spell, but the spell itself". It is a tragic, beautiful resolution.
Yet, although Nola and Melissa both grow, change and become the system, the system itself remains unconquered and unchanged - this is, as best, optimistic dystopia. Even if George Gold learns his lesson (and does he?), that lesson is not then beamed, Disney-style, to the receptive masses, all keen to learn their lesson and change their behaviour forever. A handful of prominent individuals have changed, but the underlying structure is still exactly the same. The crowds outside of the Pleasure Dome were lapping up destruction and insanity. As far as they're concerned, they got it - so bring on the next guest... The subjugation of the mob to the media - be it pixel, fractal or page - endures.
Channel SK1N by Jeff Noon is available via the author's website.