the mancunian candidate
Jeff Noon discusses Automated Alice
‘Witness your ability to discourse with me Alice, all these many years after your real life. Maybe I should write my third book about you. I would call it Through the Clock’s Workings and What Alice Found There.’
‘But that’s a silly title Mr. o’ Clock, because I’ve hardly found anything at all in my travels through the clock. I still have another five jigsaw pieces to find, and my parrot called Whippoorwill and my dog called Celia, who’s a kind of automated Alice.’
‘Automated Alice? Hmm. Perhaps I’m already writing the book called Automated Alice, and we two are merely characters within it.’
JN: Automated Alice is my attempt to update Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland just a little bit. It’s perceived as the third book, after Alice Through the Looking Glass, and in it I send Alice through a clock’s face from the Victorian age into the future, and she lands in Manchester, 1998. It is about Alice’s adventures in a present day Manchester – albeit a very strange version – and her attempts to get back home.
Would you consider Automated Alice as being part of the current trend for literary sequels written by contemporary authors?
JN: I hope not! No, it’s not a sequel, it’s more like my attempt to give Lewis Carroll a say in the late Twentieth Century. If you consider the age we live in, there are certain aspects of it that Lewis Carroll would be absolutely fascinated by – for instance – chaos theory, relativity, fractals, the lottery, quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle. He would pounce upon these things that we have discovered in the Twentieth Century, and he would turn them into games and puzzles and so on. Once I got this idea, it was just like ‘Okay, I’ve got to try and imagine what Lewis Carroll would make of, say, chaos theory’, and so a lot of the book is my attempt to write a kind of playful version of modern science and modern mathematics. Another part of the book is me just having fun with Carroll, basically – such as Alice meeting Miles Davis. In this part, Miles Davis tries to explain to Alice the concept of being cool . . . so you have Miles Davis trying to explain to a young Victorian girl what ‘cool’ means – of course she hasn’t a clue – so it’s me having a lot of fun with the modern world, and playing it off the innocence of Alice.
As Automated Alice isn’t a sequel, how would you categorise it, if you had to?
JN: Day one of sitting down to write this book, I was terrified – I mean, how do you take on such a thing? I knew I had to start it with a poem, because Carroll always started his books with poems, and this was even more terrifying! So, I wrote this poem in which he says he wants to save Alice from the ravages of time, and as I wrote that line, I heard this voice – I can only assume it’s Lewis Carroll’s voice – saying ‘No, no! It’s not ravages of time, it’s radishes of time!’ and so I wrote that down. That’s why I’ve said before that it does seem like a double act because there were a lot of times throughout the book when I did feel this other voice coming in. So, it is a comic book, it is a book for people who want to have some fun in literature. It does have a more serious undercurrent which I don’t really want to go into – all about what is reality, what is dream, what is literature, how do you tell the difference, and also what is a robot compared to a real life person . . . basically, Lewis Carroll hid these deeper messages under the playful scenes in his books, and that is what I have tried to do with mine.
‘All amongst the gravestones, the policedogmen were gathering in their packs, but they were keeping their distance, and Alice couldn’t work out why. Alice expected Whippoorwill to deliver yet another riddle, but no such thing happened. Alice saw that he had a little something lodged in his beak which forbade him to make even a single squawk. It was a jigsaw piece. Alice realised that this jigsaw was Whippoorwill’s last and final riddle, and it was only then that she noticed the names engraved upon the gravestone, that Whippoorwill was perched upon: Ermintrude and Mortimer Peabody. Not dead, only radishing.’