by Jeff NoonAutomated Alice is a sequel to the original Alice books of Lewis Carroll. In this book Alice climbs up through the workings of a clock in order to retrieve a parrot, and finds herself travelling forward in time from 1860 to 1998. It imitates the style of Alice in Wonderland very closely, but this is not exactly a parody.
The 1998 Alice ends up in is not our 1998, but some odd parallel one. Rather than a world filled with cars and computers there are iron horses and computermites. Modern inventions exist in a more figurative form. People of the future are also afflicted with a condition called Newmonia. This means that people and animals, or even people and objects, are joined in new and unusual forms. Jeff Noon is being characteristically weird, and Automated Alice makes even less sense than usual.
Alice's aim is to get herself and Whippoorwill the parrot back to 1860 in time for her two o'clock writing lesson. But Whippoorwill keeps flying away, leading her around this Manchester and along a trail of clues. Alice keeps encountering the mysterious Jigsaw murders, which may have something to do with the missing pieces of her jigsaw puzzle. On one level this is simply a children's adventure with a mystery to be solved. The trouble is that the complexity and downright strangeness of this story hints at other, more metaphorical levels to it. But it's not at all clear what Noon is trying to say, or even if he is trying to say anything at all.
The Automated Alice of the title is Alice's doll, Celia, who grows to life-size and becomes a sort of cyborg. She helps Alice to escape from Miss Minus and the civil serpents, and from the police who believe she is responsible for the murders. There's lots of wordplay as Alice misunderstands the modern terminology. Jeff Noon's alter-ego in the book is Zenith O'clock, the "writer of wrongs", who writes books that the Crickets hate.
For all the imitation of Lewis Carroll's style, this book doesn't quite have the charm of his work. It's not certain to appeal to children because it can be confusingly absurd. It's not really cyberpunk either, although you might get that impression from Noon's other work. Reality is twisted, the cause and effect of conventional narrative is ignored, and the threads of the story meet loosely at best. Read this to your kids if you want to confuse them.
Jeff Noon is furiously inventive, and that elevates this book above a mere attempt to cash in on Carroll's name. But don't look here for social commentary or carefully crafted metaphor for the problems of progress. Automated Alice is not an especially serious book.
Review © Ros Jackson