“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

“He looked up at the sky, which hung suspended only a few yards above his head and was made up of thousands upon thousands of closely packed lamps.” 

A Man of Shadows, Jeff Noon.

JEFF Noon has a new book coming out. That is a bigger statement than might first seem apparent. It’s been 15 years since his last one and for a while it didn’t look like there would be another.

In the years in between Noon, one of science fiction’s most challenging, playful and striking voices, has been writing film scripts and playing around with online fictions in various forms and on various platforms (for years now he has been writing dazzling microfictions on Twitter).

In short, it had got to the point, I tell him, that it looked as if he had become very much post-book.

“I’m never post-book,” he laughs. Noon is in his living room in Brighton where he has lived for the last 18 years but his Mancunian vowels are still present and correct.

“For a number of years I’ve been looking after myself and doing my own ebooks and I’ve come to the end now. I do miss being in bookshops because I love physical books.”

So, A Man of Shadows marks a return to physicality and a return, he hopes, to being read.

“I left novels and tried to write film scripts and it’s an incredibly difficult world to be in because you’re not in charge any more. In a novel you’re in charge. It works or it doesn’t but it’s all on your terms. With a film you’re just waiting for other people to say yes and of course they hardly ever do. I realised after six or seven years I hadn’t had an audience for a long time and I had to come back, so I started again.”

A Man of Shadows is his first book-shaped book since Falling Out of Cars back in 2002. (Channel Sk1n, his 2012 novel came out as an ebook). It’s a novel about strange cities and the passing of time, one that wears the skin of a private eye novel, complete with its own world-weary private eye, Nyquist.

As such it is archetypally Noonian. He has previously described his approach as “avant-pulp”. Imagine if, he once said, The Big Sleep had been written by James Joyce.

A Man of Shadows isn’t that. But it might live in a nearby postcode. “Yeah, that’s always been a guiding idea for me, that idea of taking some ideas from the avant-garde, but using them to write stories. I like experimental work, but I also really like storytelling. So I’ve always been drawn to merging those things together.

“Sometimes my work is more mainstream and other times it’s quite extreme in terms of its experimentation. Obviously, this is a crime novel so it’s got a good linear story to it. But, yeah, I bring other stuff in.”

The other stuff this time was inspired by his reading Italo Calvino and the existence of Japanese “day zones”, areas in Tokyo where the lights never go out. “They’re very brightly lit, very noisy, music pumping out, teenagers playing video games and that idea just struck me. And then I was reading Invisible Cities. It’s a series of travelogues to imagined cities and each city is different. They’re quite fantastical and as I was reading it I thought: ‘Oh God, can you imagine writing a detective book set in each of these cities?’”

Eventually the two ideas merged and A Man of Shadows was the result. In Noon’s novel there are two cities. In Dayzone the lights never go out. In Nocturna they never come on. And in between there is Dusk, an eerie, disturbing interzone that citizens of both Dayzone and Nocturna try to avoid. Nyquist, though, doesn’t have the choice.

“The world building is one of the most rewarding but most time-consuming aspects of being an SF writer,” Noon admits, “because you really have to put the detail in. And I like books that really exhaust the location, if you know what I mean. The relationship between location and character is vital. The character grows out the city. It’s a feedback loop.

“And when people say to me … Every so often they use the word dystopian about my work … I am always in denial of that. No, I’m creating worlds I’d like to live in.”

Alright then, which of the three cities in A Man of Shadows would he be willing to take a lease in himself? “Probably Nocturna, knowing my reclusive nature.”

The other twist in the novel is that time has been divorced from the natural cycles of day and night. “Everybody has a different setting on their watch,” Noon explains.

We are post-GMT then. Or maybe pre-GMT. “Doing the research for this I found out that before they set the international deadlines in the 19th century if you travelled across America on a train from east to west you’d have to change your watch about 30 times.”

Time. Here’s the thing, Jeff, I say. Here we are both men in our sixth decade. Can you hear time’s winged chariot through the window? “Changing gear? Yeah, you can’t help it obviously.”

The things is it’s now been almost 25 years since he made his name with his debut novel Vurt, a helter-skelter acid take on rave culture morphed through Alice in Wonderland and videogame culture; a vision of a Manchester full of robots, sentient dogs, drug hallucinations ingested via feathers.

At the time Noon was a 35-year-old playwright working in Waterstones in Deansgate to pay the rent. As soon as Vurt was published he was hailed as the new voice of SF’s cutting edge.

“I’m of that generation who read Gibson’s Neuromancer and just thought: ‘Oh my God, what is this?’ And 10 years later I remember thinking: ‘Somebody really needs to write Neuromancer, but set it in England. Nobody’s done that. Oh, OK, maybe that’s my job.’”

For a while “Noonian” was what we’d now call a meme. Vurt and its sequels Pollen and Nymphomation (the latter still the best response to the national lottery) were books of their time and for their time. Noon was written up in the dance music press as well as the literary pages. He even did readings at nightclubs. He was a bit too old for ecstasy himself but his books were in favour of repetitive beats and more.

Does that moment in the sun feel long ago and far away? “It did for a while and now it doesn’t. I’ve kind of come full circle on it. And in the last year I’ve met a lot of younger writers who have really been inspired by that book. There was an interim period where I felt I was a bit forgotten. Now I’m like the old man of cyberpunk. So that’s gratifying.”

Time runs on, we move ahead. Do we change though? Perhaps. When he was asked to write three new stories for the 20th anniversary edition of Vurt he realised that he was now a 55-year-old man and his attitude to the characters was rather different.

“It was almost like I was looking after them: ‘You don’t have to do this. These dream drugs. They’re actually quite dangerous.’

“I thought: ‘Oh hang on a second, this isn’t right. I’m being too moralistic about it, which I wasn’t back then.’

“So I had to readjust that and just let them enjoy the situation. But, of course, you can’t help putting who you are now into what you write.”

Then again, has the writer in Noon changed that much? In a way, he says, he has always been writing the same book.

“You come back to these same stories, these same images, the same ideas. Same sentences sometimes. You can’t help yourself as you get older. You have a vocabulary. You have a box of stories and every so often I try and jump out of it, but, eventually, you end up back in it and you think: ‘OK, here we go. This is who I am and this is what I’m writing.’

And so Jeff Noon is writing books again. The paper kind. He has already written a real crime novel – his current passion – set during the Brixton riots in 1981. He even has the idea for what he calls the last Vurt novel in his head. A title and the first chapter too.

“I’ve had a very up and down career. I am sure it’s very similar to other writers. There was a time when a lot of my books were out of print. There’s nothing unusual about that. It does happen, but it is quite difficult to take. You have to be strong. You have to grasp your career and twist it around. Three years ago I got rid of my agent. I walked away from her after 20 years of being with her. I decided I would do it myself so the last three years have been about me doing that.

“It seems to be working at the moment. Sometimes you’ve just got to take control of your own life.”

He laughs. “I sound so much like my mum and dad when I say this stuff. It’s those old northern English working class values you know. But it’s true.”

A Man of Shadows by Jeff Noon is published by Angry Robot on August 3, priced £8.99.