Rudy Rucker Book Reviews
by Mac Tonnies
For sheer extrapolative whimsy, Rudy Rucker's novels and stories are an essential starting point for readers who like their futures weirder than usual. Of the "original" cyberpunks (including Gibson, Sterling and Shirley), Rucker is without doubt the zaniest; his writing recalls both Kurt Vonnegut and William S. Burroughs.
An "autobiographical" painting by Rucker.
A mathematician and hacker with a number of nonfiction works to his credit (as well as a variety of user-friendly software programs), Rucker has coined the term "transrealism" to describe his pseudo-autobiographical fiction; while his stories are wacky beyond compare, it's usually not too difficult to make out a fictionalized Rucker lurking in the narrative, along with characterizations of friends and family. (The crafty and cerebral "Saucer Wisdom" is perhaps his most blatantly "transreal" novel to date.)
Boppers: an A-life program by Rucker.
Because of his unusual perspective, Rudy Rucker is perhaps best classed as an acquired taste; like his contemporaries, Rucker is delightfully impossible to pigeonhole. The complimentary anthologies of Rucker's essays and short fiction ("Seek!" and "Gnarl"!) ably demonstrate Rucker's prowess as a futurist, thinker and cybernetic philosopher. Reading Rucker is a rewarding experience, and I urge anyone with an open mind and high literary ideals to take the plunge.
Rudy Rucker's official site
FREK AND THE ELIXIR
Arguably an hommage to "juvenile" science fiction such as Robert Heinlein's early novels, "Frek and the Elixir" is surprisingly astute, lacking none of the whimsy and wonder familiar to fans of the "Ware" series. "Frek" is a bountiful, mature epic packed with hysterically bent takes on SF themes, from biotechnology to artificial life to String Theory. One of Rucker's funniest books, "Frek" chronicles the adventures of a likeable kid from the third millennium who finds himself the fulcrum of a galactic entertainment contract.
The story's great, and proceeds with the same fractal narrative quality that typifies Rucker's fiction. But the scenery -- ever-changing and engagingly psychedelic -- is even better. (Frek hails from a genetically sanitized Earth populated by patented "kritters" and enigmatic governing "puffballs." Later we're taken on a lush tour of the Cosmos, home to hyperdimensional mind worms, double-dealing executives from the Planck Brane and malevolent interstellar starfish . . . to name a mere few.)
Frek's free-form jaunt through the multiverse is crafty, satirical and trippy -- one of my favorite Rucker offerings to date, loaded with enough eye-popping SF riffs and zonked memes it just might define a new sub-genre. Why can't more "adult" books be this substantial?
MASTER OF SPACE AND TIME
"Master of Space and Time" was first published in 1984, the same year as William Gibson's award-winning "Neuromancer." Mating comic-book pacing and Rucker's trademark concern with the nature of reality, it demonstrates just how disparate 1980s cyberpunk really was. While the conventional image depicts a bunch of black-clad malcontents attempting to out-dystopia one other, the truth couldn't be more different; from the beginning, it was cyberpunk's prehensile, multi-pronged attack on the science fiction genre that ensured its takeover. Rucker was -- and is -- perhaps the nascent sub-genre's premier nonconformist: "Master of Space and Time" manages to offer the expected preoccupation with heady concepts and end on a contemplative note that generates an authentic sense of wonder. It's Rucker's universe; we're just living in it.
"Spaceland" is a freewheeling psychedelic adventure that fuses the Silicon Valley milieu of "The Hacker and the Ants" with the transcendent cosmic all-at-onceness of "White Light." Rucker's vision is a kinetic tribute to Edwin Abbott's classic novel "Flatland" (reviewed here), which introduces us to two-dimensional characters unable to conceive of the third dimension we so cozily inhabit. "Spaceland" asks the next logical question: What would a four-dimensional reality look like to us?
Rucker supplies a plot-line that's unnerving, mind-bending and characteristically zany: Joe Cube, a would-be electronics bigshot suffering from a shaky marriage, gets the deal of a lifetime from a four-dimensional matriarch named Momo, who wants him to manufacture cellphones that bypass cell towers by broadcasting into the fourth dimension.
Naively but understandably enthusiastic, Joe (who Momo supplies with a hyperdimensional extra skin, complete with eyestalk) takes Momo up on the offer. Of course, Joe soon finds that all is not as it seems. For starters, Momo represents but one race of four-dimensional beings -- and her plan to supply Earth with unlimited cellphone use begins to arouse suspicion. Decidedly weird things start happening. After a slow start, "Spaceland" accelerates to a brisk pace that quickly proves as addictive as the hyperdimensional bagels Joe eats to nourish his "augmented" higher self.
"Spaceland's" roots are all over the place. Rucker's 4-D characters reminded me a bit of Kurt Vonnegut's time-tripping Tralfalmadorians while the various terrestrials, with their fragilities and needs, are comparable to Philip K. Dick's lovingly rendered everyday people. But it's Rucker's hallucinatory four-dimensional cosmology that steals the show, employing Abbott's visionary mathematics but infusing them with a liberal dose of patented Rucker Gnarl. "Spaceland" is a rare SF novel, light but deceptively cerebral. Pick up a copy, strap on your third eye, and enjoy the ride.
"White Light," Rucker's first novel, succeeds as a wildly hallucinatory autobiography, with memorable commentary on Rucker's alienation while teaching mathematics at a (semi-) fictionalized university. When Rucker's transrealist alter-ego finds himself able to leave his physical body, he immediately sets off on a madcap metaphysical adventure to define the true nature and meaning of infinity, teaming up with a sapient beetle (who turns out to be none other than Franz Kafka) and taking in some truly bizarre cosmic real estate along the way.
"White Light" is ultimately a novel about intellectual and spiritual transcendence. Unlike the fast-forward milieu of Rucker's "Ware" novels, "White Light" achieves his aim without the use of future technologies; the astral realms visited by the book's hero are a sort of internalized cyberspace predating the immersive electronic environments of William Gibson. Nevertheless, as cohort John Shirley points out in his introduction to "White Light's" third edition, Rucker's first outing is still a decidedly cyberpunkish novel featuring the same reckless optimism and visionary panache that characterize later works. Off-beat and thought-provoking, "White Light" is a great example of an author bending genre conceits to meet his own ends.
In "Seek!," the nonfiction companion to the massive "Gnarl!" collection (below), Rucker muses on cosmology, microchip manufacture, the Meaning of Life, special effects, "transrealism" (Rucker's trademark use of actual personae as springboards for fictional characters), drugs, sex, Christian Fundamentalism, the Cyberpunk Movement...the list goes on. "Seek!" reads with the verve and poignancy of first-rate autobiography. We're allowed access to Rucker's brain and set free to roam, picking up any weird ideas that happen across our path.
"Gnarl!" is the companion volume to "Seek!" and one of the best story collections I've ever read. Featuring almost the entirety of Rucker's professional short-story output, "Gnarl!" includes hysterical and visionary pieces reminiscent of authors ranging from Kurt Vonnegut to Bruce Sterling (whose collaborative effort "Big Jelly" is featured here alongside gems co-written with Marc Laidlaw and Paul Di Filippo). As far as collections go, "Gnarl!" is becomingly introspective and can be read as a transrealist autobiography. Rucker creates grim futures and funny scenarios that cover the spectrum of human emotion.
Pac-Man addiction. Religious fervor. Microgravity sex. Beatniks and hydrogen bombs. Time warps and deranged aliens. "Gnarl!'s" got it all. You can't come away from the experience unmoved.
In "Freeware," the third volume in Rucker's award-winning "Ware" series (beginning with "Software" and continued in the equally adept "Wetware"), we find Rucker's imagination stuck on overdrive, spinning out new technologies and memorable characters with a punk zeal that leaves your brain cells fairly gasping for breath; if this novel moved any faster it would be unintelligible. Fortunately, it's not. Though humanity sometimes takes a back seat to weirdness and whimsy (not an altogether bad thing, with Rucker at the helm), "Freeware" manages to leave an emotional imprint despite the sheer chaos of Rucker's future.
Get ready for intergalactic computer viruses, mathematician Roger Penrose's "Perplexing Poultry" illustration taken to psychedelic extremes, sex with sentient plastic "moldies," an animatronic dildo named "Dr. Jerry Falwell," and broadband telepathic computers. "Freeware" is rewardingly strange and mercilessly surreal. The fact that it's also funny makes this one if my personal favorite Rucker novels. Rucker isn't lying in "Seek!"--cyberpunk lives, and "Freeware" is living proof.
The concluding (?) volume in the "Ware" tetralogy, "Realware" is a hallucinatory feast for the senses and the intellect. As loopy and kinetic as its predecessors, "Realware" solidifies the "Ware" series into a future history that sees generations of weird, likeable characters pursuing their ambitions to unlikely extremes. The ideas at the core of this series are stirring and thought-provoking, made all-the-more enjoyable by Rucker's headlong prose style. The psychedelic future milieu captured in "Realware" is related in bent cyberpunk visions; Rucker's narrative is every bit as malleable (and metaphorically versatile) as the ubiquitous "imipolex" his characters use to subvert and reinvent their world. "Realware" is 21st century cyberpunk on overdrive, and should come as a welcome addition to readers of the "Ware" sequence. Gnarly!
"Saucer Wisdom," Rucker's attempt to usher in a "new style of ufology," succeeds as both a novel and as a handbook for the near and not-so-near future.
Documenting the exploits of "Frank Shook" (a likeable, slightly unhinged UFO contactee), Rucker addresses incipient technological breakthroughs with the wit and imagination readers of the "Ware" series have come to appreciate. Part speculation and part psycho-spiritual manifesto, "Saucer Wisdom" is a genre-busting classic and a great introduction to Rucker's canon.
THE HACKER AND THE ANTS
This release of "The Hacker and the Ants" (v. 2.0) has been updated for the 21st century, and provides an ideal opportunity to revisit Rucker's madcap Silicon Valley, where artificial life-forms vie for attention on the techno-evolutionary stage. To Rucker disciples, whose ranks I joined after devouring the "Ware" sequence, this is no small publishing event.