Prime, 2010 omnibus re-edition of 1982-2000 originals, 751 pages, US$24.95 tp ISBN 978-1-60701-211-5
Some authors’ bibliography can be described using a single word approximation, and so Rudy Rucker’s fiction can best be labelled weird. Even by the imaginative standards of post-New Wave Science Fiction, Rucker pushes the limits of what genre readers are ready to accept as being plausible. A mathematician/computer scientist by training and madman of the imagination by choice, Rucker has been at the periphery of SF for decades, and The Ware Tetralogy is a splendid career omnibus summing up the groovy, the bad and the wacky. Bringing together Software (1982), Wetware (1988), Freeware (1997) and Realware (2000), it’s also a wild trip through the recent past of SF’s cutting-edge.
Reading Software today is an intriguing trip back to the founding texts of cyberpunk, at a time where SF writers were first trying to grasp the new ideas that the personal computer revolution were making accessible. Mind as software? Digitizing personalities and storing them as information? Software was there before the rush: Given how thoroughly those notions now permeate the genre, it’s probably impossible to read it today and grasp how innovative this must have felt at the time. Significantly, Software also happens to be the most accessible of the four books bundled here. It’s weird, but approachably so: There are a few chuckles at the chronology (lunar-based robots having rebelled by 2001, and mind-digitizing being common by 2010), but the protagonist’s issues are recognizable, and much of the (ahem) hardware is familiar.
This stops being true as Wetware and its two follow-ups unfold. Technology growing ever-weirder in the universe of the series, humans start using drugs to merge at the cellular level, robots evolve into a kind of smelly malleable plastic compound, hyper-dimensional aliens stop for a chat and reality-bending technology (similar to the one imagined in Rucker’s own 1999 Saucer Wisdom) messes up everything. The characters become increasingly incomprehensible (with a few exceptions, the most sympathetic being a perverted redneck with bad taste in partners) and so do their actions. Reading The Ware Tetralogy at that point becomes a race from one comprehensible stepping-stone to another, trying to keep up with a flood of gratuitous strangeness.
It does help that as Rucker grows older, his stories become less mean. Software’s biggest flaw is the way it suddenly races through its third act in order to deliver a bleak resolution. Much of the same also happens during Wetware, as the shiny new toys he plays with are abruptly discarded, outlawed or destroyed by clueless characters. This, in fact, becomes a distinguishing point between Rucker and much of his SF cohort: Despite its fanciful extrapolations, The Ware Tetralogy frequently turns its back on progress, and never so blatantly than during the final volume. The result, unfortunately, is never a series we can trust to deliver the expected SF thrills: All four books have a tendency to pick up their toys and go home just as we’re starting to have fun. Fortunately, Realware provides a conclusion that’s both satisfactory and kind –if nothing else, this should be reason enough to read the story to the end.
This being said, many of Rucker’s other writing tics are more admirable: If nothing else, he understands that humans in general are dumb, perverted and prone to taking counterproductive decisions that harm everyone. Sexual obsession is a constant here, as are dim-witted characters struggling with future shock. This may clash with SF’s brainy technophilic tendencies, but it does make Rucker a finer chronicler of the human experience than many of his colleagues. (On the other hand, this advantage quickly turns to exasperation when characters doing really dumb things all lead to a small exclamation of “You idiot!”) That’s the point of being a cyberpunk punk.
The Ware Tetralogy is a great example of everything that characterizes Rudy Rucker’s Science Fiction, both good and bad. My own previous experiences reading Rucker have been hit-and-miss: While his extrapolations are usually top-notch, their packaging has often been maddening. Trying to get back to his bibliography after years of neglect, I floundered on his most recent Postsingular/Hylozoic diptych. Most Rucker novels begin rationally, and evolve into something much stranger: If you miss the exit to Bizarroland, you can find yourself stranded in a narrative in which seemingly retarded characters spout childish nonsense to each other. I suppose that SF needs a mad genius or two, but the price to pay may be novels that are more ambitious than successful.
Still, I’m happy that, after years of casual book-hunting, I have finally managed to read the entire Ware series: Prime has done a fine job bringing back all four novels into print as one unified package (even though a few OCR errors made it through, the worst being the inversion of 2053 for 2035 at a crucial establishing moment), with an enlightening afterword by the author detailing the sources of inspiration and subsequent re-evaluation of each novel. This afterword is said to be excerpted from Rucker’s upcoming (2011) autobiography Nested Scrolls, which I am now really looking forward to.
If you’ve got even the slightest interest in experiencing The Ware Tetralogy for yourself, you can download the entire massive four-book series from either the author’s web site in PDF or in many more formats from ManyBooks.