Tag Archives: Rudy Rucker

Nested Scrolls: The Autobiography of Rudolf Von Bitter Rucker, Rudy Rucker

Tor, 2011, 336 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 0-765-32752-X

Despite having head more than half a dozen of Rudy Rucker’s books, I can’t say that I’m much of a fan of him as an author: While I have enjoyed the first half of many of his novels, Rucker writes weird and there’s usually a point somewhere in the narrative where my suspension of disbelief smashes against his surrealism and breaks, after which I can’t (or won’t) make sense of the rest.  I’ve seen the pattern repeat all the way from Master of Space and Time to Hylozoic, and even within his best-known Ware tetralogy.  I suspect that I’m far too square to be the ideal audience for his novels, and I’m fine with that.

Still, it’s hard to come away from a Rucker novel and not feel that the author himself is a character sorely in need to be the hero of his own book, and that’s exactly what we get with his autobiography.  Motivated by a cardiovascular near-death experience in early 2008, Nested Scrolls is Rucker’s attempt to make sense of his experiences so far, a warm and wonderful trip through a rich life.

Going into the autobiography, I didn’t know much about Rucker beyond his back-cover blurbs and that’s for the best as it allows for surprises, fortuitous discoveries and the basic suspense of wondering what would transform Rucker from an underperforming student to an elder SF-writing Computer Sciences professor.

It starts out leisurely enough, with a lengthy section detailing Rucker’s childhood and adolescence –a section that many biographies usually skip out of irrelevance.  But Rucker’s memories of growing up in a small Midwestern city hold some nostalgic value, and the deceptively simple prose (“It was great.”) sets the tone for the rest of the book.

Things do get more interesting as Rucker enters university and gradually develops an ambition to become a beatnick SF writer, more interested in SF because of its innate potential for surrealism than anything else.  The first few years of Rucker’s post-graduate career take us to a few places within the US and Germany before he comes to settle down in Silicon Valley just in time for the nineties high-tech boom.  Along the way he becomes a punk rocker, a professor, a popular science writer, a computer programmer, a father of three children and (oh yes) the beatnick SF writer he wanted to become.

I was most interested by those chapters set in the early nineties where he becomes involved with the geek culture of the time.  Rucker, as it turned out, was involved in many of the things that fascinated me back then, from cellular automata, fractals, virtual reality and cyberpunk. (He even edited the Mondo 2000 book that I so distinctly remember reading back in 1993!)  That, plus the chapters in which he discusses his perennial outsider status within the SF genre community, were the sections of the book that spoke the most directly to me.

But there are other, more heartfelt passages that I also found compelling.  Rucker mentions the issues that he had with mind-altering substances (mostly alcohol, but also soft drugs) before deciding to give them up when they proved more troublesome than they were worth.  Most positively, his descriptions of family life are heart-warming, especially in describing his early days with three children, and the way they transformed into fully-independent adults with lives of their own –one of the most affecting passages late in the book describes their rare get-togethers now that they span three generations, and how Rucker himself can draw upon his memories to see across five generations, the same people occupying different roles.  By the end of the book, Rucker is retired, a grandfather many times over, happy with what he has achieved and curious to see what’s next.

SF readers familiar with his body of work will enjoy the descriptions of the creative process that led to his novels, and especially how his “transrealism” approach involves writing autobiographical passages that are transformed by the inclusion of frankly science-fictional elements.  I can testify first-hand about readers recoiling in confusion while reading his books, but Nested Scrolls goes a long way toward explaining why Rucker writes such surreal science-fiction, and why this very surrealism is at the core of the Rucker literary experience.  In many ways, Nested Scrolls exactly fulfills the ambition of all biographies: tell their lives and explain their subject, making us more sympathetic to them.  I have never met Rucker (although we’ve been to the same SF convention at least once) but if I ever do, it’s this autobiography more than his novels that would make me shake his hand and say “well-done.”

Ware Tetralogy, The, Rudy Rucker

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.

Saucer Wisdom, Rudy Rucker

Tor, 1999, 287 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-86884-7

Frederik Pohl likes to say that “the future isn’t what it used to be,” but that’s only partially true. The imagined futures of Science-Fiction and Futurism have remained constant (if different) upon the years. We all expect a world more or less like our own, with a few extra-terrestrial outposts, better cars and happiness for all.

Radically different concepts sometime intrude in the collective imagination (like nanotechnology), but these are usually co-opted into the mainstream future. Reading futurology journals is a singularly boring experience, as there’s nothing radically new. Even SF’s wildest futures are usually constructed by the author to bring home a philosophical point, or simply to tell a good story.

Rudy Rucker’s Saucer Wisdom is many things, but it’s certainly not conventional. For one thing, it posits a future radically different from your usual run-of-the-mill projection. For another, it’s a non-fiction essay presented in fictional format. A “firmly controlled, intelligent hallucination” says Bruce Sterling in his introduction to the book.

Judge for yourself: The book purports to be the result of Rudy Rucker’s encounters with a man named Frank Shook. Shook has reportedly found a way to contract extraterrestrials, who take him away on trip to humanity’s future. Shook takes notes, makes drawings (included) and gives them to Rucker in order to flesh them out in a narrative.

The result is some far-out speculation wrapped in an entertaining UFO-nut wrapping, as Rucker has to deal with the temperamental Frank Shook and his acquaintances. Notes on the future of communication, bio-technology, femtotechnology and transhumanity make up the bones of the book, while the meat is Rucker’s rocky relations with his “witness.”

The result isn’t perfect, but it works more often that it doesn’t. Rucker’s envisioned future -full of genetically-engineered things, invasive biotechnology and discorporal humanity- is a great deal more edgy that futurism’s most usual predictions, and his approach here is pitch-perfect for the type of barely-serious extrapolation he’s doing. Similarly, a science-fiction novel loaded with these gadgets wouldn’t be credible, and by couching his speculations in simili-reality, Rucker knows how to present them.

This being said, the mock-confession narrative has its moments of annoyance. Your reviewer has never been a UFO-nut, and so exploiting this trend -even by saying that it’s complete nonsense- wasn’t as effective as Rucker intended. Most of the time, the obviously-amateurish drawings are also superfluous, though they bring to mind Stanislaw Lem’s Star Diaries… a perfect match to Saucer Wisdom in more than the illustrations.

Despite the unpleasant nature of the speculation (come on; how many of you could envision a future of wet, crawling, semi-intelligent animals scattered around your house without thinking at least a small “eeew”?), Rucker presents a radically different future, and that’s enough to keep up fascinated. He also understands the dynamics of innovation, and so his future is constantly changing: One individual makes an innovation, which is perfected by business rivals, distributed as shareware, popularised in derivative products which then spawn further innovations…

As far as predictive books go, this one isn’t the most pleasant or the easiest to digest, but it’s certainly one of the most original. Cheers to Rucker for wrapping up his ideas is such a package. The future isn’t what it used to be, but you can get an idea of what it might become with Saucer Wisdom.