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.”