Boppers, Moldies and Meatbops
Rudy Rucker interviewed by Maxi Kim.
Mathematician and computer scientist, Rudy Rucker, is perhaps best known as one of the founders of the cyberpunk genre. In his 1982 book Software, he combined the depiction of a near-future Earth in the year 2020 populated by murder cults and elderly baby boomers, with a complex robot society on the moon where a lunar civil war threatens to merge all robot consciousness.
With Wetware (and Freeware & Realware), Rucker created both a grammar and a vocabulary for subcultural dissent, and made readers realise they were neither crazy nor alone in their unarticulated desire for a gnarlier, crunchier world crowded with shape shifting “moldies” (artificial lifeforms made of soft plastic and algae), paranoid “boppers” (robots with artificial intelligence and free will that had been driven under the Moon’s surface), and “merge” (a kind of drug that allows one to literally melt into the other).
With his latest novels, Postsingular and Hylozoic, Rucker once again takes on the notion of the coming technological singularity, a hypothetical threshold event when the speed of technological progress becomes so rapid that it makes the experience of the future qualitatively different from the present.
As Rucker points out, “We notice that our computers keep getting faster, and have bigger memories and better software. So there’s a dream that at some point, artificial intelligence will progress to the point where computers have minds as powerful and creative as ours…There’s also a sense that biotechnology might be on the point of big breakthroughs-perhaps we’ll be able to custom-design organisms, and maybe we’ll be able to make biological things that are in some sense like digital computers.”
In an email interview conducted in early November, Rudy talked about his long career, sex and literature, marijuana, alternate versions of Earth, and his experience of death.
3:AM: You dedicated your book Wetware to Philip K Dick. Did you know him? What did he mean to you?
Rudy Rucker: I never got to meet Phil. I was still living in Virginia when he died in 1982. One concrete effect of Phil’s death was that the writer Thomas Disch founded an annual award for the best paperback original novel of the year-the Philip K. Dick Award-and I got the award for my novel Software, and later on, for the second volume in the series, Wetware. I felt that Phil had in some sense blessed me from beyond, and I began thinking of him as a patron saint.
When I read some of Phil’s novels in college around 1966-perhaps Time Out of Joint was the first-I could hardly believe how different they were from the SF novels I was used to. Later on, in 1979, I read A Scanner Darkly, and this became my favorite of his novels.
In 1993, when I was writing my California novel, The Hacker and the Ants, I drew on Scanner Darkly for the narrative tone. I liked the flat way that Phil could write, really capturing the way that people talk. And his deadpan stoner humour.
3:AM: One of the features of the Ware Tetralogy that instantly attracted me was your crunchy and original interpretation of what the art or aesthetics of the future might look like. What is your creative process in dreaming up the culture of the future? Have you been influenced by avant-garde art movements such as Fluxus and Dada?
Rudy: I think it’s boring if futurist SF focuses on weaponry and politics which are, after all, perhaps the least interesting aspects of life. I disliked history courses in school because they were about ruling elites, with nothing much about art, science and culture. I try and put those things into my SF. The things that matter.
It’s quite a task to dream up interesting forms of art for your future societies. One trick is to pay very close attention to the latest current trends, and to imagine dialling them up to eleven-or to eleven hundred. An awareness of art history helps as well. Today’s taste isn’t going to be tomorrow’s-all sorts of things cycle in and out of fashion.
Certainly the examples of Dada and Fluxus are instructive, as are Surrealism, Pop, and Minimalism. Of course, recategorising our theories of art is only one possible technique. It’s also instructive to imagine new forms of art that are potentiated by new technology.
Like, what if our minds became upgraded so that we could write and read novels that are a million pages long? And what if these novels were multimedia, like websites? I took off on this idea in my novel Hylozoic, where one of my characters is writing these massive “metanovels”.
In the recent Tor.com story “Good Night, Moon,” that I wrote with Bruce Sterling, we got into the notion of artists who create by recording their dreams. It was a transreal way for us to write about our own experiences as science fiction writers.
3:AM: The Ware books were, for me, the first science fiction books that showed explicit erotic scenes coupled with gnarly SF. How did you come to juxtapose sex with high theory?
Rudy: I think the first SF novel I read which had sex in it was Norman Spinrad‘s Bug Jack Barron, maybe in 1966. And of course William Burroughs had lots of sex in Naked Lunch which is also, in a sense, a science fiction novel. And all of the literary novels I was reading had sex-like Norman Mailer or John Updike‘s books. And the underground comix I was reading had sex in them. So I went ahead and put some sex into my SF novels too. Why not?
Over time I’ve learned not to overdo it. There’s a danger of coming across as amateurish when you go for a long and detailed description of a lovemaking scene, although you might do your best to make it allusive and poetic. But I still take that risk when it seems important to try and describe how sex actually feels.
Another caveat for a writer is that his or her own sexual turn-ons aren’t going to appeal to everyone. You don’t want to lose a bunch of readers by grossing them out. Sometimes it’s maybe worth doing this for the shock value-and, up to a point, many readers will tolerate it. But a little goes a long way. You have to be aware of what you’re doing.
Sometimes I’ll think of an obscene scene that I kind of would like to put into a given novel because I think it’s funny-but I’m also fairly sure that my editor, and any eventual readers, would give me a hard time about it. In that case, I move the section into the “Unused Passages” section of my book-length writing notes for that novel, and eventually I post those notes on my writing site, rudy.rucker.com. So nothing has to be totally lost.
3:AM: You said in a previous interview that you quit smoking pot in the mid 90s, and it hasn’t changed your writing adversely. Many of my friends are in their late 20s and early 30s; they’re at that hinge year where they are deciding to either quit smoking permanently or keep on smoking indefinitely. Can you talk about what marijuana did for your creative practice?
Rudy: I don’t know about 30 being a hinge year! It’s never too late to change, if you want to. Whatever works.
I was a big fan of pot from roughly age twenty to age fifty. I enjoyed drinking too. Over time, the pot and alcohol got to be more trouble than they were worth, and I got some help and managed to quit.
My pot use was more occasional than regular. It was always hard to get, and grew increasingly expensive. Sometimes I’d take an afternoon off and get high, or smoke it on a weekend evening. I was rarely high when I was writing-it tended to make the writing seem too hard. But there were times when I might type a few extra paragraphs after having a joint. Or I might pencil in some revisions while I was high.
I tend always to be thinking about my work in progress, so if I was at a concert or walking in the woods stoned, I’d have ideas for wacky dialogue or bizarre turns of my plot, and I’d write them down on the piece of paper that I always carry in my back pocket. Some of these ideas would be good, some not. And ditto for the texts or revisions I might make when high.
Artists who like drugs sometimes imagine that they’ll lose their inspiration or their wildness if they sober up. And I worried a little about that. But over the last fourteen years, I’ve found that I’m just as wild as ever. The weird ideas percolate naturally out of my mind. It was me all along.
The upside of being sober is that I have more energy than before. And I don’t wake up at 3am wishing I was dead.
3:AM: What’s your take on terraforming planets like Mars and Venus? I know that you’ve said that you’d rather focus in on the gnarliness of life on our planet, but what about the possibility or promise of gnarly kewl cultures developing on new worlds?
Rudy: All but one of the twenty novels I’ve written are set on Earth and her moon, or on some alternate layers of reality that are attached to Earth.
In terms of alternate realities, White Light and my forthcoming Jim and the Flims delve into Earth’s afterworld. Spaceland goes into the fourth dimension around Earth. Mathematicians in Love, Postsingular and Hylozoic all involve travel to alternate versions of Earth. And of course The Hollow Earth goes to a world hidden inside our planet.
The only one of my novels that does the space-operatic planet-hopping thing is Frek and the Elixir, which ranges across the galaxy. I liked writing Frek, and I can imagine doing a book like that again.
Creating a whole planet in a story is an interesting challenge. I can’t, however, summon much enthusiasm for novels set on the existing planets and moons of our solar system. Maybe I feel like this subgenre has been worked dry. And it could be that I have some disenchantment with conventional space travel, at least as it’s played out thus far.
This said, I really like Charles Stross‘s Heinlein-inspired novel Saturn’s Children. When I read it, I started thinking that maybe I could do a book along those lines after all. Charlie is a big inspiration to me-his novel Accelerando is what sparked me to write my duology, Postsingular and Hylozoic.
3:AM: You’ve written about cellular automata in The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul, and you’ve created downloadable CA software like Cellab and Capow. What are your current thoughts on Stephen Wolfram‘s 2002 book, A New Kind of Science, and the resulting fallout? Is it indeed a new kind of science?
Rudy: I’ve been a Wolfram convert ever since I first met him in the early 1980s. One of the ideas he’s promulgating is that even when a system has some very simple underlying rules, its behaviour can be wildly unpredictable. The public totally doesn’t get that. Whenever something untoward happens, we immediately cast about for the proximate cause. But it’s in the nature of trends to jitter up and down, with very drastic jumps mixed in with the smaller ones. Chaos is an intrinsic property of the world. Booms and crashes happen, no matter what people are doing. It’s absolutely impossible to reliably predict the world’s patterns, no matter how big a computer you build. So, on the one hand, you might as well relax and go with the flow. And, on the other hand, you should never abandon hope of reshaping society into something more congenial. Change is always possible.
3:AM: I loved your 2009 LitFuckingPunk reading of William Burroughs’ lost letters to Ginsberg and Kerouac. Who are you reading these days?
Rudy: That’s funny you mention that reading, which was organised by John Shirley in San Francisco. I assume you understand that those weren’t actual lost letters, those were letters that I made up, for the purposes of a story called “Tangier Routines”. The story appeared in my webzine Flurb-which is my outlet for my less commercially acceptable kinds of things.
As it happens, “Tangier Routines” is being incorporated into my novel-in-progress, which has the working title The Turing Chronicles. The idea is that the computer pioneer Alan Turing did not in fact commit suicide, but instead went underground, having learned to use biocomputation to change his appearance. He becomes a shapeshifter. And he makes his way to Tangier, and then to the San Francisco of 1955 to hang out with the Beats.
I’m always looking for something to read. I recently read a bestseller, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and I liked the rich textures of the prose and the personal interactions. I reread a little-known classic, A Life Full of Holes, by Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi, translated by Paul Bowles for Grove Press in 1966. It helped me get some insight into what Alan Turing’s life in Tangier might have been like. I’ve been reading Pink Noises, a book of interviews with woman electronic musicians and composers done by Tara Rodgers. It’s really interesting to start thinking about sounds in a new way. And the other day I started in on Joyce‘s Ulysses again. If I can stay with it, that’ll keep my head fed for some time to come.
3:AM: At the May 2008 Google Tech Talk you expressed great doubt about the standard sci-fi scenario where a bio/nanotechnology eats everything in the world. So what are you most afraid of?
Rudy: I guess you listened to my podcast of that talk. I put a lot of my talks online these days on Gigadial and Feedburner. It’s cool to have that kind of outreach. The Google event was tough for me because one of the questioners was a little hostile. And it’s hard to undo a person’s false perceptions of you if they haven’t in fact read your work-the more you try, the worse you look.
Anyway, as I said at Google, I really don’t think any humanly created bioform has a strong chance of eating the world. Nature is very old and cunning. At some level, every single living organism is trying to eat the world, and there’s a lot of checks and balances in place. It’s not inconceivable that someone might come up with a plague that eradicates ninety percent of the human race. But this wouldn’t be at all easy.
What I’m most afraid of? Well, it used to be death, but a few years ago I had a brain haemorrhage, and for a few hours I more or less was dead. Lights out. No white light, no visions, no dead relatives-just a blank. And now that I’ve been through that I’m not so worried about it anymore. The end comes, and so what? It’s inevitable. I’m just glad I got to live this long, to have an interesting and successful life, and to enjoy my wonderful family.
One of the side-effects of my brush with death was that I finally wrote a full autobiographical memoir. It’s called Nested Scrolls. It’ll be out in a limited edition from PS Publishing early in 2011, and in a trade edition from Tor/Forge Books in the fall of 2011.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Maxi Kim is the co-founder of Beaubourg 268.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 18th, 2010.