"When I see an old movie, like from the '40s or '50s or '60s, the people look so calm. They don't have smart phones, they're not looking at computer screens, they're taking their time. They'll sit in a chair and just stare off into space. I think some day we'll find our way back to that garden of Eden."
Rudy Rucker has had an exhaustingly full life. He helped define cyberpunk with a series of novels beginning in the early '80s. He earned a Ph.D in mathematics and has taught computer science for over twenty years. He's written over thirty books, both SF and nonfiction focusing on computation, the fourth dimension, and infinity. In his new memoir, Nested Scrolls: The Autobiography of Rudolf von Bitter Rucker, he details these accomplishments, as well as their attendant travails.
You state in Nested Scrolls that, as a kid, you learned a lot about the craft of story-telling from comic books, specifically Carl Barks' Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge.
Yes, those Carl Barks comics were the first things I ever read that seemed truly unfiltered, with no traces of goody-goody grown-up lecturing mixed in. They were clever stories, really well designed, and Donald Duck was a true anti-hero: selfish, lazy, greedy, irascible, and not overly kind to his three nephews. I loved him as a boy, he was the kind of adult I could see myself becoming. And those comics told me it was okay to be like that. When I became a father I got reprints of the Carl Barks comics for our three children, and they of course enjoyed thinking of me as the bumbling Donald Duck, while they were the clever ducklings. In my own fiction, I'd say that I like writing about characters who aren't in any way idealized. People whom you can see as being like yourself. Another important thing about those old-school cartoons is that the characters in them are rubbery. Here I'm thinking particularly of the black-and-white 1940s and 1950s toons that I'd see on that weekly Cartoon Circus TV show in Louisville. I've always liked things that are curved and soft, as opposed to hard, rectilinear things. So when I began writing science-fiction about robots, I immediately found ways to make them snaky like Silly Symphony cartoons or like Dali's melting watches.
There are similarities to your favorite painter, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Bruegel's my main man. The one non-SF novel that I've published is a novelized version of Bruegel's life. I called it As Above, So Below. That's the book of mine that I give to, like, friends or relatives who say they can't possibly read SF. One of these days I'd like to write a life of Bosch as well. A first thing about Bruegel is that his style is very bright and poster-like. And I like my writing to be like that. Everything clear and easy to see. A second thing with Bruegel is that the characters in his paintings seem to be modeled on actual people. Nothing is idealized or stereotyped, it all feels real. This shades into a writing practice that I call transrealism — where I try and base my fictional characters on people I've actually met, sometimes folding several people into one character. A third aspect of Bruegel is that his pictures evoke a sense of the divine nature of the physical world. Everything is alive. We're in paradise, if only we pay attention.
Nested Scrolls is very conversational, as is much of your work. You mention how writing letters to friends was an apprenticeship for this style.
Writing letters was definitely a big deal for me and my friends in our twenties and early thirties. We wrote letters on pieces of paper and put them in envelopes and mailed them, and in a week or so you'd get a letter back. Delayed gratification. Many of us used typewriters. Seems very quaint and archaic now. A lost world. Not that you can't learn to write with email. One way or another it comes down to corresponding so much that you get your natural speech rhythms into your prose. No stuffiness, no Sunday clothes. Gregory Gibson was my roommate in my last year at college, and over the years I probably wrote more letters to him than to anyone except my wife. Greg and I both wanted to be writers, and we enjoyed our letters a lot. He was in the Navy while I was in grad school. This was around 1968. We got a novel going, mailing the pieces back and forth. It was called The Snake People and it was about invisible aliens who wriggle through your brain when you get high. Whenever Greg and I were together in the flesh in those years we'd smoke hash and try to see the snake people. It was fun. Transmuting our lives into SF.
Philip K. Dick's "transcendental autobiography" A Scanner Darkly was a major influence on the development of transrealism. You also won the first Philip K. Dick Award, established shortly after his death. Do you still consider PKD a major influence?
Sometimes. I used to fantasize that weird people I'd meet at parties or in drug dens really were Phil Dick, only in disguise. Maybe he didn't really die. Maybe I could be friends with him if he were still around. My feeling is that Phil wasn't entirely serious about some of the flaky, esoteric trips he was laying down in his later years. To some extent these could have been head trips that he was running for his own amusement. And he kept talking about this weird crap as way of fucking with the minds of the people around him. That can be a type of stoner humor. And a defense mechanism. Like if they think I'm crazy, they'll leave me alone. And what's your so-called logic ever done for me, anyhow? I recently reread Phil's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This is, of course, the book they based the movie Blade Runner on. As always I was blown away by the subtle humor and the liveliness of Phil's broken-up and interleaved dialog. The harshness of the androids is great. And the clipped coldness with which people just say what's on their minds. And, as always, I was exasperated by his characters' listlessness and depression, and disturbed by the fixable little plot-glitch holes. Didn't anyone ever edit his manuscripts? Probably not. They were, after all, paperback originals. I'm forever awed by Phil's flights of philosophical fancy and by his heartfelt concern with the nature of human empathy. And it's wonderfully startling when he flips out of the logical mode and goes into his whole religious vision thing. And he's the grandmaster of ringing changes on the theme of "what is reality?" A broken electric cat that turns out to be real is paired with a miraculous toad that turns out to be a machine. Phil's still an inspiration.
You mention that you're not a favorite of run-of-the-mill SF fans.
Yes, I have the feeling that I'm not especially popular among hard-core SF-con-going fans. After twenty-one SF novels, I've never been nominated for a Hugo or for a Nebula award. It may well be that my main audience lies somewhat outside of the traditional SF zone. Sometimes I'll see my novels on the shelves of cool places like City Lights Books or St. Mark's Bookshop, and that makes me glad.
As an early cyberpunk you're familiar with outsider status. Here I'm thinking of a 1985 panel you were on with Shirley and Sterling in Austin, where you were all but shouted down.
Although cyberpunk is now viewed as a successful subgenre of SF, it was indeed controversial when we started. But that's the way we wanted it. If nobody's pissed off, you're not trying hard enough.
Your research in mathematics focused on things like the fourth dimension and the higher levels of infinity. Does your work in mathematics inform your SF?
Oh, sure, math is a great source of cool SF ideas. And the style of mathematical thought is good training. Often in math you start out with a particular set of axioms and explore what you can deduce from these laws. Creating an SF world is a similar kind of thought experiment. You make whatever wild and crazy assumptions you like, and then see what follows from them. But, really, when I'm writing SF, I'm just as likely to work the other way around. That is, I'll start with some cool kind of special effect, like, let's say, our Earth unfurling to become an infinite plane, and then I'll dream up some relatively plausible hole in physics that makes my scenario possible. If you're willing to jiggle the laws, you can fit everything together in a logical way, and if you ponder the ensuing logical consequences, you come up with some gnarly extra effects for free. On the subject of math, it's also worth mentioning that, culturally speaking, mathematicians are about as close to living and breathing aliens as you'll ever see. Weirder than stoners, weirder than computer hackers, weirder than SF fans. My people.
You've had a number of other non-SF rabbit holes. You got deep into cellular automata in the mid '80s.
Yeah. Cellular automata, or CAs for short, aren't as well-known as fractals, but they're equally beautiful. They're like self-generating videos. You can get a CA running on your computer screen, and it's like watching a living oriental rug, or an out-of-control lava lamp with little bugs swimming inside. Over the years I spent hundreds or maybe thousands of hours staring at CAs. They ate my brain. A pure software high.
You were also in Silicon Valley for the second wave of hacker culture.
Landing in Silicon Valley in 1986 was a real stroke of luck. I kept on writing, but I got into being a professor of computer science for my day job. And I did some work as a software engineer at a big company. I was riding the wave, surfing those pixels for twenty years, out there in it every day, rain or shine. It was good. But now I'm glad I've retired from programming and from teaching CS. When I see an old movie, like from the '40s or '50s or '60s, the people look so calm. They don't have smart phones, they're not looking at computer screens, they're taking their time. They'll sit in a chair and just stare off into space. I think some day we'll find our way back to that garden of Eden. The machines will melt away. First we'll turn our devices into little plants and animals, that's biotech. And then we'll get to what I'm calling hylotech. This means that we'll find a way to talk to objects and see that they're quantum-computationally alive. And then it'll be as mellow as the 50s again.
Nested Scrolls is very much a meditation on mortality. Considering both your novels Postsingular and Hylozoic deal with the singularity, what's your take on the belief that mortality will be abolished?
Yeah, I nearly died in 2008. An artery in my brain burst. I was out of it for a few days. But then the break healed up, and I was okay. It was like coming back from the dead. I decided that if I was ever going to write my autobio, I'd better do it soon. And at the same time I wrote a novel,Jim and the Flims, about a guy who travels into the afterworld. At first the autobio and the novel were the same book. It took me a couple of months to unravel that. I did two rewrites on Nested Scrolls over the next two years, sanding it down to be perfectly clear and smooth. When I was younger I was more attracted to immortality than I am now. I think I was worried there were various things I might not live to do — travel, fatherhood, publishing. But now I'm more accepting of death. Nothing lasts. The petals whirl, the leaves fall, the river flows. Why fight it? You get the one lifetime and it's enough. At some point you have to let go. I think people who obsess about becoming immortal are on an ego trip. They don't want to accept that the world will go on just the same without them. Certainly, as technology advances, we'll see people living longer. And, at the more SF end of things, you might look for injectable nanobots to repair your body, or the use of fresh tank-grown clone bodies, or the ability to upload your mind into an artificial android body. I wrote about the last of these in my novel Software, thirty years ago. But in reality I don't see any of these things happening very soon. Recently there's been a lot of hype about the singularity. The word means different things to different people. In a way, we're already well past a singularity, which was the coming of the computers. But some people have a feeling that a really big change is coming very soon. And there's a hope that if you can just hang on for, say, another thirty years, then the nanobot or clone-body or digital-upload version of immortality will be available. Note that many of those spreading this promise are also offering to sell you expensive vitamins to help you hang on. They're selling snake oil. It's a con. The reason I called my recent novel Postsingular was because I wanted to leapfrog past the current wave of bullshit and get out into the raw, energizing zone of all-new cutting-edge SF. There's still a lot of wonderful stuff to explore. We haven't come close to exhausting the riches of this world. Right now I'm starting to plan for a novel I might call The Big Aha. I'm trying to imagine a second psychedelic revolution, one that doesn't involve drugs. Like maybe you use quantum entanglement head-sets to tune into the universal wave function. Or maybe it's just a certain kind of sound. Or — who knows? We'll see. All these years, and I'm still looking for the big aha.