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Feb 14 2012

Cyberpunk SF/Mathematics Legend Rudy Rucker’s “Nested Scrolls”: An Interview

By R.U. Sirius


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Both the funniest and the most scientific of cyberpunk SF’s fab four, Rudy Rucker’s autobiography Nested Scrolls is a laid back groove, in the best sense. It’s funny, real, a bit off center… yet friendly and so thoroughly engaging that I was sorry that it ended.  Maybe Rudy could live another life so that he could take us along, once again.

Aside from being a legendary SF writer and twice-winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for best paperback SF book of the year, Rucker has authored several seminal books in Mathematics and taught at the SJSU Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.  If that’s not enough, he’s also worked on several software packages.  Rucker books include Software, The Sex Sphere, Master of Space and Time, Postsingular, The Fourth Dimension and The Lifebox, The Seashell, and the Soul. 

He lives with his wonderful wife, Sylvia and has a bunch of really cool kids doing interesting things out in the world at large.  I interviewed him via email and — in a tradition we began at Mondo 2000  — he had to send me his answers twice before I acknowledged receiving them.

R.U. SIRIUS:  So I just read your autobiography, Nested Scrolls.  This is a pretty laid-back life in the grand scheme of things — no big drama — and yet you manage to make it very entertaining. Do you feel lucky (punk)?

RUDY RUCKER: My life has turned out better than I expected.  As a youth I didn’t know if  I’d be able to publish books; to raise a family; to find a good job, or even to live past forty.  I don’t know if luck is the right word, though.  It’s more a matter of me being a certain kind of person and of fate working out the consequences.

Becoming a writer isn’t like buying an instant-win lottery ticket.  You have to obsess over your writing for years.  But, at a meta level, I guess you could say it’s a matter of luck to have the kind of personality that makes you work that hard.  If you can call that luck!

In her journals, Susan Sontag says that, to be a writer, you need to be a nut and a moron — a nut to have the wit and the endurance, and a moron to persist.

The craft of writing is soothing to me.  When I don’t write for awhile, I’ll start wondering if I actually know how — maybe I’ve been kidding myself and lying to my friends?  But then when I get back into the work, I find that I have a well-honed capability, and it feels good to use it.  It’s almost like making something with my hands.

RU:  How is your life similar to cellular automata?

RR: As I mention in Nested Scrolls, seeing cellular automata in 1986 was a trigger that sent me into a metamorphosis — like a full moon that changes a man into a werewolf or a werepig.  I moved to California and became a computer hacker.

I need to explain that cellular automata are a type of self-generating computer graphics video.  You think of the pixels on your screen as cells.  With each tick of the system clock, the cells look at their nearest neighbors and use their tiny programs to decide what to do next.  Incredibly rich patterns arise: tapestries, spacetime diagrams, bubble chamber photos, mandalas—and they flow and warp like the shapes inside a lava lamp, never stopping, perennially surprising.

But you’re asking me how my life is similar to a cellular automata.  Well, I suppose I could say that my life, and my mental processes, divide up into specialized cell-like zones.  And information flows from zone to zone.  I evolve in gnarly and unpredictable ways.

Why unpredictable?  One of the biggest teachings that I’ve taken from my work with computers is that even a system with a simple rule produces unforeseeable outputs if you let it run for a little while.  This is particularly true for systems that operate in parallel and which repeatedly munch on the same material.  Which is exactly what the human mind does.

It’s folly to imagine that you can know exactly what you’ll be doing a year from now.

RU:  What’s Embry up to? Did he like Nested Scrolls?

RR:  You’re talking about my big brother Embry, who I mention numerous times in my autobio.  He’s five years older than me, and we weren’t all that close when we were little, although we did see a lot of each other, living in the same house.  In later years we became good friends.  The most memorable thing that Embry and I ever did together was to take a month-long scuba diving trip to the remote islands of Micronesia.  It was a landmark event, a once in a lifetime thing.

Embry’s back to living in Louisville, the town where we were born.  It’s interesting for me to go revisit the city from time to time. He read Nested Scrolls, and he didn’t exactly say that he liked it, but he’s not nit-picking me or arguing about details, which is a relief.  I’m sure that I remember some things differently than Embry does, and that I choose to emphasize different events than the ones he would prefer.  But I do think I depict him fondly.  And it seems like we’re still friends.  So I guess I got away with it.

Writing an autobio is kind of risky in terms of how your friends and family members are going to take it.  It’s wise to think ahead and to be a gentle when you’re writing, wise to have some empathy.

RU:  So did you take some stuff out, thinking better of it?  Conversely, as a fiction writer, did you make up part of your life?

RR: Sure, Nested Scrolls is a somewhat cleaned-up version of my life story.  This time I wanted to focus more on my intellectual development and on my relations to the people around me.  I did however write an earlier memoir that’s a more in the “my wild times” mode that you’re looking for.  This earlier book is All the Visions  — I wrote it in 1983, when I was thirty-seven.  It’s a memory dump of tales about wild things I did to seek enlightenment as a younger man, usually in the context of drinking or getting high.  I typed it on a single ninety-foot-long piece of paper, fully emulating Jack Kerouac’s legendary composition methods.  All the Visions appeared from a small press and is out of print now, but I plan to republish it as an ebook fairly soon.

Regarding your second question, I wouldn’t want to say that Nested Scrolls is a tissue of lies.  But I’m a storyteller, and I’ve told many of my anecdotes before.  As you tell and re-tell a story, you polish it, work on it, make it funnier, more succinct, more to the point.  You edit your memories like you’re editing a novel.

Revising my memories felt good.  That’s one of the pleasures of writing an autobiography.  You tweak your life so that things fit — and then the whole thing begins to make sense.

RU:  You wrote about becoming part of a literary scene, cyberpunk, and about how this felt like being a Beat writer.  But as we discussed recently in a conversation, you cyberpunks aren’t really close in the way that Ginsberg and Kerouac and Burroughs and Corso were, and you’re probably less extreme in how you’ve lived.  Do you agree?

RR:  Let’s start with some similarities between the Beats and the cyberpunks as groups.  We got publicity in the wider press; we were reviled by an establishment; stuffy critics continue to minimize our abilities; we advocated revolutionary views of our society; and our writings ushered in widespread cultural changes.  The end of the Eisenhower years in the case of the Beats; the coming of the Web in the case of the cyberpunks.

At one point I got interested in pushing the cyberpunk/Beat analogy as hard I could, and I wrote an essay suggesting these correspondences: William Gibson ~ Jack Kerouac, Bruce Sterling ~ Allen Ginsberg, Rudy Rucker ~ William Burroughs, John Shirley ~ Gregory Corso.  Gibson writes like an angel and has best-seller status.  Sterling is deeply interested in politics and in changing the world.  Rucker, the oldest, has a scientific streak and an antic sense of humor.  Shirley speaks and writes without the interference of socially-prescribed mental filters.  All of us have an implacable and unrelenting desire to shatter the limits of consensus reality.

Despite what I said to you in conversation, I do feel fairly close to Sterling, Gibson, and Shirley.  I’ve collaborated on seven short stories with Sterling, two stories with Shirley, and Gibson helped me develop the first chapter of my quintessential cyberpunk novel Wetware.

I see Shirley a couple of times a year, Sterling about once a year, and Gibson every three or four years.   So we are pretty close, but of course it’s hard to match the legends of Jack and Neal’s visit to Bill Burroughs’s farm, or Jack’s stays with Bill in Tangier and in Mexico City, or Bill’s unrequited crush on Allen, and so on.

And it’s also true that my life hasn’t been as romantic as the lives of the Beats.  Being a heroin addict, hitching back and forth across the country, having hundreds of gay lovers, living in destitution—all these adventures were denied to me. In some ways I wish my life had been that exciting.  But then I might not have written anything.

It’s possible that to someone on the outside, maybe my life does seem exciting.  After all, I got to work with R. U. Sirius and Queen Mu at Mondo 2000!  And one night at the Berzerkistan Mondo house in the 1990s, some people associated with your scene got me so high that I thought I’d been snatched by a time machine and transported to a holographic virtual room in the 2010s to be interviewed by some weird… oh wait, that’s actually happening right now, isn’t it?

Rudy w. Mondoids

 

RU:  I’ve always felt the voice of Philip Dick in your work, more than maybe I’ve ever said before.  There’s a certain whimsy in the way you present your characters reacting to strange situations in ways that are more offbeat than panicky.  Does that make sense?  Anyway, say a bit about Dick’s influence.

RR: Yes, I’ve definitely been influenced by Dick’s voice, his language-with-a-flat-tire quality.  I still think A Scanner Darkly is one of the funniest and saddest books I’ve ever read.  Dark oboes playing behind the stoner grins.  I like Phil’s California vibe, and, living in the San Francisco Bay Area for the last twenty-five years, I’ve gotten more and more imbued with his tone.

A few years ago I showed one of my SF novels in manuscript to a younger friend who’s a hot quantum physicist.  I wanted him to check the quality of my pseudoscience, the plausibility of my con.  But he went off on a tangent and started complaining that my characters weren’t surprised enough when weird things happened.  Like a giant cone shell snail would fly in and eat someone, and my characters would be like, “I’m glad the cone shell ate that shithead instead of us,” and then they’d go on with whatever insane task they were busy with.

I told that my friend that it would be boring to have my characters continually going, “I can’t believe this is happening!  Am I dead, drunk or dreaming?  How can this be real?  Blah, blah, blah.”  To me, being inside an SF novel is like being inside a surrealist painting, and you don’t want to waste time pretending to be shocked by the changes coming down.  You want to savor the weirdness and, where possible, keep kicking it up to higher levels.

You want a hero who’s a snickering nihilist, not a defender of the status quo.  At least to start with.  And then of course you put in some routine about coming to terms with your inner demons, finding your sense of empathy, and growing up at last.  You need that part for the book to be a novel.

One of the interesting things about Phil Dick is that you can never really tell when he’s putting you on.  And he doesn’t know either.  He’s working in that gap, where you just say anything—to see how it feels.  Does that make sense?

RU:  Do you have a lifebox?

RR: Okay, you’re talking about my notion that it’s possible to make a software model of yourself — a notion which goes back to my first published novel, Software of 1982.  And then people can have the illusion of talking with you, even after you’re dead.  I see lifeboxes as becoming a very big consumer technology.  A simple design is to have a lot of your personal online as a data base, and to have an interactive search tool for accessing this data base.

My autobiography is a lifebox in an older sense.  Moving beyond that, I’ve set up a primitive but functional lifebox of myself at the Rudy’s Lifebox website.  In principle my lifebox could be answering the questions in this interview, although the interviewer would need to be doing some edit work on the “answers.”

Many people are already producing a lot of online data on blogs and social networks.  If you follow someone’s posts closely enough you can indeed get a feeling of knowing them.  And as searching across blogs and social networks becomes simpler and more fluid, we’ll effectively be getting lifebox representations of many web users.

What’s the appeal of lifeboxes?  They make a weak form of immortality accessible to a wide range of people.  For most of us writing a book is quite hard. A key difficulty is that you somehow have to flatten the great branching fractal of your thoughts into a long line of words. Writing means converting a hypertext structure into a sequential row  it can be hard even to know where to begin.

If you have an effective search tool as the front end, it’s okay if your “memoir” is a disorderly heap of random personal factoids.  With the search working, the database becomes an interactive whole.  That’s really what a living personality is, come to think of it.  A mass of brain data with a so-called mind .

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  • By Henry Swanson, February 15, 2012 @ 7:35 am

    Rudy’s cool. Mondo 2000 had a really nice smell when purchased fresh… but you wouldn’t want to be trapped in a lift with one of these smart-drug sniffing weiners. Their pre-packaged techn0_utopianism would bore you to death before rescue arrived. Having said that, i’d prefer to be stuck with Rudy than any of the rampant “Gee, golly wizz isn’t it all just grreat?” a$$holes at Wired Magazine.

    Sincerely, Henry Swanson

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