WHEN I INTRODUCED Rudy Rucker at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in March 2005, a scholarly gathering where he was the Guest of Honor, I said the following:
The tradition of philosophical science fiction cast in a comic mode is a long and honorable one, though it has not received a great deal of critical attention. One would have thought the posthumous canonization of Philip K. Dick might have rectified this neglect, but we are still waiting for serious studies of the work of Robert Sheckley, John Sladek, Ron Goulart, R.A. Lafferty—and, I would add, our Guest of Honor this year, Rudy Rucker. Writers who mask their profundities behind a smirk or guffaw are obviously in danger of not being taken fully seriously. This is a particular problem when their whimsical invention is as deranged, and their black humor as borderline-ultraviolet, as Rucker’s has been throughout his career. His persistent tone of genial ennui can too easily be misread as cynicism, when in fact it is the stoic pose of a wounded spirit disenchanted with the broken promises of technological transcendence. Indeed, Rucker is one of the most perceptive anatomists of the allures and pitfalls of techno-utopianism currently practicing, and I hope that our honoring him here may mark the beginning of a serious critical appraisal of his work and of his role within the genre.
In the seven years since, Rucker has continued to publish steadily—five SF novels and a collection of stories, plus a substantial nonfiction study of the philosophy of computers—but the critical response remains muted. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Database lists a total of 30 items on Rucker’s work, most of it fairly ephemeral pieces rather than substantial scholarly studies. Compare this to the 369 items on William Gibson and the 615 on Bruce Sterling, Rucker’s literary contemporaries and erstwhile partners in crime. Damien Broderick’s Transrealist Fiction: Writing in the Slipstream of Science, whose title borrows a term Rucker himself coined to describe his work, remains virtually the only significant critical guide to Rucker’s fiction—until the publication of this autobiography.
Nested Scrolls is a genially written, occasionally intense, and always engaging look at a very complicated—not to say checkered—career. Its writing was prompted by a near-fatal cerebral hemorrhage in 2008, which led the author to cast a nostalgic eye back over the events of his life, from his St. Louis childhood in the 1950s, to his brushes with the counterculture during his studies at Swarthmore College and Rutgers University in the 1960s, to his intersecting careers as math professor, computer scientist, and gonzo SF author in the subsequent decades. His discussion of that last-named calling will probably be the chief interest of this volume for those who are not hardcore Rucker fans, and that dimension is what I will principally focus on in this review, though I should say at the outset that his treatments of mathematical inquiry and software design are wonderfully detailed and exciting as well. As Rucker says about the former: “Of all the outré subcultures that I eventually became involved with, mathematicians take the crown for being strange—and never mind about hippies, science fiction writers, punk rockers, computer programmers, or Berkeley cyberfreaks.” His account of a meeting with Kurt Gödel while the legendary math ...read more