Mass-Market Surrealism

By Rob LathamDecember 18, 2012

Nested Scrolls by Rudy Rucker

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 guru was in residence at Princeton is both funny and gripping, and his chronicle of the 1980s and ‘90s Silicon Valley scene gives an invigorating sense of the ferment surrounding the so-called “information revolution” (there is a great description, for instance, of a wild party at the Berkeley offices of cyberculture magazine Mondo 2000, where “the air was filled with a combination of licentiousness, California weirdness, and business chatter”). Rucker clearly thinks of these three aspects of his persona as an integrated whole, with his software hacking and his explorations in higher math inspiring his fiction and vice versa; indeed, he speaks movingly of their fruitful points of connection, even though the remainder of this review will concentrate on only one facet of these “nested scrolls.”

Rucker discusses the roots of his literary career in his youthful reading, making clearer than any other commentator I know how deeply interconnected a fondness for SF was with an appreciation for the work of the Beat movement among those with offbeat tastes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. During this heady period, Rucker was devouring On the Road, Naked Lunch, and the Evergreen Review alongside the novels and stories of Dick and Sheckley. Rucker’s concept of transrealism, a form of fiction in which everyday life would be transmuted through an SF prism, derives from his early immersion in these two bodies of work. As he points out, the Beats themselves “regarded the genre as an avant-garde and uniquely American art form, a bit like jazz. For me, that’s still how I think of SF when I’m writing it—as mass-market surrealism.” For their parts, it’s clear that Dick and Sheckley were, if not fans of Beat literature, then (from what we know of their biographies) quasi-beatniks themselves; and there are some amusing anecdotes here of drug-fueled conversations with the latter author, who became both an inspiration and a mentor. Rucker’s personal encounter with the Beats occurred at a 1981 seminar at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, where he exchanged banter about SF with a sardonic William Burroughs and shared a hot tub with an ebullient Allen Ginsberg. Other influences filtered into his work—especially Sixties-era forms of zany satire, such as Zap Comix and the Firesign Theatre—but at its core is a fusion of Kerouacian confessional meditation and biting Sheckleyesque whimsy that is uniquely Rucker’s own.

I rehearse this background to underline the fact that Rucker had a fully developed aesthetic sensibility long before he became associated, during the 1980s, with the cyberpunk movement—an association still routinely cited by SF scholars whenever lists of cyberpunk authors are drawn up. Not that Rucker shies away from this connection; indeed, there are warm and funny stories about his times hanging out, often deeply stoned, with Gibson (and his strangely “flexible-looking head”), Sterling (one of the few reviewers to appreciate his early novels White Light and Spacetime Donuts), and John Shirley (whom Rucker would sometimes wake up to find staring at him, “trying to analyze the master’s vibes”). And, when he moved to the Bay Area in 1986, it was largely with the local cyberpunk contingent—Richard Kadrey, Pat Murphy, and Marc Laidlaw (with whom he learned to surf)—that he socialized. Still, as Rucker stresses, he was older than most of these writers (he was born in 1946), and his interest in cyberpunk derived as much from his sense that belonging to a movement would make him feel like “an early Beat” than from any deeply shared aesthetic ideology (aside from a desire to shake up genre complacency). When he was writing his 1988 “cyberpunk masterpiece” Wetware, his touchstone remained “the bizarre Beat rhythms of Kerouac’s writing—indeed, I’d sometimes look into his great Visions of Cody for inspiration.”

Moreover, the idyllic pastimes he was always drawn to—camping, hiking, scuba diving (of which there are some powerful accounts in this book)—makes plain that he was always more of a bucolic hippie than the other cyberpunks, just as comfortable with nature in the raw as with the various second natures of electronic media. Indeed, the computer companies that hired him in the 1990s—for his expertise on cellular automata, artificial life, and chaos theory—were often irked that he spent his time designing droll software simulating flocking birds and swarming ants. His 1994 novel The Hacker and the Ants was triggered by these conflicts between fuzzy artistic/natural inspiration and hard-headed techno/business imperatives, and it remains, alongside Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, one of the best novels ever written about Silicon Valley.

Rucker differed from the cyberpunks also in his choice of drugs, which seldom moved beyond alcohol and marijuana; when he met Gibson at a Baltimore SF convention in 1983, Rucker recounts that “he was high on some SF-sounding drug I’d never heard of. Perfect!”—but Rucker doesn’t ask for any. His own drinking and pot-smoking took a toll on his writing and marriage, leading him to sober up in 1995—significantly, during a solo backpacking excursion at Big Sur, where he could feel his chemically unaided consciousness expanding to encompass “a sense of the cosmos all around and within everything, a sense of the universe being filled with love.” Just try to imagine Sterling or Gibson writing a sentence like that with a straight face! In short, Rucker’s association with cyberpunk was ultimately a limited—and perhaps limiting—thing; yet though “Cyberpunk” is but one fifteen-page chapter (out of 24) in his eventful life, the linkage has marked Rucker’s career indelibly, possibly for the worse. Since the movement has waned, critical attention to Rucker has faded, even though he continues to write fascinating works of SF, such as Mathematicians in Love and Hylozoic. It’s conceivable that he may now regret his brief attempt to retrofit his transrealist aesthetic onto the cyberpunk bandwagon—though of course, ever amiable, he doesn’t say so here.

In fact, if there is one complaint to be lodged against Nested Scrolls, it would be its unfailing affability, which makes the author a pleasant companion to be sure but rather dilutes the volume’s impact. Despite being at the center of some of the most ferocious debates ever waged within the genre, Rucker never raises his voice or seeks to settle a score; for example, he recounts a contentious panel on cyberpunk at a 1985 convention in Austin, Texas, where the hostile audience behaved like “a lynch mob,” causing Sterling, Shirley, and Lewis Shiner to stalk angrily off the dais—but Rucker stayed put and took the heat. He does observe, with evident satisfaction, that the cyberpunks were “mak[ing] the plastic people … uptight,” but he never specifies who these synthetic varmints might have been. Compare this discretion to Sterling’s hilarious polemics against cyberpunk’s enemies in the pages of his fanzine Cheap Truth or Shirley’s diabolically abusive “Let it Screed!” column in Nova Express (which were admittedly produced in the heat of the 1980s battles); it is simply impossible to imagine Rucker in this mode of implacable aggression.

Rucker’s chapters on the 1960s and ‘70s are similarly gentle, featuring little mention of that era’s fraught politics except as they came to impinge on his own life, as when he was denied tenure by the Math Department at SUNY-Geneseo in part because he was a long-haired hippie freak. An almost supernatural serenity emanates from these pages, with darker moments not so much glossed over as absorbed into the easygoing flow. It is this very tone of oddball merriness that has likely led SF critics to slight his fictional achievement. If it seems perverse of me now to raise the same objection to his memoir, it is only because this genre of writing would seem to demand a sharper edge of self-reflection than is on display here. Naturally, too, I would have enjoyed the book more had Rucker been more willing to kick asses and take names, but such abrasiveness is simply not in his character (which is another way of saying that he is a better man than I am).

Prior to its stateside publication, Nested Scrolls was released in the UK by PS Publishing under a slightly different title, Nested Scrolls: A Writer’s Life. That book came in two editions: a reasonably-priced trade softcover and an expensive autographed hardcover complete with a CD containing the author’s personal notes on thirteen of his books published between 1990 and 2010. These notes were an extraordinary resource for Rucker scholars (if there are any) and a treasure-trove of insights for his fans, but unfortunately they were gathered into a single vast PDF file (over 2000 pages) that lacked internal links, so negotiating the maze of materials was something of a nightmare. Happily, this compendium has since been disentangled into a series of files on individual books, which are available for downloading at the author’s homepage. This is, by the way, a wonderful site, not only archiving many of the author’s writings but also featuring galleries of his paintings, providing links to the San Jose State University server where his computer simulations are housed, and hosting his blog, an erudite brew of wild speculative invention.

This review, covering the 2011 British edition of the book, originally appeared in the newsletter of the Science Fiction Research Organization, the SFRA Review.

LARB Contributor

Rob Latham is the author of Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago, 2002), co-editor of the Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction (2010), and editor of The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction (2014) and Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings (2017).


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