Big Echo

Critical SF

Interview with Rudy Rucker

Rudy Rucker is a writer, mathematician and painter; author of The Ware Tetralogy

Big Echo: Your relation to mainstream SF is somewhat skewed, in fact you’re even skewed relative to the cyberpunk genre you helped found. I see your writing as relating to the genealogy of Dick and Vonnegut and Ballard and Bradbury—folks who challenged the dominant tone of SF.  You seem to have remained always an outsider. Now with the publication of Million Mile Journey and nine other transreal novels by Night Shade Books it would be interesting to hear how you would characterize the trajectory of your career in relation to other literary movements —both in genre and out.

Rudy Rucker: I came into SF writing without ever having been to an SF con, nor having met any SF writers.  I didn’t know anything about the trade.  I liked science fiction, Beat literature, black humor, and Jorge-Luis Borges. Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973 hit me like an atom bomb.

In 1976 I got to a point where I felt able to write a novel.  I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I started typing and in a month or two I had Spacetime Donuts. I wrote about social oppression, and about a cool new science idea I had. I made my story move fast, with witty dialog, funny bits, and eyeball kicks. Rabble-rousing entertainment that makes the readers think.

That’s been my formula ever since. A lucky twist of fate threw me together with the rest of the cyberpunk writers.  We happened to be writing roughly the same kinds of things at the same time. It had to do with the historical period.  There are distinctions among the cyberpunks, but we all had that in-your-face, rebellious, delirious, post-Sixties, here-come-the-robots vibe.

Over the years, I’ve collaborated with quite a few writers on SF stories.  We share ideas, and styles, and we learn from each other. But it’s more like a circle of friends than a literary movement.

I refer to some of my SF as transreal, meaning that it’s inspired by my real life, just as many Beat works were.  I use SF tropes to pep up the work and to make it more fun. In the 21st Century, transrealism is catching on among non-genre literary writers.  People like to draw from the SF palette to make their novels flashier, or more au courant. Playing with our modern myths, our new archetypes, our new subtexts..

I always go too far to be a reliable, board-certified member of any school. I get all gleeful about making my tales weird, and I add a Bosch-load of kurious kritters, and I tie the science in knots, and I rant venomously against quantum mechanics, and I have someone holler, “Kill the Pig!”

From my point of view, everything I write is strictly logical. And please don’t call me gonzo. I’m a highly educated craftsman, not a drunk with a chainsaw.

Re. being an outsider, the eminently quotable William Gibson says his work isn’t about the future, it’s about the present. The pretense of writing SF allows an author to take a step back from our quotidian world—and to see it more clearly. It’s a move akin to writing a novel from the point of view of an insane person, or an animal, or a child, or a person on their death-bed.  An outsider’s point of view.

Thing is, just about everyone thinks they’re an outsider. It’s part of the human condition. So people relate to outsider books. But I’m a far outsider.

“Hi, I’m from Dimension Z, and I’m going to paint your portrait. Or, no, wait, are you painting me? Or—am I the paint?”

Big Echo:  You plunge fearlessly into religion and religious experience. I think there’s a Blakean quality to your work, a sort of Beat willingness to indulge in mysticism, which is uncommon in SF. Where does that come from?

Rudy Rucker: Certainly Kerouac and Ginsberg talk about the world as Holy. And consider this startling remark by my role model, William Burroughs in Naked Lunch: “Gentle reader, we see God through our assholes in the flash bulb of orgasm.” I used to think about that one a lot, trying to remember to look at just the right time—but how do you see through your asshole—and anyway I’d never remember to try, being of course distracted at those peak moments.

God is everywhere—that’s the perennial philosophy which had a resurgence in the Sixties. If you’re worried about dying—and if you’re not, you’re not paying attention—if you’re concerned about your mortality, then surely you find succor in the mystical belief that you’re part of the One, that is, irrevocably merged with the eternal  and omnipresent All. The Big Aha, as I called it one book title, or the White Light, as I named it in another.

It’s pretty easy to notice that the Absolute is all around you, no?  Some don’t agree.  They think we’re lifeless junk bouncing around in an idiot wind—but who wants to hear that shit?  Saith the psalmist: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.”

The mystic vision isn’t at all rare in SF.  Higher transcendence at the end of a story is, as Bruce Sterling once told me, “a standard move.” Bruce always sounds sarcastic, no matter what he’s talking about, and that’s how he tricks you into thinking he’s smarter than you.

Does a dog have Buddha nature? The fool hath said, there is no Dog. The universal rain moistens all creatures. Are you wet yet?

Big Echo: Since I mentioned Blake it might be a good moment to talk about the relation between what you write and what you paint. Could you could say a few words about working across media? How does that kind of play across forms shape your ideas?

Rudy Rucker: I think it’s the attitude that’s the important thing.  The specific ideas— well, I always just think about the same few things, whatever I’m doing. Sex, gnarl, color, sounds, and the now. I’m here in this rich, amazing reality and—I can’t believe it!  My family teases me. “Be quiet, Rudy. You always say that.”

So, okay, I have no mind. It’s my attitude that’s the key.  What kind of attitude is needed in order to write, or paint, or take photos, or to assemble a zine from arbitrary grunge mailed in by strangers?

Be loose. Spontaneous bop prosody. Forget yourself. Keep it bouncing. Ruin it, fix it, ruin it again. Make it fun.  Revise, revise, revise. God is in the details.

Painting has made some of these practices clearer to me. Like the whole concept of painting over an awkward patch—yeah. And the importance of popping the colors and working the chiaroscuro.

If I’m painting to match a sketch, it’s a drag, and it doesn’t really work.  It’s better when I’m mindlessly dabbling, just following the shapes and the colors, and letting my brush loose.  Ditto for writing. I don’t worry too much about outlines. I prefer surprise.  If the action takes over, and the characters are talking, and I’m dreaming while I’m awake, and transcribing what I see—that’s when it’s good. I’m in it so deep that I’m gone.

Big Echo: How about the relations between mathematics and language. The thing that makes a mathematical idea elegant—is it similar to what makes a short story good?

Rudy Rucker: Mathematics is a rich storehouse of shapes and processes and forms.  You don’t necessarily have to be a trained mathematician to appreciate these riches.  But you do have to read some popular math books.

The biggest new technique for exploring math is computer simulation. Realtime self-generating graphics.  I’m an avid devotee of continuous-valued cellular automata.  They’re like gnarlier, funkier versions of Conway’s classic Game of Life.  I put these into my early cyberpunk novel Software—as constantly moving patterns within the piezoplastic skins of my robots.

Chaos, fractals, and Stephen Wolfram’s work have changed the way I see the world, and the way I think about it. I wrote about this in my non-fiction tome The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul.

It’s kind of hard to explain the ideas in just a few words.  A key insight is that that any interesting natural process—like an ocean wave, or a leaf twitching in a breeze—a process like this is fundamentally unpredictable.  It’s too complex and gnarly for there ever to be a quick, short-cut way to know in advance what it’ll do next.  But, and here’s the kicker, these processes are not random. Unpredictable, but not random.

That’s also the nature of your mind. You don't know what you’ll do next.  But that doesn’t mean you’re mentally flipping a coin. You’re like a chaotic, incompressible computation. Things emerge. You’re dancing with nature’s gnarl.

And here I circle back to address your question. A mathematical idea or a story is elegant if it looks simple and clear, but a lot of deep thought was needed to create it.

It’s hard to do this because you can’t think faster than you can think.  Especially if you’re doing something like writing a story or designing a math gem.  You’re running at the maximum possible flop. Your only hopes of a happy outcome lie in experience, patience and grace. And if it comes together—it’s elegant. A gift from the Muse.

Big Echo: The theme of this issue is SF and the avant-garde. What do you see as the role of the avant-garde in science fiction?

Rudy Rucker: The vital heart of SF is essentially avant-garde.  We’re writing about different realities, and using a style and vocabulary that’s a bit off-kilter.  Arbitrary scenes with no foundation in fact. Expressing psychic states in physical form. Imagining societies that are totally different from ours. Zooming in on the true oddness of that actual world.

There’s a particularly close association between SF and Surrealism. An ant that’s a thousand feet high!  A woman who lives inside an atom.  Dreams turned into crystals and sold on the street.  It’s a rich bazaar.

SF is, however, a house with many mansions.  And certainly you can find hackneyed, retrograde SF that loads stale consensus reality into the starships. Particularly in SF movies.  But the lumbering films have their own appeal.  The CGI tech they use is, in an Italian Futurist kind of way, highly avant-garde too. And you gotta love the greasy pop-culture references. I’m looking forward to the new Godzilla.

Big Echo: Politics. You represent as countercultural and punk. I am wondering about the ideological content of that representation. What is the politics of your work? How has that politics changed over the years?

Rudy Rucker: I’ve always had a rebellious attitude. To some extent it springs from the fact that I was a younger brother.  Fighting oppression from the start.  And then there was the Vietnam war, when they very nearly drafted me and sent me off to die for…for nothing.  And, like most of us, I’ve spent my life in a never-ending struggle to wrest a living from an obstinate world.

Generally I steer clear of politics in my novels. I need a break from the daily bullshit. Sometimes people say SF is escape literature—as if that’s a bad thing. But, hey, in this vale of tears,  escape is good. This said, even in my sunniest novels, the government isn’t likely to be the people’s friend.

It’s tricky, writing a full-on political tale. It can be gripping when an author is tearful and trembling with rage—but you can take that too far. It can slide over into a dry lecture, or into preaching to the choir. It needs to be entertaining.  So I try to keep a little distance from my politics. Do some gallows humor, undermine myself, have twists and reverses.

And I don’t want to write a story that ends in utter despair. I’d almost say that despair is cheap and corny. It’s like—cut to black. So what? Been done. People don’t need to hear that life sucks.  They know that. They want you to light a candle in the dark.

Today’s U.S. political situation is more stressed and menacing than it’s been since the Vietnam War. An author feels compelled to take a stand.  I avoided addressing this during my last two novels, Return to the Hollow Earth, and Million Mile Road Trip. I was happy in my dreams, hoping the shitstorm would blow over.

But it’s getting worse. So this month I finished a very intense, and even vicious, political SF story called “Juicy Ghost.”  About a coup. I wasn’t readily able to get into a magazine, and I was in a rush, so I self-published it via my blog—it’s almost like samizdat. But now, as it happens, Big Echo is going to print “Juicy Ghost” in this very issue, so thank you for that.

What next? I never really know. I slack off, or paint, or go hiking, or travel, or screw around with my web site, and it looks like I’m not doing much, but subconsciously I’m working on the next thing. Characters, scenes, and ideas are crystallizing beneath the surface—maybe.

Or maybe not. Maybe I’ll  never write again. Maybe I’m done. But I always say that. It’s a way of goading myself. And, at least so far, the day comes when I can’t take the silence anymore, and I go ahead and type a few sentences. I repeat them to myself. They make me laugh. The next round begins.

© Rudy Rucker 2019

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