The Secret Machinery of the Universe: Talking with Rudy Rucker
Issue #24, February 1996
Portions of this interview appeared in the 'zines Delos and Zeroone, and are reprinted here with the permission of Rudy Rucker.
I first encountered Rudy Rucker's work when I was in middle school, as I read my way through the science fiction section of a local bookstore. There I found The Sex Sphere (1983), a trippy, ironic novel about the psychological relationship formed between humanity and creatures who are nothing but sex organs. Humans must struggle with the sex beings for power, and finally resort to using firepower against a giant vagina. Rucker's book was my first introduction to an idea of sexual revolution.
Recently, I had the chance to talk with Rucker. Having gotten his e-mail address from a cyberpunk website, I wrote to him and asked for an interview. He agreed, and over e-mail, I asked him several questions about how his writing could relate simultaneously to science and the counterculture. In true Ruckeranian tradition, his answers were, as critic Scott Bukatman has put it, full of "loopy charm."
Best known for his science fiction about artificial life (or, "a-life") and his philosophical work on mathematics and technology, Rucker's writing shows up everywhere: trade paperbacks, magazines like Mondo 2000, academic treatises from scholarly presses, and highly specialized websites devoted to the discussion of evolutionary algorithms. He is also a mathematics professor at San Jose State University in California, and plays in a punk rock band. His celebrated novel Software (1982), about robots who revolt against humans and take over a lunar mining colony, is considered one of the most influential pieces of cyberpunk writing, although Rucker is careful to distinguish his work from cyberpunk.
"When people mention 'cyberpunk,' they always mention [William] Gibson [author of Neuromancer] and [Bruce] Sterling [co-author of The Difference Engine] and don't mention me," Rucker says. "I prefer a genre word that applies primarily to me. Transreal is my word; I made it up. It has to do with the idea of writing SF about my immediate perceptions, and using real people as models for the characters. This is the way I almost always write. Many of my books are also, of course, cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is a stage in the endless Bohemian subculture that created the beats, the hippies, the punks, and the grungers of today. This type of countercultural sensibility will never go away. But cyberpunk in the sense of writing about computers may someday not be interesting, just as writing about space-flight is no longer interesting.
"My novel Spacetime Donuts could be considered the first cyberpunk novel, it came out in 1981 from Ace. I did Software in 1982. Bruce [Sterling] and Bill [Gibson] and John [Shirley] looked up to me in those beginning times. When I published The Sex Sphere in 1983 they really flipped out. In 1978 I got high with Allen Ginsberg at a party in Naropa in Boulder and first I said, 'Give me your blessing, Allen,' and he said 'Bless you,' and struck his yarmulke-shaped hand on my head, a good shock. Then I said, 'Well I'd like to be part of a really hip literary movement like the Beats, and I'm writing this really out-there literary science-fiction, and I need to find some friends to help me make the world see it and, Allen, how did you Beats get so much ink?' His answer: 'Fine writing.' Fortunately in the cyberpunks I found a group of like-minded fine writers."
What marks Rucker's "transrealistic" cyberpunk vision (described in his 1991 collection Transreal!) is his fascination with the way artificial life and intelligences form their own communities — often in conflict with human ones. In Software, for example, the robots, called Boppers, create their own system of government and culture, largely in opposition to the human beings who have forced them to perform what amounts to slave labor on the moon. Having become conscious of themselves as living beings, they revolt and set up a free city, Disky, with Bopper leaders. However, Bopper politics do not end there; various robot factions are struggling to shape the new society. Strikes and protests are constant, and many of the Boppers want to overthrow new, more powerful robots called Big Boppers who threaten to make them obsolete. Wetware (1988), the sequel to Software, details how humans take back Disky from the Boppers, and how a kind of Bopper-human underground works to undermine human domination.
Rucker, at work on Freeware, the next novel in the series, says, "[Freeware is] turning out very well, maybe it's the best book I've ever written. It is cyberpunk to the max, cyberpunk for the 90s. It is about soft robots, moldies made of chipmold-infected flicker-cladding. These creatures appeared as Happy Cloaks in Software and at the end of Wetware they took over. At the end of Freeware, yet another change on the future robots appears. They become — buy the book." Revolution has begun again among the robots. Happy Cloaks, a form of artificial intelligence (or, AI) invented by the Boppers themselves, are taking over.
Transreal cyberpunk, it seems to me, can be distinguished from mainstream cyberpunk in one significant way: Rucker is interested in a-life communities which rival human communities in their complexity and independence. That is, he tries to depict alternative, often somehow revolutionary, societies. For a cyberpunk author like William Gibson, on the other hand, so-called "artificial intelligence" is a kind of weird aside to more important stories in his "cyberspace" novels about how humans use technology for financial and personal gain. The only alternative to the dismal human condition in Neuromancer, for example, is to make money by exploiting technology in a creative way. Although Gibson describes cyberspace "coming alive" as the time when "it all changed," it's unclear whether this change has ushered in an alternative social order. Indeed, when the artificial intelligence being comes alive at the end of Neuromancer, it decides to leave Earth altogether and never really shows up again. A-life and AI in mainstream cyberpunk do not, in other words, try to challenge human rules and political power.
Describing human politics as we know them now, Rucker says, "I think politics in every form sucks...Well, I'm especially full of cynicism [now] because I'm so tired of hearing about the idiotic Republicans. Russia got rid of the Communists, why can't the US get rid of the Republicans? It'll be hard to ever get rid of them; as hard as China getting rid of the Communists. Bottom line: fuck politics, it'll just rip you off and break your heart."
In spite of his occasional burst of cynicism, Rucker continues to write and think about ways in which social patterns, like mathematical patterns, can be made coherent and even beautiful. Mixing scientific insights with mystical ones, Rucker argues for the possibility of transcendence in rationality, especially in his nonfiction books like Infinity and the Mind (1982, recently re-printed in paper from Princeton University Press). "One of the basic things that we humans do is to perceive patterns," Rucker says. "To sense the universe as a single undivided whole is to see a certain kind of large-scale pattern. In order to feel that it is possible to discover useful things, it is encouraging to believe that the universe is one unified thing, and that you yourself are an integral part of the whole. For then it is more likely that the patterns you perceive have a good correspondence with the deep structure of reality."
Rucker's point that it is "encouraging to believe" in a universe where one is "an integral part of the whole" is another idea which makes his writing unusual among cyberpunks. When we consider Rucker's commitment to teaching math, as well as writing, it becomes clear why Rucker might be well-attuned to large patterns and how to talk about them so people can imagine complex ideas comfortably. Every good teacher knows that successful teaching comes out of plain speech and knowing what will capture your students' attention. A perfect example of Rucker's style of conveying incredibly abstract concepts can be found in his "Wheelie Willie" cartoons (a panel from one is reproduced below), in which a Willie, a stick figure who has a wheel instead of legs, tells us about robot intelligence, infinity, and Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. Below, Willie imagines an infinite set:
Even in a cyber-action novel like The Hacker and the Ants (1994), Rucker is careful to map out a 20-minutes-into-the-future social world which is human-scale. The artificial-life ants of the title do not erupt out of the nowhere of a mad hacker's lab, but are created before our very eyes through experiments with evolutionary algorithms and corporate competition in Silicon Valley. Readers discover that competition between corporate workers, rather than science, may actually be at fault in the dangerous release of a-life ants who "breed" in cyberspace and ultimately try to kill any person who gets in their way. Social reality, as well as science, is a part of the "deep structure of reality" Rucker describes in his fiction.
Science, in other words, grows out of a human context. "There's a notion of "hard SF" being science-fiction that includes accurate information about real or possible science," Rucker explains. "To be really good, hard SF should include new scientific information, stuff which has not yet been presented to very many people at a popular level. You might say that I try to write great hard SF. But in fact that's not something I'd want to say very often, because it so happens that in the SF world, the phrase 'hard SF' tends to be associated with writing that is somewhat stiff and humorless. To me it's very important that my SF be lively, literary, radical, and deeply funny. The hard SF science content gives me a good trellis upon which to grow wavy vines...The more that people understand about the secret machinery of the universe, the less likely it is that they will be duped and victimized by television and politicians. The more free and intelligent that people become, the safer and more pleasant the world is for me to live in."
What is particularly spectacular about Rucker's work is precisely his hope that helping readers understand their social totality might change the world for the better. Influenced by computer science, Rucker uses information about technology — and technology itself — to generate social models which not only reflect reality, but also have the ability to teach us something about it. In particular, he is preoccupied with the way social relationships (or human combinations) are at the heart of what often appears to be an impossibly complex scenario. When I asked Rucker how human beings can learn about themselves from experiments with artificial life, he described a-life worlds as a metaphor for human ones.
"In an artificial life experiment you design an artificial world with its own laws and you place into it a bunch of artificial creatures that you design," Rucker says. "You set the experiment into motion, and the creatures interact with each other over time. Usually you provide for the more successful creatures to reproduce, and for the less successful one to die off. What is interesting in these experiments is the intricacy and complexity of the behavior you can see. Even if you don't take the evolutionary aspect into account, you can see very interesting things happening just as a result of there being a lot of creatures acting in parallel. A classic example is the a-life simulation of flocking birds; a somewhat different example is a cellular automaton (where you might think of each cell as a stationary creature). The creatures do not need to be very complicated, just so there are a lot of them. The moral is that a lot of the world's apparent complexity is the result of there being lots of different things in the world rather than a result of the world having complicated laws. You can think of the world as huge parallel computation, with lovely things emerging from the interaction of simple rules."
I asked Rucker whether computer science might be more open to metaphorical and counter-cultural thinking than traditional sciences such as medicine or engineering, and he responded, "All roads lead to Rome. You can find God in any deep study. One of the things I liked about [Thomas Pyncheon's] Gravity's Rainbow was that it gave a good feeling for the ecstatic visionary process experienced even by aeronautical engineers. I think it's kind of funny that you ask this question, for so many people would assume that computer science is the least mystical of studies. But it is indeed a very open and suggestive field both because it enables you to use languages in strange ways, and because it lets you set into motion very chaotic and unpredictable experiments; experiments which are not constrained by any kind of physical law.
"Computer science provides a niche for intelligent people who are lacking in the ability to behave like plastic people. Lots of hackers work at home alone. When I moved to California in 1986, I felt like some Darwin's finch with a certain specialized beak who is suddenly surrounded by the special seeds which the beak was designed to open. You don't need a great deal of expensive equipment to be a professional computer worker, about $5000 will get you everything you need. There's no hierarchy. It's wide open. In a broader sense, the Net is an incredibly open arena; anyone who wants to can publish there; it's completely beyond government control, and any kinds of restrictions that are put in place can easily be circumvented. This isn't a topic I need to talk about very much though, as it's been gabbed to death by many others."
Rucker is one of the few cyberpunks who have imagined a better, more "open" future directly inspired by revolutionary and countercultural movements of the recent past. His famous hero from Software, Cobb Anderson, is an old baby boomer "pheezer" (i.e., a freaky geezer) who lives in a hippie old folks' colony with thousands of other pheezers in Florida. Cobb and his anti-authoritarian politics are largely responsible for creating the Boppers, whom he has given the ability to rebel against their human masters. Unapologetically invested in social change and non-traditional culture, Rucker has continued to defy convention with his characters and his own life as a math professor who plays rock music, a mystic who believes in science, and a cyberpunk who dreams of a world that might be heading towards something better than the one we live in now. He concludes:
"When you talk about counter-culture, it's natural to think of music. There's a bit of a feeling that learning to do things with a computer is like learning to do things with an electric guitar. I wish I could tighten the connection so that my cellular automata would sound like punk and grunge. The connection's there in my head — I can hear things when I look at the patterns, but I still don't have the physical funk together. My genius hacker collaborator John Walker is hooking our cellular automata program (formerly called CA Lab, now called Cellab) up to a MIDI driver, so who knows, maybe in '96 you'll be able to mosh to CAs. A last question I might address is why it is that certain musical sounds seem counter-cultural. Is it just because they become associated with the young people who listen to them? Or is it something about the sound itself? Who can forget their initial sighting of Nirvana's 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' video on MTV? The roughness of the sound could correspond to an increased amount of chaoticity. Maybe each generation is able to see patterns in more and more gnarly things. I guess I'd like to think of myself as the janitor rockin' out in 'Smells Like Teen Spirit.' The one who when Beavis and Butthead watched the video one time and they showed the janitor, Butthead said, 'There's your Dad, Beavis.' Yeah, man, that's me."
You can download Rucker's "floatin' program" called CAPOW at the "Kitchen Sink" page of David Griffeath's "Primordial Soup Kitchen". CAPOW runs on machines with Windows 3.1 and at least 4 Meg of RAM.
Annalee Newitz is Co-Director of Bad Subjects, and is currently finishing her dissertation, on economic horror and monstrosity in American popular culture. She's also attempting to get a job as an assistant professor. Her home page is: http://www.techsploitation.com.