Interview: Rudy Rucker
by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Interview ISBN/ITEM#: 0610RR
Date: November, 1, 2006 / Show Official Info /
SFRevu: You said (to Locus) that "People rarely write books that are that far out, so it might be interesting to try to write one, but no one will want to read it." Has that actually stopped you from writing "Far Out" SF? Or to put it another way, "What? You mean Mathematician's in Love is mainstream?" What would you consider "Far Out?"
Rudy Rucker: Even though my books may seem far out to you, from where I stand, they're fairly obvious extrapolations, all but inevitable conclusions. I have to be careful not to outsmart myself that way, and not push on to a less obvious idea which is, however, savagely incomprehensible to the average reader. Being widely read is more important than being far out.
I was rereading Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" this week. And here's poor Gregor Samsa, he's turned into a giant cockroach and can't even get out of bed in his parents apartment because his little legs are waving uselessly in the air, and his boss shows up at the apartment and is yelling through the door, and Gregor offers this very long and heartfelt explanation, but all that the boss and his parents hear through the door is guttural twittering.
To be really far out, you turn into a giant cockroach and make noises that don't even sound like a human language. Actually John Shirley's been urging me to write a story like that with him. Maybe. I'm between books now, and if I write something totally unpublishable I can always put it into my webzine Flurb.
Speaking of cockroaches, I was really happy to put cockroach mathematicians in Mathematicians in Love. I always figured that math is one thing that we're likely to be able to talk about with aliens.
SFRevu: Ok. I've read your 1983 "Transrealist Mainifesto" where you describe a style in which you take people you actually know, including yourself, and run them through a maze of crucial plot points to get realistic behavior out of them. Isn't this what all authors do unconsciously, use characters as surrogates for them and people they know?
Rudy: Well, there's a whole continuum of sources that writers might use for their characters and situations: personal experience, stories overheard, books, movies, TV. Transrealism advocates using the personal end of the spectrum as much as possible. In other words, transrealism would be at the polar opposite of a fan writing about Harry Potter or Yoda or the X-Men. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."
Practicing transrealism takes a bit of vigilance on the writer's part. It's easy to slip into modeling one of your characters on someone else's artistic construct. But then your work gets a second-hand, lifeless feel. "No more second-hand God," as we used to say in the Sixties, meaning that it's better to seek our your own vision of the Absolute than to be reading words out of someone else's dusty prayer-book.
My sense is that, when I commit to transrealism, the world helps me out. The right sorts of events pop up in daily life. Events that I didn't realize were important come back to me and I'm able to transmute them into science fiction. And that makes my own life seem more interesting to me.
SFRevu: The notes for the plotting of Mathematicians in Love are quite exhaustive. I liked being able to see where the book diverged from the original concept. Do you feel like the storyline fights you for control, or do you make conscious decisions about where to go next? Does all this planning mean that it's not a transrealist novel, since you've noted that "a transrealist novel is written in obscurity, and without an outline."
Rudy: I wouldn't call Mathematicians in Love a strongly transrealist novel, in that the events don't have a strong connection to my actual life. My fully transreal novels like White Light, The Sex Sphere, The Secret of Life or Saucer Wisdom are in some sense autobiographical. This said, I certainly drew on my life experience for Mathematicians in Love. I've hung around with a lot of mathematicians over the years, and I love them.
As for whether I'm currently obeying every detail of what I may have said in a manifesto I wrote twenty-three years ago at the start of my writing career — well, you need to take a young writer's manifesto with a grain of salt. Writers have a way of arguing that the One True Path just so happens to be whatever their current literary practice is.
I used to look down on outlines because I didn't use them. Therefore they were bad! I think I was so eager to start writing I was too impatient to outline. Or maybe I was worried that systematizing my process might take away the magic. I used to think that using an outline means that you draw up this detailed outline and then rigorously adhere to it.
But now for each novel I write a novel-length notes document in parallel, and the notes include a detailed scene-by-scene outline. A good thing about a notes document is that you can write in it when you're not quite in the right mental space to write on the novel itself. And the thing about outlines — I've come to understand that you don't have to adhere to your outline at all. It's just a way of kicking ideas around to promote your flow of thought. I go back and rewrite my outline dozens of times while I'm writing any given novel. The only reason the outline looks so accurate in my final notes document is that as I'm writing each chapter I keep revising the outline to match what I actually did. In other words it's an interactive process.
I still don't believe that a good book can adhere to a definite advance outline, as a good book takes on a life of it's own and even the author can't fully predict how it will unfurl, no more than a pool player knows where all the balls will go after the break. When you work at the limits of your artistic abilities, the outcomes are necessarily unpredictable. If they're predictable, then you're not out there on the edge.
SFRevu: Your taste in art, whether it's written or visual, all goes to the surreal. I like that, because it's fun to be bombarded by loud colors and noises and ideas...but is it necessary? Does reality have to be distorted in order to be seen clearly?
Rudy: All reality is distorted by one's ideas. An endless torrent of lies and propaganda emanates from every form of mass media. These lies are frequently designed to get you to see the world in certain ways which are advantageous to those who wish to exploit you. Keep in mind that historically, Surrealism was a political movement spawned by a young generation's disgust with the Great Wars their leaders were killing them in. I took a lot of satisfaction in describing the ouster of a corrupt and evil President in Mathematicians in Love.
SFRevu: As I mention in my review of Mathematicians in Love, I'm something of a math wannabe. I get that it's cool, beautiful and powerful as all get out to divine the meaning of everything from "first principles," but when I look at math problems in books (anything beyond basic algebra and trig anyway) all I can think is -- would a hammer help reduce this to more manageable terms? Do you have any thoughts on why some people have a facility for math and others bounce off?
Rudy: I know what you mean and I feel your pain. I'm the same way about electricity, economics, geology, and music. I simply can't begin to absorb the explanations of what's supposed to be going on. Weather maps too. It's like there's some underlying basic assumptions that I missed hearing about. People's minds are different.
As a writer, one of my goals in Mathematicians in Love was to try and create the experience of doing higher math for those who can't actually do it. So that led to those visual "morphons" the guy is weaving together for his thesis, all the morphons were taken from The Cat in the Hat. Fish, rake, teapot, dish, cake.
SFRevu: I gather that determinism is getting a second wind as more and more powerful methods of computation are conceived. Didn't God's playing with quantum dice kill that off -- or am I off the mark? What's causing the renewed faith in a prediction? Are we going to have to deal with predestination again?
Rudy: I'm so sick of quantum mechanics getting a free ride. It's an intellectually bankrupt edifice, a false front with nothing behind it. They used to be able to get away with saying, "ah, reality is stranger than we can know," but I think a lot of us have had it with that line of mystery mongering. Our brains are made of the same quantum mechanical matter as everything else in the world, so if there's an explanation to be had, there's no reason we can't understand it. The foundations of quantum mechanics suffer from a complete and utter bankruptcy of new ideas.
According to a newer new line of thought — I'm thinking of people like Stephen Wolfram, Lee Smolin, and John Cramer — there could well be a deterministic subdimensional physics below quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is like mist over the landscape of the crisp underlying reality.
You mention predestination, which is a way of broaching the question, "If the future is determined, does that mean I don't have free will?" Maybe we don't have free will, but in practice this isn't so bad because, at least in the world we live in, the future is computationally unpredictable. Turns out there's a distinction we didn't use to be aware of. The future can pre-exist in an idealized kind of way, but it may well be that it is even in principle impossible to predict it. This is widely believed to be the case in our world. In Mathematicians in Love, they start out in a world in which the world's computation is in fact simple enough that they can make a device to predict the future, but they end up in our rich and gnarly world, where prediction is a practical impossibility. I also discuss these ideas in my nonfiction book, The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul.
SFRevu: So here I am, having climbed to the top of Everest to ask questions of you...and what I really want to know is: Read any good books lately? And what sort of stuff did you read when you were a kid?
Rudy: Early favorites include Robert Heinlein's juveniles, everything by Robert Sheckley, William Burroughs's Yage Letters, Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea, Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Charles Stross's Accelerando had a big effect on me last year, it actually sparked my writing a novel called Postsingular on some of the same themes. Last month I finished writing Postsingular and sent it to my editor David Harwell at Tor. If all goes well, this book could turn into a trilogy. I'm writing a few more SF stories of late, and I find it useful to read the Year's Best SF to see the lay of the land. A non-genre book I liked a lot last year was David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It has a very cool construction; it's an onion of stories nested inside each other. I love Alice Munro's book, Lives of Girls and Women, which I just got around to reading. I'm planning to read Geoff Ryman's Air and Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners.
SFRevu: In your mass compilation of every email interview you've answered, you mention that while your books haven't broken the German market, they do quite well in Japan, perhaps better than in the US. How have you caught on in other world markets? What country do you think "gets" your writing the best...and what country turns you on the most?
Rudy: The U.S. is my home and my market and I think I'm slowly catching on. Being a popular writer is a very long haul. I think of SF as being in some ways an American art form like blues or jazz. Though maybe I'm provincial to say that.
My overseas markets come in waves. Some country will get hot and translate a number of my books in just a few years. I'm pretty much dead in Japan and Germany right now. Italy has been good to me lately. France is picking up a bit, also Spain. Korea is very big on my work right now, so far they're the only ones to buy translation rights for my historical novel about Peter Bruegel, As Above, So Below. Go figure.
SFRevu: You got off drugs and alcohol in 1996 because it seemed to be interfering with your writing and whatnot. How's that working for you? Has your laptop replaced drugs?
Rudy: I've been sober for a little over ten years now. So far so good. I'm happier this way, and I'm writing as well as ever. But nothing really replaces a sensual joy like smoking pot, and certainly not a laptop! Pot and beer are like a country where I used to live and now I'm exiled from there. On any given day, I can still wish I were drinking and getting high, but thanks to a lot of work on myself, I'm always able to remember that it wouldn't in fact be very much fun.
My goal is to have some serenity. There was a Seinfeld episode where George's father kept screaming "Serenity now!" and that kind of undermined the word in the average person's mind, but serenity is a real concept. Serenity is about feeling comfortable in your own skin. Like enlightenment, but with less metaphysical baggage.
SFRevu: I just got back from the Wired NEXTFEST in New York, where I got to interact with quite a few robots. The ones I found it easiest to anthropomorphize weren't human looking at all, but a pair of industrial arms spinning records against phonograph needles. The ones that could do human expressions were just plain creepy. Has robotics and AI come along as quickly as you expected or is it hobbled by us asking the wrong questions? Are we the only ones with consciousness? And — I might as well ask — is there such a thing as a soul, and could that set us apart from bots?
Rudy: I think we still don't have quite the right idea about how to do AI. I taught AI courses a few times at San Jose State, and when I looked behind the curtain, I was surprised to see what cheap tricks artificial intelligence depends on. What makes the situation particularly troublesome is that there may not even be any simple magic insight about how to do "real" AI.
The thing is, you're born with, I don't know, maybe ninety percent of your mental abilities already hardwired into the wetware of your brain. It's not like a baby is a petabyte petaflop Dell computer with an empty hard drive. A baby comes loaded with all this incredible wiring. Speech recognition, pattern recognition, balance, the ability to move and to see, empathy -- all the hard stuff is built in. Actually we don't learn squat in school.
How does all that smart stuff get into the baby? It's the result of millions of years of evolution of billions of individuals in a planet-sized space. We're not going to be able mimic that evolution on a desktop machine. But maybe, just maybe, if we use the entire global network of computers and let it crunch like mad, we can slowly evolve something like really intelligent wares.
As for consciousness, I'm a panpsychic by preference. I think God is in everything. I think everything is conscious. You drop a rock, it knows to fall down. It's conscious! The universal rain moistens all creatures; the cosmic light shines through every pane of the world's rose window. As soon as any machine can act like a person, sure it'll be like us. Consciousness is a gimmie. This said, human-style consciousness has to do with having a mental image of yourself having experiences, and this would in fact be easy enough to emulate if you already knew how to build a machine that could walk to the store and buy some chewing-gum and not fall down on the way home, which is all very far from out present technological capacities. Again I refer you to my tome The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul.
Oh, and what about the soul? I've always meant to come back and write more SF about the after life. My first novel White Light took on that theme. It is tempting to speculate that there might be another order of being. My friend Nick Herbert says maybe dark matter is consciousness. I like that kind of idea.
SFRevu: By the way, your blog is addictive. I stopped by to try and snag some question ideas and found myself reading further and further back. I noticed that your bio was last updated when the blog began. Is bloggism the death of history?
Rudy: I like working on my blog, it's a cross between a journal and a repository for notes of things that I might want to remember. A model of myself and an extension of my brain. Not that I work on the blog as much as I used to. I do feel a little bad that I'm not accumulating written journals at the same rate as I used to. The blog eats up a lot of that energy. There's the uneasy feeling that, given the usual digital bit rot, it would be very hard to read my early Y2K blog entries in ten or twenty years. Like they say, digital storage lasts forever or for seven years, whichever comes first.
But fortunately some digital info does percolate forward. If you want a really thorough bio note on me, I put my Contemporary Authors autobio online. Just Google for it or check the link in my Wikipedia listing.
SFRevu: What's your second favorite word? I mean, after "gnarly".
Rudy: I already mentioned serenity, so let's say peace. I don't mean this in the political sense, as I well know that's unattainable, and there's no point wishing for the moon. Certainly I'm willing to turn out for peace marches and of course I vote and donate to my political party and try and raise people's consciousness with my fiction. But given human nature, we'll never see peace. We've changed so little over the centuries.
Politics makes me uptight; I have so little control over it. It's like forever being in high school with rah-rah idiots in charge. In true fact, the Big Doings in DC don't regularly impact my daily life. As I said before, all news is a form of mind control. "They" want you to think about politics, but it's a con.
Anyway, my point is that when I say peace, I'm talking about inner peace. Being in the moment. Seeing the world in itself. Looking up at the leaves dancing in the wind. Having empathy with those around you. It's a lifelong quest. Peace!
SFRevu: Many thanks.