More from the mind of ...
A leading cyberpunk

By Rudy Rucker
(EOS, 320 pp., $14)
Buy at Amazon

''Gnarl!: Stories by Rudy Rucker''
By Rudy Rucker
(Four Walls Eight Windows, 566 pp., $35)
Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
June 2000

Used to be, someone who wrote fiction, non-fiction and plays and who taught mathematics at the university level would be called a Renaissance man.

In the case of Rudy Rucker, who's written 21 published fiction and non-fiction books, who is a playwright, a software engineer and a professor of mathematics and computer science at San Jose State, the title is "cyberpunk."

He is one of the fathers of cyberpunk literature, and is found on the same lists as William Gibson ("Neuromancer"), Neal Stephenson ("Cryptonomicon") and others who are leading what-if fiction in the age of computation and bio-engineering.

Rucker is so full of ideas, and has gotten so many of them into print, that it's easy to imagine he hasn't slept since he was two years old and first started thinking about the spatial and time relationships of the mobile rotating over his crib.

As a mathematician Rucker has written extensively about the fourth dimension in non-fiction texts, and his fiction works are full of extra dimensions and parallel universes -- and creatures who inhabit and travel between them.

This month Rucker is adding to the R Shelves in cyberpunk libraries with two books -- "Gnarl!" a collection of his short stories, and "Realware," the fourth in his "*Ware" series that began with "Software" and continued with "WetWare" and "Freeware."

'Ware' are they now?

"Realware" opens in 2055 or so with an assistant chef named Phil Gottner waking from a dream to find that his father -- a mathematician and computer-science professor -- has been sucked -- bloodily -- into another dimension, and is thought to be dead.

Cyberpunk protagonists tend to be inept, emotionally -- ill at ease with women, generally at sea when it comes to any real emotional situations, and Phil is just such a feckless wretch.

"Phil felt a savage torrent of emotions, too fast to nail down. Relief, terror, joy, wonder, sorrow, confusion. His father was dead and he was free. No old man to judge him for not doing anything with his life."

Kurt Gottner had been captured, apparently, by a wowo gone berserk. Wowos are something like the future's version of lava lamps. Holographic projection machines intended to entertain people, not suck them into other dimensions or parallel universes. "'All of a sudden their wowo got really big, all bright and swirly, and it jumped inside of Da and the light was shining out of his eyes like searchlights and he was yelling and then his body collapsed and the wowo sucked him inside and crushed him'," explains Phil's sister, Jane.

At the memorial service for his father Phil meets Yoke, an attractive human woman from the moon. She is in mourning for her mother, who -- it seems -- was recently killed by aliens.

A romance begins -- haltingly and unsteadily -- and the two learn that what happened to their parents was not unrelated, but the machinations of alien beings and their parallel-space god, Om.

The aliens travel the universe in something like radio waves, their god Om with them, trying to get enough of their species together to mate -- seven are required -- while Om catalogs the sentient creatures they meet along the way.

"Om a medium-size god," explains the alien named Siss, who -- on Earth, anyway -- looks like a snake. "Not like the big White Light that makes everything. Om kind of curious. She like to learn all about different faces of beings by giving allas to them."

Allas are what creates "realware" -- objects, animate and inanimate -- out of whatever atoms happen to be at hand, such as oxygen in the air. They have limitations -- no humans, please, no plutonium, and size is limited -- but almost anything else mentioned on the Internet, which is what the aliens used to create the alla catalog for humans.

Before long, every human on Earth -- including the homeless and otherwise disenfranchised -- has an alla, and what happens then is as close to a big idea as this book offers.

Readers who want to strain, to bend over backward in search of meaning, might want to think that allas for everyone is a metaphor for the Internet of today -- a powerful tool available to everyone, that is being damaged by human failings, much like everything else we've ever been given.

But, I suspect that is too much of a stretch, and that Rucker is just having fun with ideas. "Realware" is full of neat gadgets -- the raison d'etre of geeks everywhere -- and Rucker does more with them than with the allas and their fate.

And that is the fun of this novel -- traveling back and forth from the moon tucked inside a moldie (a plastic creature with a mind); communicating with uvvies (a device that connects to the mind through contact with skin); living inside another dimension, in a position to see the loops that connect Om with the allas, and even to see the big White Light that may be God.

And ... there is a geek romance thrown in, for good measure. (Like most cyberpunk romances, the big lesson is that even emotionally inept geeks such as Phil can get laid if they remain earnest and nice for a long enough time in the company of the women they like.)

Catalog of neat ideas

Rucker's other recent book is "Gnarl!" a collection of science-fiction stories he wrote over the last 25 years, from "Jumpin' Jack Flash," written in 1976, to "The Square Root of Pythagoras," co-written with Paul Di Filippo in October.

As Rucker himself points out, "the later stories are better than the earlier ones. ... writing is something you learn on the job."

In fact, my favorite was the last, because it had the closest to depth of characterization, and the finest prose I have seen in Rucker's short works. Also, it does the best at expressing a mathematician's love of numbers and the idea that everything that exists can be defined by numbers, in something like magical realism.

Pythagoras -- the ancient Greek mathematician -- has received, in dreams, numbers that allow him to manipulate worldly things: earth, water, fire and air. The number for the cosmos is yet to come.

His teachings are revered by some, and thought of as sorcery by others, but he is getting along well enough until he gets caught in a compromising position with the wife of the king.

Being crushed to death, he must realize that last number in order to survive.

It's a good story, and one that can be seen -- without too much bending backwards -- as a metaphor for the eternity of numbers and ideas.

In the rest of "Gnarl!" Rucker has fun with all kinds of sci-fi and mathematical concepts, from Venusians who travel from dimension to dimension, sucking people's brains out, to scientists who learn to move objects three seconds into the future via the fourth dimension.

Some of the fun of Rucker's later writing has to do with what he has to say about Silicon Valley and San Francisco, projected decades into the future. San Franciscans, Rucker seems to say, will be just as eccentric in 2060 as they are now. And Silicon Valley property will still be beyond the reach of all but the richest.

Some of his stories are rough little nuggets -- they read as if they are examples for his math classes, complete with charts -- and some are more richly polished.

But in the end, they are as this interchange between the old Greek and his mistress:

"'No more sorcery?' said Eurythö.

"'No,' said Pythagoras. 'Just mathematics.'"