Saving humanity the 12-year-old way,
with pure science (or is it pure magic?)

''Frek and the Elixir''
By Rudy Rucker
(Tor, 476 pp., $27.95)

Buy at Amazon

Reviewed by John Orr
May 2004

If J. K. Rowling operated by the same rules of business as Bill Gates, she would probably be trying to buy Rudy Rucker in an attempt to merge him into meaninglessness.

Because the amazingly creative Rucker is wandering into Rowling's Harry Potter marketplace with his latest novel, the completely delightful and amusing ''Frek and the Elixir,'' about a prepubescent lad whose lot it is to save humanity against overwhelming forces.

Harry Potter is armed with cleverness, magic and many fantastic friends and creatures. He battles, ultimately, the most heartless wizard of all time. His story is told with great wit.

Frek Huggins is armed with cleverness, science and many fantastic friends and creatures. He battles, ultimately, the most heartless technology of the entire galaxy. His story is told with great wit.

If you live in Silicon Valley (as does Rucker, a mathematician, professor of computer science and charter-member cyberpunk), you're probably not like me. When you were in high school, your algebra teacher probably did not throw chalk-coated erasers at you to wake you up. You probably aced trig and physics and went on to become a brilliant engineer now living on unemployment because your job was outsourced to India.

But for me, who never got as far as chemistry or physics, magic and science are virtually the same thing. Not for me to argue with Rowling about the physics of traveling by floo powder or apparation. Not for me to argue with Rucker about the physics of traveling by ''yunching,'' which Bumby (an alien from Orpoly) explains to Frek, describing the actions to be taken by his wife Ulla (who is a spaceship): ''She winds up our component strings to make us the size of the galaxy. Then we take a seven-league step to the center, Ulla unyunches us and forsooth! Behold! We're in Orpoly, back to our own right size. Yunch, unyunch, plop."

(At one point, Frek, who is 12, gets in a bit of trouble during his travels around the galaxy when a spaceship controlling his yunch is destroyed, and he yunches to a size bigger than the universe, and his face meets his feet wrapping around the universe. Magic? Physics? I don't know, I'm still brushing off chalk dust.)

Luckily for Rucker, Rowling -- the first billionaire novelist -- probably is very little like Bill Gates -- the first billionaire software engineer -- and Rucker's book may happily become something to read for the millions of Harry Potter fans who are waiting for Harry Potter Six.

''Frek and the Elixir'' is loaded with much of the same charm and fun of the Harry Potter books -- or of Mark Twain's ''Tom Sawyer'' and ''Huckleberry Finn.'' There's something very appealing in following adventures of discovery as experienced by young boys and girls, before they have been educated out of their sense of limitless possibility.

Rucker, like Rowling, seems to never have lost his own sense of limitless possibilty.

Frek is a resident of Middleville in the year 3003. Earth is being run by Gov, a worm that began as a biogenetic experiment gone awry. Gov can appear on the wall screens of people's tree homes, and can use many means -- including the uvvies of previous Rucker novels -- to spy on people.

NuBioCom has reduced the number of species on Earth to just 256, which makes Frek sad. He has a urlbud he can paste on a wall screen to see pictures of many of the lost species, such as orchids, dragonflies and big cats. The Earth's biome had been collapsed by NuBioCom in 2666, and all the genetic codes destroyed, but for the 256.

''Not for the first time, Frek let himself dream of finding a way to bring back Earth's real plants and animals -- to go on a quest for a magic elixir to heal his home world.''

As it happens, someone elsewhere in the universe has such an elixir, and Frek is given the means to go after it when a couple of aliens land on Earth, hoping to cut a deal with Frek for broadcast rights for all of humanity.

'''You're the one,' said the cuttlefish in a low voice. 'You'll save the world.''' Soon after that the cuttlefish -- Bumby -- is destroyed by Gov's henchmen, and Frek is captured and his brain invaded by a peeker uvvy, which reads his memories for Gov. Then Frek's mother manages to help Frek escape, Frek meets a Grulloo (a humanoid mutant that is basically a head, a tail and two arms), and then the resurrected Bumby saves Frek and the Grulloo and takes them into space.

Where many adventures ensue, including finding Frek's dad, who'd been a rebel on Earth, then had escaped Gov only to hook up with a six-breasted golddigger on an asteroid. The golddigger, who is a horrid person, has a wonderful daughter named Renata, who is a little older than Frek and who joins his quest to save Earth's original biome.

Along the way they visit a gas planet much like Jupiter where they must escape sentient and angry clouds of gas, and they surf on the surface of a star, protected by amazing space suits that have been conjured out of black matter.

Part of the time they are held by Unipuskers, aliens with heads like clams who speak their true meanings in the imperative. The question of their gender comes up.

'''Summarily state that all Unipuskers are one sex,' said Hawb. 'Remark that we use a type of genomic exchange for variation. Snigger that you will not be privy to the details.'''

Hawb and his mate, Cawmb, argue:

'''Point out Hawb's insensitive and careless error regarding our number of children,' said Cawmb in an irritated tone. 'Supply the correct numbers of seven hundred and seventy-nine children, with seventeen more expected this week.'

'''Impugn Cawmb's knowledge in this context,' said Hawb, his voice rising. 'Assert the accuracy of my original count. Report that I personally visited each of the children's rooms yesterday evening to tuck them in.'

'''Expose Hawb's deceit and poor partnership,' screamed Cawmb, his mouth opening very wide. 'Reveal that four of those children died of ickspot two days ago, leaving four beds empty. Bewail my bereavment.'''

Hawb and Cawmb, like Bumby and Ulla, are trying to land a deal for the rights to ''branecast'' all of humanity. It's ''reality TV'' to the extreme. Branecasters can connect with the minds of certain species -- including humans, and see and hear what the humans are experiencing -- and even control them, like videogame characters.

If Frek agrees to the deal, he gets the elixir to save Earth's lost species; and humans will be taken over by thrill-seeking aliens in the far corners of the galaxy.

What's a 12-year-old to do?

Have a great adventure is what, in a book that is an enormous amount of fun and full of charms that will appeal to readers of all ages from about 12 up.

Maybe it helps if you don't know the difference between science and magic. Bumby says at one point, '''What your race grovels to as the Laws of Physics -- well, for us, those so-called rules are local ordinances, and the fat cop is asleep. Don't litter, keep off the grass, no spitting -- ha!'''

Is Rucker spitting on the littered grass when he has Frek ''yunching'' across galaxies or traveling from dimension to dimension via a ''branelink''? I don't know. But his ruminations about Toons (cartoon characters that are autonomous, with artificial intelligence and free will), and branecasting (the ultimate degradation of humanity that began with television), and bioengineering that may lead to people growing their homes from seeds and eating bread and meat that immediately grow back after being sliced, and manufacturing physical items from dark matter, all seem at least possible.

To an algebra-challenged reader such as myself.