Sunday, 19 November 2017
I’ve long had a kind of peripheral awareness of Rudy Rucker as a significant cyberpunk writer, but it has taken a long time for me to get around to reading his novels (seems like I’m always saying this...). I’ve had this omnibus of his Ware novels sitting on my shelf for sevens years now, still, here I am. Software and Wetware are the first two novels of the Ware Tetralogy. Software won the very first Philip K. Dick award in 1983 and Wetware won the award in 1988, which is extremely apt as both novels have a definite P. K. Dick feel about them thematically. Previously I’ve encountered Rucker via a story in the great cyberpunk collection Mirrorshades (1986) and his wild but strangely plausible essay 'The Great Awakening' that features in the brilliant book Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge (2008). Fortunately Rucker’s stylistic verve and psychedelic array of ideas displayed in 'The Great Awakening' is evident throughout both of these cyberpunk novels.
Software quickly introduces key protagonist Cobb Anderson, inventor of AI robots collectively known as boppers. In Rucker’s near future scenario (the novel is set in 2020) the baby boomers have created the greatest concentration of old people (now known as Pheezers, short for freaky geezers) that the planet has ever seen and the financial strain of trying to pay their pensions has resulted in the government handing over Florida to the elderly hoards, where they live for free supported by food drops. Anderson, who is both old and washed up career wise, is living in Florida waiting for the end. Meanwhile the boppers have rebelled and are mostly now confined to the moon, where they are engaged in a kind of civil war between the boppers, who are individualistic ambulatory robots, and the big boppers, who are large cybernetic ‘brains’ who want all robot consciousness to merge. At first Software comes across as a bit cartoonish and it is obvious that Rucker is no great stylist, however his prose is snappy in the way that the Beats were snappy, which is a definite advantage. Rucker also has a way with pacing and the narrative moves along briskly with regular plot developments and features dialogue that exudes a knowing sly wit.
The principal human characters are not overly complex creations, but they are rounded enough to take you through a world in which the bopper robots mostly dominate the narrative. The boppers have their own culture and thanks to Cobb are hardwired to constantly evolve, which means switching body types, creating ‘scions’ with other robots and rebelling against their initial Asimov inspired directives which had kept them under the control of humanity (to protect humans, to obey humans, to protect robots, unless it means harming humans). Cobb Anderson is joined by a young twenty something human known as Sta-Hi Mooney (meaning - stay high, of course...). Mooney, who takes full advantage of the era’s relaxed attitude toward drugs, is generally irreverent and irresponsible throughout the novel. They make quite a pair, particularly when they are smuggled to the moon by some of Cobb’s loyal boppers who want to ‘eat’ his brain in order to make him immortal. If it sounds like this novel is a wild ride into the outer realms of psychedelic science fiction then you are exactly right and if it’s your kind of thing them look no further, if it isn’t I advise you to be more like Sta-Hi and chill out and read it anyway.
Wetware is appropriately dedicated to Philip K. Dick and begins its particular brand of Rucker weirdness with a first chapter entitled ‘People That Melt’. Wetware is set 10 years after Software and both Cobb Anderson and Sta-Hi Mooney feature again. The novel is an improvement on Software in terms of style, the execution of ideas and world building. The first part is set on the moon, where humanity has taken back control of the surface city, known as Disky, and the still rebellious robots live underground in a vast network called The Nest. Once again the boppers really steal the show from the human characters. Their culture has become even more sophisticated and they come in all shapes and sizes, some have snake and crab like bodies, or simple box-like structures and some also have a tendency to favour their own versions of male or female personas, even though boppers are basically genderless. Some of the boppers converse in vernacular inspired by human writers from the past, like Bernice, a shiny chrome bopper who is shaped like a beautiful woman in order to manipulate hapless Luna humans. Bernice talks like a character from a Edgar Allen Poe novel, affected and slightly melodramatic. Male oriented boppers like Emul and Oozer take their speech patterns from the writings of Jack Kerouac, which naturally follows Rucker’s own style - a homage perhaps?
Plot wise Wetware is far more complex than Software, but I will not elaborate too much in order to avoid spoilers. The plot does, however, involve a really weird drug called Merge that when taken allows people to literally merge together, interlocking on a molecular level before becoming whole again as the drug wears off. Of course Sta-Hi, who now lives on the moon within Disky, becomes far too involved. Merge* acts as a great narrative device that allows Bernice and her ‘sisters’ to fulfill their plans to interfere with life on Earth, which is their chief fascination. Once again Rucker’s superb narrative pacing carries the plot along at breakneck speed and coupled with some funny and inventive dialogue from both the human and bopper characters it makes for a particularly unique reading experience. I absolutely loved Wetware for its sheer invention and narrative verve and subsequently I rank it as one of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read.
Rudy Rucker is a fascinating character in his own right; he is actually related to philosopher G. W. F. Hegel and has a PHD in mathematics, which are fine credentials for any science fiction author. He’s also a particularly prolific writer, with some twenty one novels to his name, some of which come under the sub-genre of his own devising called transrealim. Transrealism is not easily summed up in a few lines, so if you are interested then check out his essay ‘Transrealist Manifesto’ here. The Ware novels don’t exactly fall under his transrealism writings, rather they came earlier and are more like his own vision of cyberpunk. Rucker has a lot of interesting things to say about cyberpunk on his blog here. Personally I’ve come to the conclusion that with Rucker’s writing it is kind of like if one of the Beat writers had turned their hand at science fiction (for the record I wouldn’t call William Burroughs work science fiction). Hopefully I’ll have time to read Freeware (1997) and Realware (2000) pretty soon, although, once again, I’m always saying that.
* Really Merge should then have been included in Jeff Noon’s list of the top ten fictional drugs from novels.