Rudy Rucker is a unique and idiosyncratic science fiction writer, who over the years has slowly carved out a niche for himself in the canonical landscape. Closely associated with Sterling’s seminal cyberpunks, he has also defined his own sub-school of writing, ‘transrealism’. The product of this colourful and care-free career is a brand of science fiction with its own distinctive sound and texture, dressed in surf-bum threads and sun-tanned by laid-back surrealism.
This collection’s title is meant to be (at least partially) ironic. In his introduction to the book, while acknowledging that he may indeed appear to others as being a mad professor, he quotes a character from his recent novel Mathematicians in Love (Tor Books, 2006): “Crazy means illogical. I’m logical. Therefore I’m not crazy. Note that a system can be at the same time logical and unpredictable.“ He then goes on to define the cornerstone qualities of the logical system that is his writing: thought experiments; power-chords; gnarliness; wit.
So, how do these qualities manifest themselves? Thought experiments are, of course, the common currency of science fiction – albeit one that Rucker takes to with particularly effervescent glee. In essence, he takes an idea or conceit and runs with it, just to see what happens, and often to hilarious effect. Take for example “Panpsychism Proved“, a short piece of flash set in the cafeteria of the Apple computer company, or the bluntly titled “Six Thought Experiments Concerning the Nature of Computation“; these sketches examine scientific conjectures or theories in a fictional setting with a wink and a wry grin.
Rucker defines power-chords as classic science fiction tropes that function in the same way as well known hooks or riffs in the canon of rock music – as established themes to be taken as a starting point for improvisation. Every Rucker story has one, ranging from the biotechnology at the centre of “Junk DNA“ (a ribofunk story written in collaboration with Bruce Sterling) to the titular creatures in “Elves of the Subdimensions“ (a collaboration with Paul Di Filippo). Like Philip K. Dick (to whom he is often compared), he has a gift for putting new spin on old ideas, but he avoids the dark paranoia that became Dick’s trademark.
Gnarliness, one of Rucker’s favourite surf-slang acquisitions, is an adjective that describes a story as being “complex and unpredictable without being random“, or being able to take on a plausible (if strange) life of its own. Gnarliness is the glue that holds Rucker’s fiction together, and a prime example of a story adhering to its own bizarre internal logic is “The Men in the Back Room at the Country Club“. In this transrealist take on the down-home Southern Gothic rapture tale, the reader is taken from old men stored overnight in booze-filled golf-bags to a full-scale invasion of people-eating aliens. It’s ridiculous, yes – but it works on its own terms, if you’ll allow it to.
Wit is a word that means different things to different people, but Rucker defines it as “[the naming of] the elephant in the living room“ – an acknowledgement of the fundamental glitches that modern life is full of, as opposed to the simple point-and-click of blunt humour. He refers to his idol Robert Sheckley as an exemplar of wit; if I have understood his definition correctly, I would offer Douglas Adams in the same position, being more familiar with his work. Rucker always aims for wit in his writing; he may not hit the bullseye every time, but he’s usually somewhere on the board, occasionally pulling off a trick-shot like “Jenna and Me“, a story written in collaboration with (and about) his son that takes us from a small-time ISP computer room in California to the Bush family residence in deepest Texas, by way of back-room conspiracy politics and alien consciousnesses that download themselves into humans over wi-fi.
Rucker’s writing is like guacamole flavoured ice-cream – it’s never going to be to everyone’s taste, especially in the world of science fiction, which quite often revels in a type of po-faced seriousness that Rucker seems to delight in thumbing his nose at. Such readers might find the collaborative stories easier to stomach, with the other writers leavening Rucker’s beach-party prose to a greater or lesser extent, without diluting the core ideas and themes.
The reader who is willing to simply surrender to the gnarliness, however, can expect to enjoy a roller-coaster trip through the cartoon psychedelia of Rucker’s imagination. Along the way they’ll meet intelligent bacteria from other dimensions, obsessive academics who have allowed the spirits of deceased writers to possess their genitalia, technicians and scientists who have crossed the line of professional distance from their own research, and everyday people living larger-than-life in the cracks and crevices of a world that’s just a short step sideways from our own.
Rucker stands alone in the science fiction pantheon as some kind of trickster god of the computer science lab; where others construct minutely plausible fictional realities, he simply grabs the corners of the one we already know and twists it in directions we don’t have pronounceable names for. His prose may not be the most perfectly crafted, nor his premises the most plausible, but within the scope of the logical system he has built for his work, he is a peerless genius – a mad professor, in fact.
[This review originally published at SF Site, republished here with the permission of the editor.]