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Anthony Burgess’s Novel of Shakespeare

August 18th, 2019

Recently I read Anthony Burgess’s 1964 novel Nothing Like the Sun. It’s a tale of William Shakespeare’s life, largely written in Elizabethan late 1500’s English. At first, starting out the book, it seemed too hard. But, just like when I see a Shakespeare play, I adapted a bit—and lived with the fact that many of the unfamiliar words were unknown to the Oxford Dictionary in my Kindle. Indeed a few of the expressions or words don’t even turn up hits on Google. But I did find definitions for a lot of them, and the remaining ones I could figure out from context, which was kind of fun.

These days I often read books on Kindle—because I can put them into a font size suitable for my old eyes. I do love paper, of course, but font size matters more. Another bennie of using the Kindle is that I can highlight passages that strike my fancy, email the passages to myself, and use them as the text for one of my photoblog posts. So here are my quotes, with some short comments, also photos, mostly from New York and Santa Cruz, plus a couple of my new paintings.

“Gems Diptych” acrylic on canvas, August, 2019, Pair of paintings, each 24” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

The young Shakespeare has sex with a passionate older woman, who speaks in a ladylike way afterwards, even though, to his shock, “[her speech] in no wise congrued with her lying near-bare against him nor with that horrible steaming-out, some few minutes past of a mouthful apter for a growling leching collier pumping his foul water into some giggling alley-mort up by the darkling wall of a stinking alehouse privy.”

(I did the two paintings above by starting out by brushing in a flowing Art Nouveau grid, as if for a stained-glass window, and then filling in the cells with colors, going to great lengths to have the shading be nice and smooth. The first one took me nearly thirty hours to do. I liked it so much that I did a second, using approximately the same colors, so they make a nice pair, or diptych. The paintings have zero connection with the quote above, but I wanted to put the Gems first in this post because I love them.)

Life in a nutshell: “…the eternal terrible truth of the skull disclosed at the feast’s end.” (This summer will turn to winter…)

Nature writing: “Leaves gold and brown lying like fried fish; birds twittering like rats in branch-companies, ready to leave the sinking ship of summer.” (Photo from a Santa Cruz bluff.)

Ah, the Shakespearean insights. “The play we act in is still busily being written in that dark room behind, the final couplet not yet known even to the cloaked and anonymous writer.” (The picture shows J. P. Morgan’s rare book room in Manhattan.)

A resentful older rival of Shakespeare’s famously applies this description to him in a pamphlet, soon after our Willy the Shake made it into the London theater scene: “An upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.” (Full house at a Broadway performance of Hadesland.)

Shakespeare writes a pamphlet length poem called Venus & Adonis, dedicating it to an earl whose support he needs. “It is not good, but it is as good as many. I cannot waste my whole life in longing for this man’s art and that man’s scope.” (The beauty queen in the photo was on a float. She’s gearing up for a Cuban parade in Manhattan, and she’s checking out a photo her friend took of her practicing a pose.)

Birds really are not our friends. “They were swans, but like the swans that sailed in the barge’s wake, greedy and cold-eyed. And the kites that flew to and from their scavenging in the June air, the ultimate cleansers of the commonwealth, they attested the end of all noble flesh.” (I rode my bicycle along the cliffs between Three Mile Beach and downtown Santa Cruz, and hit on this deserted cove. The driftwood here looks like a an alien slug. Possibly a flesh-eater!)

Burgess really raises his game in Nothing Like The Sun . “It was for lying, he saw hopelessly, that words had been made. In the beginning was the word and the word was with the Father of Lies.” (Not that this innocent and entertaining busker in the photo in Madison Square is the Father of Lies! But his beseeching pose vaguely fits the quote.)

Shakespeare is a father now, and he ponders how strange it is to to have spawned new human lives. “Only from them, the makers [that is, the parent], was hidden the enormous pulse of the engines, whose switch they touched by an alien curse concealed in the fever of rose or apple or mirror.” And looking out at the spreading lives of your offspring, “Yet there was only the one personal burden of being the source of the whole, the centre of the projection of shadows into the real that, bigger and undying, yet moved as oneself moved, in the mock court of an endless sterile reign to truckle and mow [not sure what he means by mow here].” (Rudy Jr. and me in Maine, photo by Embry Rucker III.)

A young writer’s unkind thoughts about his elders in the field. “There are examples enough of other poets and players who sought, when their powers failed for the enactment of sin, to whine to Almighty God of their deep and profound repentance. Yet call time back and they would be staggering anew in their drunkenness and grunting in beastly thrusting at their ragg’d and spotted drabs.” (That’s a full-size car. Sculpture in Manhattan near the midtown boat taxi stop.)

Love this quote. I’d like to start using this all the time. “I have news for thee, snorer.” (Photo in the Met.)

“Then to thy bed, belching in sloth, to lie there, paper unwritten on save by random sprawling greasy greedy fingers, ale-drop jottings, dust settling on the pile.” (At one of our fave restaurants in Manhattan, L’Express on Park Ave at 20th St.)

“WS blinked back to the painful world on a hot morning, openmouthed at the strong mid-morning sunray infested with motes.” I love looking at motes in the sunlight. Each mote a universe. (Cubans getting their outfits on for the parade. Love how cheerful they are. A holiday outing.)

“Five Eggs” acrylic on canvas, August, 2019, 24” x 30”. Click for a larger version of the painting. (This was a third version of the “Gems” paintings, but this time I wanted to put critters into the cells, so they’d be like eggs.)

“…a thrust of opal drops in animal ecstasy unleashed a universe — stars, sun, gods, hell and all.” “Soon, his heart sank to think it, she would be enticed to cornfields to beguile the dullness of a country spring.”

You never really know what you’re doing when you’re writing. All you can do is hope for the best. “…a man’s art and skill grew or languished or merely changed, and all beyond his control.” (The Met. I like to pretend that the crater at the top is the mouth of this being, with the black dot the eye. Sort of a half-fish half-human Bosch/Bruegel critter.)

“Only he himself knew what might be done if the words and craft could descend in a sort of pentecostal dispensation of grace. He saw dimly, a vision lay coyly beyond the tail of his eye. This stuff was play. There was a reality somewhere to be encompassed and, with God’s grimmest irony, it might only be grasped through playing at play, thus catching reality off its guard.” (A shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary in Los Gatos near a Jesuit Center. Dig the praying saint on the left.)

“For the first time it was made clear to me that language was no vehicle of soothing prettiness to warm cold castles that waited for spring, no ornament for ladies or great lords, chiming, beguiling, but a potency of sharp knives and brutal hammers.” (Some of my recent Night Shade reprints on the shelf in the Barnes & Noble in Union Square in NY. Yes!)

Our World is an Absolute Continuum. New “Infinity & the Mind.”

July 27th, 2019

I recently wrote a fourth preface for my classic Infinity and the Mind. It’s out in a new 2019 edition from Princeton University Press in paperback and ebook.. The book has sold several hundred thousand copies by now. I wrote it over about four years in my early thirties, around 1980.

In my latest preface I decided to go for it and argue that the physical space that we live in is infinite in the highest possible degree. We live, I claim, in an Absolute Continuum. I’m going to put an edited version of the preface into today’s post. Here we go.

These days people are prone to thinking digitally. The internet and the handheld device are everywhere. And there’s a numbing tendency to suppose that our world could be a virtual-reality simulation on a grid. But is your mind just a few lines of code? Space a heap of blocks? Time a scrapbook of stills? The cosmos an integer? Surely not.

Some people don’t want the world to be infinite. They concoct bogus theories and metaphors to imply the world to be finite. The intellectual hero of Infinity and the Mind, Georg Cantor, had sharp words for such doubters. Here’s what he wrote in 1885:

The fear of infinity is a form of myopia that destroys the possibility of seeing the actual infinite, even though it in its highest form has created and sustains us, and in its secondary transfinite forms occurs all around us and even inhabits our minds.

We can take Cantor’s remarks as phenomenological observations about our experiences. When he speaks of “infinity in its highest form,” he means something like the Cosmic One, the Big Aha, or the White Light. It doesn’t have to be a traditional religious thing. I’m thinking of an all-suffusing glow, or a feeling that all is one—an experience which many of us have, however briefly. Thereby we get a numinous sense of the absolute infinite.

And when Cantor speaks of transfinite forms being all around us and in our minds, he’s expressing another aspect of our perceptions. When you’re in a relaxed mood, the physical world feels smooth, sensual, rich, and endless. Note, however, that if you’re feeling stressed, the world seems cramped, shoddy, and finite. Like an airport waiting room with so-called news blaring from a TV screen on the wall. Don’t want to be there.

Cantor was inspired by his wonderful 1873 theorem that the countable infinity of the integers is smaller than the infinity of decimal values on the real number line, which is often called mathematical space, or the continuum. The first of these two sets is said to have size alef-null, and the size of the second set is called c, for “continuum.”

Cantor showed that there’s a tower of infinities: starting with alef-null and alef-one. Alef-one is the next transfinite after alef-null. The scale runs ever upward. Cantor wondered if the size of c might be alef-one—this question is known as Cantor’s Continuum Problem, which is unsolvable on the basis of our current knowledge of infinity. That is, we can’t prove anything about the proper place of c among the alefs. Some new insights are needed—or perhaps c can’t be matched up with any alef at all.

At the top of the endless run of alefs is what we call absolute infinity, or Ω. It’s like the vanishing point in a perspective painting. Ω is ineffable. If you reach out to grab it, you always find you’re holding some smaller cardinal. In set theory, this phenomenon is known as the Reflection Principle.

The Reflection Principle is related to a theological principle articulated by St. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century. “No matter how far our mind may have progressed in the contemplation of God, it does not attain to God, but to what is beneath God.” Let me repeat that I’m not out to discuss the God of religion here. But the science of the infinite is, you see, almost like mathematical theology.

In this note I want to broach a fresh means of bringing the transfinites into ordinary life. I have in mind an additional type of absolute infinity, that is, the absolute continuum. It’s much larger than the garden-variety space continuum of decimal numbers.

Math alert. The construction principle for an absolute continuum is this: every gap is filled.. And by a “gap” we mean any two sets of points L and R, with every member of L being less than every member of R. In an absolute continuum, there’s always a point in between. And we’re allowed to have L or R be an empty set. So if L is {1,2,3,4,…} and R is empty, then the simplest number in the “gap” will be alef-null. A more concise way to describe the absolute continuum is as what the topologist Felix Hausdorff would call an eta-Ω class.End math alert.

The construction principle for an absolute continuum doesn’t sound like much, but it produces a lot. You end up with all the familiar real numbers, plus all of Cantor’s transfinite alefs, plus the infinitesimal reciprocals of all the alefs, not to mention crazy things like “the alef-seventh root of pi divided by alef-one.”

The great John Horton Conway worked out the theory of the absolute continuum in his ground-breaking 1976 book, On Numbers and Games. The legendary old-school computer hacker Bill Gosper once remarked: “Conway is approximately the smartest man in the world.” Conway’s system was elegantly popularized in the computer-scientist Donald Knuth’s popular presentation Surreal Numbers. Wikipedia has a great entry on surreal numbers. Conway himself used the name No (as in number) for his version of the absolute continuum, and we’ll use that name for it too.

Math alert. The absolute continuum No is a type of absolute infinity that’s quite distinct from the “largest number” Ω. No is at least as big as its subclass Ω, and if No can in fact be measured on a linear size scale then it would probably have size Ω. But it could be that there’s something about No that resists being well-ordered at all. Perhaps it’s too wide, or too deep. The question of whether the absolute continuum No has size Ω is akin to Cantor’s Continuum Problem, which first asks if the decimal real number line can be measured as any alef at all, and only then asks if that size might be alef-one. End math alert.

My mission in this post is to stretch your mind and get you to imagine that we live in an absolute continuum like No. That is, our physical space is an absolute continuum, and time is an absolute continuum as well. How might we imagine this?

Infinite sets of discrete, separate objects aren’t very natural to think about—consider the stars in an endless universe, or the ticks of an eternal clock. To imagine such collections, you have to partition seamless reality into chunks, and envision all the chunks at once, and somehow enumerate them.

It’s simpler to think of infinity in terms of a continuum. An interval of time, a gradation of color, a nuance of feeling, a puff of air—these are infinitely subtle continua that fit into daily life.

And what of Cantor’s transfinites, that is, alef-one, alef-two, and the rest of his prankster band? If physical space is an absolute continuum, it extends all the way out to Ω. There are star-studded gulfs at transfinite removes. You encounter an absolutely infinite supply of planets on your way towards Ω.

But, again, it’s more satisfying to think about higher infinities that are within our immediate purview. And this can be done via the absolute continuum. Given that, for instance, alef-three is present in our spatial absolute continuum, then the reciprocal of alef-three exists—and very near by. Supernumerary gulfs of stars fit in among our atoms, nestled within our bodies like reflections in the mirrored surface of a crystal ball.

Alef-seven dreams in the petal of a rose.

At this point I need to interrupt my agreeable fantasia and mention the tedious difficulties posed by quantum mechanics. One hears that it’s meaningless to speak of space at levels smaller than the so-called Planck length, which, measured in meters,  is 1 divided by 10 to the 35th power.  Which is about one sextillionth the size of a proton. Very small, but it’s not continuous, and I don’t like that. Especially if these cheapskates say that space itself is tessellated into indivisible lumps or cells that are the size of the Planck length.

Ah, the myopic fear of infinity! First comes a call for finitistic austerity, then a grudging admission that granular space doesn’t quite make sense, and then comes the lilting injunction: “Be happy! The universe is incomprehensible! How wonderful!”

(Foaming at the mouth like a rabid moose.)

To me, incoherence isn’t wonderful. It means your theory isn’t done. Reality comes first. Theories come second. The world arises on its own, and our opinions don’t limit what the cosmos can do.

Brave words, but how am I going to preserve our absolute continuum in the face of quantum mechanics? Well, let’s suppose that the quantum level is like an interzone, or a glitch, or a rumble-strip. We can trundle right over it.

And beyond, or beneath, or beside the quantum-transition layer we enter what I like to call the subdimensions. According to the viewpoint I’m describing, our physical space has sub-quantum, subdimensional levels that allow space to be an absolute continuum.

I think of an 1877 work, Die Philosophie des Als Ob, by Hans Vaihinger. In English the title would be The Philosophy of As If. I like those two German words Als Ob. Vaihinger proposes that you might, if only for pleasure, choose to believe certain kinds of metaphysical doctrines, even though there might be no hope of firmly proving these ideas.

And right now I’m fascinated by the notion that our physical space is an absolute continuum. I’ve always felt it’s sad to stare out at the stars and yearn for distant vastness. We can have humongous, ginormous infinities right here. Thinking this way makes the world seem more interesting, and provides a sense of peace.

There’s an extra bonus to having our space be an absolute continuum. Mathematically, any delimited region of such a space is an absolute continuum as well. In that you occupy a region of an absolute continuum, your body comprises an absolute continuum. So you’re absolutely infinite, just as you are. Your endlessly various gnarliness runs down past the alef-seventh level, and ever deeper towards the ineffable 1/ Ω. You’re a higher being, friend.

One more bonus: adherents to the pawky doctrine of quantized space say that your body is a finite pattern, like a set of pixels. And, therefore, they prate, if space is large, then your pattern is likely to repeat, and there might be endlessly many yous. How dull. And what a waste of infinite space! The finitist argument doesn’t go through if each of us is an absolute continuum. We have enough wiggle room to be terminally unique.

For a dramatization of life in an absolute continuum, see my 2008 science-fiction story, “Jack and the Aktuals, or, Physical Applications of Transfinite Set Theory.” The tale is about a mathematician named Jack, and his visit to the land of Alefville, which is an absolute continuum. In this realm Cantor’s transfinite numbers are indeed real, both in the large and in the small. And the denizens of Alefville are called aktuals, thus the story’s title. The story appeared in the online site , and it’s also in my anthology, Complete Stories, available in print, ebook, or browsable online.

But I didn’t go far enough in “Jack and the Aktuals.” I didn’t argue that we really are living in an absolute continuum. That’s what I do with my science and my science fiction, you see. I convince myself that the world around me is really, really weird. And that makes life more interesting.

While I was working on the new preface to Infinity and the Mind, my wife Sylvia and I drove to the seaside town of Santa Cruz. While Sylvia scavenger-hunted the shops for buttons for the two grandchildren’s sweaters that she’d knit, I sat on the 3rd Avenue Beach in the sun, enjoying the long smooth waves, and pondering the absolute continuum.

As I say, I’m trying to imagine that the space around us really is transfinite—not only with all the usual real numbers, but with even more points dusted into the infinitesimal gaps. I’m supposing that space is an absolute continuum, jam-packed with surreal numbers. And never mind about atoms or quantum mechanics—you can go on down and down. And sure, there might even be superclusters of galaxies down there—why not! There’s room for everything amid the cascading levels of alefs.

Why wouldn’t our actual world be as rich as possible? The traditional philosophical Principle of Plenitude supports this view. God’s got the big budget, right? Why would the Cosmos chintz out? We’ve got the real thing, the deluxe edition. We live in an absolute continuum!

Dream with me. Let our full native space be a glittering absolute continuum, running up and down the size scales, with no end in sight. We’ve been safe in heaven all along, with stars twinkling within and without, our absolute continuum like a phosphorescent sea, like a spangled scarf, as above so below.

If only I could remember this for more than a minutes at a time!

Working on it now…writing another story. In the same world as “Juicy Ghost”—but not so political.

Mashup of “Million Mile Road Trip” Interviews

July 4th, 2019

I recently did three interviews in connection with Million Mile Road Trip. One was with the writer Jeff Somers from B&N SciFi & Fantasy Blog. One was a fixed list of questions (so call my interviewer “Bot”), from Shelf Awareness webzine. And the third was a single-question interview by Chris Richards a pop music writer at the Washington Post, who publishes a rather amazing little zine called Debussy Ringtone — in print only. As usual I’m putting in a surreal mix of recent photos, and I’ve included two recent paintings (with notes) as well.

Jeff. Night Shade Books calls this the “Year of Rudy Rucker,” which feels way overdue. You’ve published 23 novels—where would you recommend a Rucker newbie get started

A. Yep, Night Shade is issuing ten books by me this year—nine reprints along with Million Mile Road Trip. A matching set of print books with great covers. I’m not sure I’d say this is way overdue, but I’m really glad it’s happening. If you’re an author, having your books in print is the blood of life. Which of my books to start with? Whichever one you get your hands on. I do like Mathematicians in Love a lot..And Saucer Wisdom is a hoot. But this week I’m gonna say that Million Mile Road Trip is a good place to start! Could be the best book I ever wrote.

[This is the same pink IBM Selectric model that I wrote my first few novels of.  Seen in the Milwaukee Art Museum Design section.]

Jeff. Your companion book, Notes for Million Mile Road Trip, is actually longer than the novel! The idea of following up reading a novel with that kind of metadata is fascinating; can you tell us more about it?

A. It’s hard to write a novel. It takes a year or maybe two years of tickling the keyboard at your desk, or using a laptop in a cafe, doing that pretty much every day, even on the days when you don’t know what comes next. This is where writing a volume of notes comes in. When I don’t have anything to put into the novel, I write something in the notes. I might analyze the possibilities for the next few scenes. Or craft journal entries about things I saw. Or describe some the people sitting around me, being careful not to stare at them too hard. Or wheenk about how hopeless it is to try to write another novel, and how I’ve been faking it all along anyhow. The more I complain in my notes, the better I feel. I publish the finished Notes in parallel with with the novel, not that I sell many copies of the notes. Longterm, the notes will be fodder for the locust swarm of devoted Rucker scholars who are due to emerge any time now from their curiously long gestation in the soil.

[Fresnel Lens for the lighthouse at Point Arena, CA.]

Jeff. What’s amazing about a book like MMRT is how you take some pretty high-level math and science and turn it into a rollicking sci-fi adventure. How do you manage that balance?

A. I studied math in college and grad school. Math always appealed to me. So clear and so intricate—the hidden machinery of the world. It is, as you say, a delicate balance to have a book be lively, with romance and fun characters—and also to have it be based on logical science ideas. In studying math, I learned about starting out with some set of assumptions like, say, Euclid’s postulates or the axioms of transfinite set theory, starting out with a set of rules and then deducing what follows from them. In my SF novels, I’ll make some wild, far-out initial assumptions. But from then it’s logical, and I get to see what ends up happening. I don’t really know in advance, not before I write the novel. That way its surprising and fun. I’m not trying to teach things to my readers. I want them to be amazed and to laugh and to be carried away.

“Cute Meet” Acrylic, pair of 24″ x 30″ canvases, May, 2019. Click for a larger version of the painting.

[I saw a diagram of a so-called Hele ‐Shaw ferrohydrodynamics pattern formed by, I don’t know, something like a rotating magnetic field under a fluid with metal dust in it. I don’t remember the details. But I liked the cool pattern. I love when nature makes these chaotic, odd things that look like paleolithic cave-wall drawings. So I picked one pattern, and painted two versions of it, copying the pattern by hand each time. I liked doing it so much that I did it twice, so we have a diptych here. And the colors are kind of the opposites of each other. And if you rotate either of these patterns by 180 degrees, it’s approximately the same as the other one. So they’re the same species. But the butterfly one on the left is girl, and the yearning one on the right is a boy. And they’re having a cute meet.]

Debussy. Most of your novels and stories are optimistic. Why?

A. The media are awash with bad news. But this is a custom, and not a reflection of reality. My theory is that bad news (a) makes people more fearful and more likely to accept repressive rulers, and (b) makes them more likely to buy distracting expensive things. Media, the Man, and Mammon work in concert. It’s not really true that the world is worse off than it’s ever been. Flip back through history, and things are always a mess. We’re all going to die. That never changes. Why obsess on it? I prefer to have some fun in the time that I have. And to hell with the daily news.

When I’m writing an SF story, I’m describing an alternate world that I’m inventing on the spot. I want to see interesting characters, good dialog, rad mind warps, surprising plot twists, rich vocabulary, eyeball kicks, and unheard-of science. I’m like a painter who prefers bright colors to blacks and grays. There’s good as well as bad. Unknown natural laws await. Aliens might be friendly. A novel can have a happy ending.

This said, I’m not above killing off a main character in any given book. You need chiaroscuro, that is, some dark against the like. It’s nice to pump up a big operatic scene where a good person dies. But, do note that I do like someone’s death to be a big deal—and not just have a stranger shoot a person in the back of the head and have everyone be, like, “Oh, sigh, that’s the way it is in this boring vale of tears, and now let’s parrot some media headlines.”

I think you said you only wanted three hundred words for my answer? Wow, that’s not many! I’d hoped I’d be able to go on and write about—erk

Bot. Your favorite books when you were a child?

A. I loved the world of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books. And Beverly Cleary books like Ribsy, Henry Huggins, and Ramona the Pest. And a picture book by Robert Lawson, McWhinney’s Jaunt—about a professor who rides across the country on a flying bicycle, held aloft by “Z gas” in is tires. I read all the Robert Heinlein novels, and especially liked Revolt in 2100 and Tunnel in the Sky. I was a huge fan of the SF master Robert Sheckley’s Untouched by Human Hands. And when I was fourteen, I got hold of the Beat author William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, which I found on my big brother’s bookshelf. Burroughs showed me that you can write about anything at all.

Jeff. You’ve been called a groundbreaker in genre—from your foundational writing in cyberpunk and transrealism, to being the winner of the first Philip K. Dick Award ever. What’s your take on the modern state of sci-fi, and what do you see for the future of the genre?

A. I’m not much involved with factions and fashions in the SF community—although I do have my old cabal of cyberpunks, transrealists, and the writers I published when I was running my webzine Flurb. An odd recent phenomenon is that lots of mainstream authors are writing SF. But they won’t admit it’s SF. Lifelong literary-SF writers like me find this … irritating. It’s like the upper crust authors can dip down into our world—but they don’t want to let us out. Even if we’re writing high lit. I always think of Kurt Vonnegut’s line, “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’ … and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

[Above: Model of my character Groon from Million Mile Road Trip. Model by Chuck Shotton, painstakingly 3D-printed, and with a sound chip inside. My painting of Groon in the background. Below: With artist Paul Mavrides at the Andy Warhol show in San Francisco. That’s Mrs. Warhola in the background.]

Bot. What book do you most want to read again for the first time?

A. A volume of stories by Jorge Luis Borges. Labyrinths, say, or Collected Fictions. When I first read Borges, I was stunned at the richness of the trove. “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” might have been the very first of his stories I found. It’s a crazy-sounding title, but that’s as it should be. The tale is about the discovery of an encyclopedia about an unkown planet with “its emperors and seas, its minerals and birds and fish, its algebra and fire, its theological and metaphysical controversies.” All this in a single short story! And “Funes the Memorious,” where Borges describes a youth with a perfect memory. “He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memories with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho.” Borges stories are my notion of what fantasy and science fiction ought to be. Truly other, and utterly wondrous.

Jeff. It’s been thirty-six years since you published A Transrealist Manifesto, and some argue that with the mainstreaming of sci-fi into popular-culture transrealism, we’ve reached a turning point where transrealism will soon be the baseline for sci-fi stories. Do you agree, or is it more complicated than that?

A. The idea behind transrealism it that you write in a fairly realistic way about your life and your feelings and about the lives of those around you—but then you bring in SF elements that can stand for subtextual aspects of your mental life. Like time travel stands for nostalgia and hope. And uploading your mind to a computer stands for going to heaven. And telepathy stands for someone actually understanding what the eff you’re talking about. And alien stands for people from different backgrounds. When you come down to it, everyone’s background is different, and everyone you ever meet is an alien. Or maybe a zombie or a robot. The SF tropes are objective correlatives for things we have trouble writing about. And, yes, this transreal approach can be a baseline for present-day lit.

Bot. Books you’d still like to write?

A. I want to write about a heretofore unnoticed force of nature. It’s at the subquantum level. It relates to dark energy, and to consciousness. And once we get it tune with it, we’ll have all the free energy we need, and we’ll be able to live inside electrons, like in my novel Jim and the Flims, and to predict the future from soap films, like in Mathematicians in Love, and to levitate, like in Million Mile Road Trip, and to talk to rocks, like in Hylozoic. But I know there’s something more than even that, something wilder and deeper, something super new that will, in retrospect, seem obvious and natural. We’ll be, like, “Why didn’t we think of that before!” I hope the muse shows it to me.

[Detail from Peter Bruegel’s Het Luilekkerland, also known as Schlaraffenland  or The Land of Cockaigne.]

Bot. A book you hid from your parents?

A. I grew up in Kentucky, and in the University of Louisville bookstore I found a text on types of mental illness. As a budding young author, I had to consider the option of going mad as an early career move. I got the book, and I’d look through it to find symptoms that I might be having, or that I might be able to convince myself that I had. It drove my parents nuts to see me do that. As if I weren’t already enough trouble!

“The Two Lovers Walk Their Dog” acrylic on canvas, June, 2019, 30” x 24”. Click for a larger version of the painting.

[They had an En Plein Air painting festival in my town, and I was thinking I should do a quick painting of something I saw outside. So I went in my backyard and started painting the ivy leaves on the wall. And that got a little boring. So I started putting in critters. I made a spiraling black line, and then I put an eye in the middle, and that’s how I got started on the figure on the right. I gave her pink flesh, and put in some 3D shading to round her out. the real stroke of inspiration was just filling in a crescent of orange-red for her mouth. And then I drew her lover on the left. His smile is even bigger. And the dog? Well, he was just a lucky hit. I made that red glob and put two things like ears on it, and then added another—voila! And I made the background an insanely bright and saturated shade of yellow-orange. I love how cheerful the lovers look. And the ivy leaves turned out to be hearts. And, all in all, there’s seventeen eyes bobbling around! This one is a gift from the Muse, an unexpected masterpiece. Not that it would ever be accepted by the En Plein Air festival. But who cares.]

Jeff. You also paint, and have received notice for your artwork, which favors surreal sci-fi themes. Are there connections between your painting and your writing?

A. I started painting in 1999 because I was writing a historical novel, As Above, So Below, about the life of the artist Peter Bruegel. I wanted to get a sense of what it’s like to paint. Over time I got to enjoying it more and more. I’ve done almost a hundred and seventy paintings by now. I’m not a great draftsman. But with paint, you can push it around and layer it until it looks like what you want. And then of course you ruin it, and fix it, and ruin it again, and fix it, and eventually you stop.

I like how painting is completely analog. No keyboard and screen. Smearing paint on a canvas. I love it. When I’m unsure about an upcoming scene in a novel, I do a painting that relates to it. Not an exact representation, more like an evocation. Like dreaming while I’m awake. Writing is like dreaming, too. You get out of your way and type.

Bot. What are five books you’ll never part with?

A. Oh, let’s just do one. A fat one. Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I reread it ever five or ten years, reveling once again in the man’s wit, and the richness of his prose. I’ve persistently been trying to write like Pynchon over the course of my twenty-three novels, and in Million Mile Road Trip, I think I finally got close. Some Pynchonian elements: Write in the present tense, like a person describing a movie. Use close-in third person viewpoint where thoughts of the focus characters spill onto the page. Use some very long sentences, with phrase after phrase being added on, like you’re a carpenter working your way out on an increasingly rickety scaffolding that you’re assembling as you go along. And allow yourself an occasional fourth-wall-breaking exclamation, like, “Maybe this is going a little too far.”

[Work by the artist Rina Banarjee.]

Jeff. You’ve been a professional writer and a publisher for decades; how has the business of getting your words out there changed in that time?

A. The biggest new thing is the ebook. Ebooks are literary immortality; they don’t ever go out of print. And writers can publish ebooks themselves for free. Not only that, writers can publish print books for free, too. And you can sell your self-published ebooks and paperbacks on big online sites such as Barnes & Noble. Personal freedom to publish to the world audience is a huge deal. No gatekeepers.

The catch, however, is that if you self-pub, it’s hard getting people to notice you. Including my nonfiction, I’ve published about forty books. And the first thirty or so were from commercial publishers. But in 2012, the publishers temporarily turned their backs on me. Like, “We’ve heard enough out of you!.” But I wasn’t ready to quit. And thanks to the new channels, I didn’t have to. I learned how to self-pub my own ebooks and paperbacks—I did my Collected Stories, my Journals, three novels, and an art book. I call my imprint Transreal Books. I ran Kickstarters for the self-pub books, which took the place of getting publishers’ advances. It was a lot of work.

And now, hallelujah, Night Shade Books has taken me into their fold. I’m back in the tribe and off the ice floe. I’m glad.

Podcast #109. “Juicy Ghost.”

June 25th, 2019

June 25, 2019. “Juicy Ghost” is a fairly intense political SF story. For more on the story, and the full text, see my June 24 blog post, or check out my anthology Complete Stories. Press the arrow below to play “Juicy Ghost.”


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