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Writing About the Afterworld

I’ve been feeling anxious about Jim and the Flims, my novel-in-progress. I think it’s useful to stay in a frame of mind of doing it my way, rather than trying to make it commercial. As has been rather amply demonstrated by my previous eighteen novels, it’s highly unlikely that any novel I ever write will be a giant commercial success. The skittish fen are suspicious of me, and forever more will be. So why should I start groveling and bowdlerizing and self-censoring and hobbling myself—especially if so doing vitiates my joy in writing?

I feel cornered, backed up to a cliff’s edge, and that I should try harder to be commercial. Hand in hand with that comes a feeling of rebelliousness. My instinct is to give “them” the finger and jump. And maybe, in the long run, that is in fact the most commercial move. (And keep in mind that “they” only exist in my head, that is, “they” are a certain set of voices in my ongoing tourtured-artist-type internal dialogue.)

[My painting Big Sur at Lucia, started at Lucia Lodge on my 63rd birthday. Prints at].

Maybe I flip my wig and go totally surreal with Flimsy. Random crazy stuff, like in the Alice books. I have an idea for a garden of growing clones for sacrificing to the jivas, and that’s a nice fresh image. As a working method, I could go for shock-effect after shock-effect, picaresque style, enjoy it locally, and that’s all it is.

But, face it, flipping isn’t enuf. I need a story-thread to keep myself wanting to sit down and write every day. When a book is going well for me, working on it is as interesting to me as reading someone else’s novel—I’m eager to find out what happens next.

Another issue is that I need some consistent overarching relationship between our world and the alternate world “Flimsy” that Jim visits. Today I’m entertaining the idea that Flimsy is in some ways the afterworld. I did use this move in White Light, which was largely set in a kind of afterworld. So I’ve mined this vein a bit, but certainly there’s more ore in the seam. How might the alternate world “Flimsy” in Jim and the Flims be the afterworld?

(Afterworld 1) One possible move is the traditional one of giving the character a health crisis, then segueing into increasingly bizarre adventures, and then he realizes that he’s actually dead. “And then Jimmy Olsen realized he’d been dead during the preceding N chapters, and that all those mad adventures had been afterlife experiences.” [When I say “Jimmy Olsen” I’m riffing off those old Superman comics where cub reporter Jimmy Olsen kills Superman, and in the last panel of the comic, Jimmy Olsen falls out of bed, and says, “Oh, it was only a dream.”]

A downside with the Jimmy Olsen move is that the longer you postpone the reveal (that is, the larger N is), the more annoying it is for the audience. Like they’ve been reading along, and taking the story seriously for chapter after chapter, and suddenly you’re telling them you’ve been scamming them.
And once a reader actually does know that the character is dead, the adventures take on a special interest of a different kind.

This said, if the main character is dead, this takes some zest out of the story, as who cares, after all, about what happens to a dead guy? And he can’t really die, now, so what does he have to worry about?

(Afterworld 2) A second way to write about the afterlife is to use Dante’s move in his Inferno. Dante himself isn’t dead, he’s on a tour of these other worlds. It’s like an exploration of alternate universes. Note that Niven and Pournelle already wrote an SF pastiche of Dante, so I wouldn’t want to copy any particulars, just the general notion of a living guy exploring the afterworld—which is, again, the move that I used in White Light.

Kicking up the spook factor, maybe one or two of those three surfers that Jim meets before he leaves are in fact dead, they’re ghosts or zombies? And maybe half the people at the surf party are dead, too. Surf zombies. That would be cool. I still want the drama of killing the obnoxious boss surfer Header with an axe, so maybe Header is alive—but I guess he could be a zombie, and then he gets back up to his feet even with his brain gone and his head axed, all Vault of Horror style. Gnarly, dude. If Header’s a zombie, then I can keep using him as a character even after he’s been killed…

Is Jim’s mysterious woman friend Weena something like an angel or a devil? Well, she’s from this other world, which might be the afterworld, so maybe she’s a ghost. Or maybe that world had native-born people as well as ghosts that have emigrated there from here.

I do like the idea that Ginnie is a ghost—this is the surfer woman whom Jim falls in love with. And once they’re in Flimsy/afterworld, Ginnie is substantial and he can make love to her. There can be some prefigurings of Ginnie being a ghost before she tells Jim or before he figures it out. She’s hard to see when it’s dark. Other people don’t seem to notice her.

And maybe, what the hell, further into the book, widower Jim meets up with his dead wife Lucy over in Flimsy. Kind of an Orpheus and Eurydice number, I think I’ve never used that pattern before, hooray, or wait, in White Light, the guy does get a girlfriend over in the Land of the Dead, but it’s not his ex-wife. Man, I’d be hooking into a silo fulla corn with a dead wife routine, wheenk to spare, very commercial. Especially when Jim can’t bring her back from Flimsy to his homeland. Tearful fade-out. [Here’s a post where at the end I explain what I mean by “wheenk”.]

26 Responses to “Writing About the Afterworld”

  1. Jeffrey Kegler Says:

    One approach is to reveal immediately that Jim *might* be dead. That way readers won’t feel they’ve been tricked into following a dead character for N chapters. A disadvantage is the readers may still want the lead character to turn out not actually to be dead.

    This makes your lead character a kind of human Schroedinger’s cat. You could use this to explore what it’s like to have life or death be a complex probability variable. (Bad guys carrying superposition guns?) I’d be fascinated to see a fictional treatment of this, and you are the best possible writer to attempt it.

  2. Brendan Says:

    Yeah, ‘they’ are pretty good at co-opting legitimate freak-out fiction (remember Bill Burroughs in the khahkis ads?), so maybe what you need to do is write something so commercial that they can’t possibly co-opt it? ERGWK. Tortured-artist-type internal dialogues are the best, aren’t? Currently trying to write my big-ass commercial scifi novel, but, of course, it keeps taking on a completely gnarly and difficult tone, but… f*ckit. Nobody wants to read some reverse-engineered soul-less junk. Finger. Jump.

  3. serah Says:


  4. matt Says:

    I like the waves in that painting. And the foreground cliff and flora.

  5. Andy Valencia Says:

    A funny way to interact with another world occurred to me. What if
    somebody found out–by accident, of course–that if you calculated pi
    out some insane number of places, the digits calculated out there
    changed each time you made the calculation? Absolutely impossible and
    provably a contradiction! Reminds me of the view of time in physics
    before special relativity. :->

    Once you find a variance where there “can’t” be one, next you find out
    that there’s a signal in there. You wanted a close/interleaved tie
    between this world and the other, how much more intimate can it be than
    via one’s own physical “constants”? :->

  6. Steve H Says:

    Sturgeon once said of T.B. Swann that he wrote his own golden thing his own golden way; I quoted that to Farah about you the other day. Write the book any way you want to; the worst that could possibly happen is a ‘trunk novel’ you never sell. Or it will sit on a website like MISSILE GAP by Charlie Stross.
    Maybe Flimsy is an afterlife for more than one world? You die and start over in Flimsy, but it’s another physical life that you will eventually leave.

  7. rs Says:

    Yeah, that edge thing.

    I like the after life thing, but I think Rudy Rucker ought to be a character there. His N+1 novel, where N is one more than this one, could be a big success there, made into a movie and all.

    I think one of the things your stories lack is real concern for the main character, we always know they are going to be OK. Maybe you can off Rudy 1/3 or the way through but have him start communicating with who ever takes over the story. Maybe Rudy Jr. finds your secret notes in the woods. He retraces your steps and … Since you got offed we don’t know what will happen to Jr.

    Probably been done a hundred times though. It could be like the The Hollow Earth, a true story, but Rudy Jr. is trying to find out what happened to Sr. Lot’s of room to explore relationships with children, dead parents, and meaning.

    Another angle for keeping the character alive is the Matrix thing. Maybe his experience is a simulation in which he dies, which he believed is totally real up to that moment. Avoid the Matrix by placing it in the Flims world and making it sensible. You can’t really cross into their world but they can parallelize you by grabbing an image that runs in the Flim world. The process makes you get amnesia for a while, or until the simulation dies.

  8. cinderel Says:

    You can’t really cross into their world but they can parallelize you. well i speakin with those gyus
    or the one out there every day.. but must say the conversation stays stassimo kind of, no movin in one direction or another not very fast..
    is mostly Jokes
    i feel the Other side is so strong (or has been) that a conversation Was just our lives as they go
    but these days might have better connection.

  9. cinderel Says:

    Have any questions, You Want me to ask The.. otheer Side?

  10. Rudy Says:

    Thanks for the comments and encouragement. You gave me the strength to make the changes I was talking about.

    Jeffrey, the mixed quantum state is in fact the state that an author’s mind is in when composing a book. You’re visualizing as many of the umpteen possible novels as you can, trying to find the optimal path. I tend not to like mixed states as story gimmicks though…then it feels like the author has fobbed off his or her work onto the reader!

    Steve, thanks for the “golden” remark. And no way this is a trunk (actually the web is the new trunk) novel. Thanks to all my help from my commenters, Jim will be incredibly commercial 😉

    rs…so..I like happy endings! To me, a downer ending is kind of a cheap shot, an unearned way to promote your work to “seriousness.” Killing off the main character is, in any case, not something that would work in this book. Although, as you point out, one could do a generational thing, which might be cool. Son finding the father’s journal that ends in his disappearnce/death, then goes after. Would indeed be a nice Hollow Earth 2 setup.

    Serah, I’ll be writing a ghostsex scene next week!

    Interesting remark, cinderel, that life is a static conversation…made of jokes. Do I have a question? Ok, what does the castle of the King and Queen of Flimsy look like?

  11. Grant BlahaErath Says:

    Rudy, I think the idea that you might flip over into the surreal is inevitable. Even when I read your non-fiction I feel like the edges of reality are going to dissolve and something unexpected will break through. I’ll admit that its a fervent hope of mine that something unreal will break through into this rational world. This staple of your writing is what makes me a loyal fan, so by all means, go surreal. Surreal doesn’t imply loss of structure, character, or commercial possibility. At any rate, I can’t imagine you avoiding it.

    I view every advancement in physics and astronomy with despair as the bars of reality tighten up. The only hope I find is that we can’t see past the bars. It’s not turtles all the way down, there is a turtle level we can’t see. In much the same way I can create “deus ex machina” effects in a CA execution environment, its possible to imagine such effects occurring in our reality.

    There is a thought experiment that I like. Outside this reality it would be possible to look into this reality and know all state, there would be no quantum uncertainty there. There would be no time constraints and, with a properly constructed rule set for the reality we live in (of which I believe is true), an external effect would be able to make changes to any portion of our reality and it would be self consistent. Inhabitants, or more accurately, computational platforms (humans being an example) would be unable to detect any form of external manipulation. In fact, they would be forever wondering if such manipulation is even possible or if had ever occurred.

    It would also be possible for an infinite speed computer to be constructed outside our reality that could search reality for patterns with the complexity of “consciousness”. A trans-dimensional Google. That pattern could be extracted, transformed, and then inserted into a different reality or back into its source reality in a different time and place. If I could get my hands on an infinite speed computer I’m pretty sure I could do this myself. I think that’s impossible in this reality, but outside this reality there should be an infinite number of infinite speed computers. If there is an afterlife to be had anywhere, this scenario gets my vote as the most likely mechanism.

  12. Alex Says:

    Have you read “The Long Tail” by Chris Anderson? He claims the average book sells just 500 copies in the USA, so you must be doing better than average! Also he claims the age of the “blockbuster hit” is over (since around year 2000). So don’t worry about it, just keep writing your amazing stuff!

  13. Helix Says:

    Surf zombies would be awesome.

  14. greg r Says:

    Here’s wishing another another Jim an afterlife full of ghostsex in surreal landscapes of inner space. r.i.p. J.G. Ballard.

  15. Nick Robinson Says:

    It’s fascinating how that “I should try harder to be commercial” feeling can come up during the creative process. There’s nothing wrong with being commercial; and nothing wrong either with giving the finger to the imaginary ‘they’.

    For me, I reckon it comes down to which of those I want to put first – do I want to put commercial success first or do I want to put being immersed in the creative process first?

    I believe that it would still be possible to be creative if I chose to put commercial success first – but it would have to be a different type of creative in a different field.
    And likewise, it is (hopefully!) still possible to be commercially successful if I choose to put creativity first – but then I have to get connected to the right people to help me make money from my creations. And which I think is pretty much what Rudy has done.

    I hope you hold your nerve Rudy and keep yourself in that frame of doing it your way. There’s no guarantees of success anyway, but you already know how to be fulfilled and I know which I’d choose.

  16. Jeffrey Kegler Says:

    Now that I think back, I recall reading a novel by a major fantasy author whose lead character, deep into the book, turned out really to have been dead all along. The novel was in other respects a fine work.

    But somewhere in my psyche, at least, is an element which demands an emotional “payoff” from an novel-length story and which really felt cheated. This psychic element is childish and really can hold a grudge. I recall having to work to push aside lingering resentments in order to buy and read this author’s next book.

    On the other hand, this book is fairly widely reviewed and often praised. I’ve never seen this reaction of mine echoed in any of the reviews. For spoiler reasons, the reviewers have to be careful — the “he’s really been dead all along” moment is the major plot twist in this book. But on the other hand, heck, maybe this resentful childish psychic element is just my personal hangup.

  17. palindrome Says:


    I’ve really been enjoying the process of you working on this story. Thanks for sharing it on your blog. Also, the “wheenk” link is not working. Is it not supposed to be working? It that the point?

  18. Rudy Says:

    Helix, surf zombies are going in! They live in a culvert. Each of them has a parasitic yuel instead of a brain. But they’re basically Good.

    Grant, yes, the best thing in a story is to break the expectations that we have. That’s what F&SF is for.

    Nick, yes, given that there’s no promise of being commercial even if you try to be, so it’s best to write what you like. It’s too hard to write what you don’t like…

    Jeffrey, I’ll make sure Jim’s not dead.

    Palindrome, the wheenk post link works sometimes for me, sometimes not, I can’t quite figure out the problem,

    I think maybe now I’ve fixed it though.

    the remarks about “wheenk” were at the very end of the post. You can just search my blog to find other wheenk mentions, by the way, using
    For more about wheenk, see p.53 of the online singled-column PDF of Postsingular.

  19. Helix Says:

    The wheenk link doesn’t work for me either, it gives a 404 within your site’s template. I’ve read Postsingular but if there was more to the word than is in the book that would be interesting. Also, that’s very cool that you’ve got the book online for free.

  20. Rudy Says:

    I don’t know what went wrong with that link to my post entry with the mention of wheenk, I can’t even find the post on my blog today anymore. Bit rot or sabotage? I’ll see if I can figure it out some other day when I have a better connection. (Back home, I think I fixed it.)

    In any case, this is my record of more or less what I’d posted there about Wheenk:

    “The whole deal of Jayjay trying to play the Lost Chord is an objective correlative for trying to write the perfect scene; the Lost Chord represents trying to write about the Lost Chord. Finally you just go play it. And of course Thuy’s metanovel was all about that. Cracks me up that I had Thuy sarcastically call her metanovel [i]Wheenk[/i], as “wheenk” is my private word for a certain kind of popular book that I’m kind of unable to write—I’m thinking of a book like, say, Girl With Pearl Earring or House of Sand and Fog where on every page the main character is mentally going over his or her longings, her hopes, and her fears; it’s an unceasing chorus of “wheenk, wheenk, wheenk,” as if from a rabbit whose foot is caught in the jaws of a trap, the trap being, dear reader, the pain and wonder of life itself. But I want to convey that without resorting to the repetitions of wheenk. I prefer to make each page a fresh adventure.”

  21. Helix Says:

    Found the post on Internet Archive it’s good and interesting, even saved the pictures which the archive is usually kind of sketchy about, although it does have format/code errors

  22. Zoe Says:

    Wow! It’s so great that you have begun to paint creative ideas/background for your writing! Just the other day my bestfriend/fiance and I decided on a new creative endeaver: he’s goin to take pictures around town, where ever of ordinary places and people and things and I will use a “Lucy Projector” to project these everyday images onto a canvas where I’ll outline the same exact scene onto the canvas but then add an aethereal being bleeding through the aether into the material world from the one they originated. All because I want people to see that the reason they found a picked flower in the middle of a parking lot is because a being from another demension is trying to communicate with them. Or that the reason they feel a special calmness beneath a tree is because of the elemental spirit within the seemingly ordinary lifeform. Maybe you could use a Lucy Projector for your paintings since I see you love photography just as much-with all the pictures you have posted. Both of my parents are artists but still I’ve never been schooled in such art, only theatre and singing, and anyone who sees my paintings thinks it’s too amazing for what they would presume my skill level…and it’s all b/c of the Lucy Projector-(that Da Vinci called something different when he invented it). Also, I’d like to comment on your “zombie surfer” idea…I’d like you to take a look at this play —-> “Psycho Beach Party” It might make or break your finalized ideas of Zombie Surfers. Hope i’ve been of some assistance! Have a great morning!!!

  23. Kelly Says:

    On the anxiousness about doing it your way or making it “commercial,” please just do it your way. You’ve built your following by the fortification of your singular vision. All I can say is stick to ya’ brilliant guns. Best of luck!

  24. steve landry Says:

    I’m on 116 of mathematicians in love (2nd go round) and even before i read this thread, I was thinking that the newest books could indeed be “dicked with” (meaning turned into arnold or tom cruise movies) and still transmit all the gooey gnarl that I love. all the descriptions of ruckerwork include the sense of cartooney-ness, so a hwood movie would just simplify the line drawings even more. it would still be possible to get the major ideas across to the masses (who NEED goofy fun math fantasy). it’s not IF the works are commercial, it’s just a matter of when they will become commercial (like all other unique art)

    thanks for making me laugh while blowing my mind and also being a regular guy. rock on, rude dude….

  25. Dude Says:

    I haven’t seen a novel where the protagonist gradually realizes (through zany madcap adventures) that there is no difference between living a life and re-examining it from the bardo… i.e. in an infinite universe, with every possible thread of consciousness reified, while you’re living life you’re simultaneously making connections with your past and future from alternate viewpoints, all of which are really part of the larger “you”. Said character develops techniques for becoming aware of (and connected to) those viewpoints and thus becomes the singularity, integrating them all. I’m not sure it would be a work of fiction…

  26. Steve H Says:

    Rudy, it occurs to me that “The Lost Chord” isn’t as common a reference as it used to be. OMG – age is setting in – I’m becoming what Vonnegut called ‘acculturated.’ It used to be that you could say something like ‘while seated one day at my organ, I was weary and ill at ease, and my fingers wandered idly’ without being taken for a pornographer. But now I wonder how many of your readers or commenters thought to google ‘lost chord?’

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