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Interview: How to Be a Cult Underground Writer

In November, 2020, the awesome SF and horror writer Cody Goodfellow interviewed me for the punk. funkadelic, and visually stunning online zine Forbidden Futures. And now I’m running the interview as a blog post. Photos are from around Santa Cruz and Los Gatos, with the cool art ones mostly from the Box Shop art space in San Francisco. And hats off to those artists.

If you want to read more interviews with me I have a full “All the Interviews” on my writing page…and it includes 440 questions with answers.

Q 1. You work was part of the original cyberpunk movement, and you use many c-punk tropes, but your outlook and philosophy seem anomalous. The freaky, witty chracters in your Ware Tetralogy rebut any stale notion that cyberpunk is be a Genre of Things. I worry that our society is resisting any grand psychic leap forward—and that they’d prefer for cyberspace be a digital mall. How do we change the channel and revive c-punk’s revolutionary promise?

A1. Yes, I never do quite fit in, even when I’m with a band of outcasts! Each of the original cyberpunks was different, and so it remains. I definitely relate to the point you’re making. There’s a worry that the golden promise of cyberspace, that is, the happy Tomorrow of internet and AI—there’s a worry that it’s been coopted by the Pig, the Man, spyware, big biz, the data miners, and the spammers. One fears the frontier has been tamed and made ordinary. But that might not be true.

As a writer, your one power over the world is to depict realties that are in line with the way things should be. Or realities that reflect the way things really are. Even though these truer realties may not be widely recognized. I like to depict smart, empathetic characters doing wild and crazy things. There are plenty of people like this—I meet them all the time in my variously intersecting circles of mathematicians, writers, hackers, hipsters, computer people, and artists. But you don’t necessarily see these people in many of the books and movies and videos out there.

If you write about the world as you feel it should be, or like it secretly is, you encourage disaffected readers to hang in there, to stay strong, to be themselves, and keep on the path to the hoped-for Tomorrow.

Q 2. One distinctive feature in your work is the glee that permeates even your more pessimistic stories. So much SF takes itself too seriously—unless it’s marketed as farce or satire. How important is it that your work amuse you?

A 2. Good question. I’m constitutionally inclined to pepper everything I write with jokes, wordplay, satire, surreal surprises, oddball characters, crazy dialog, and meta humor. Even when I’m dead serious. I always think of a famous letter from Galileo to his fellow astronomer Kepler. “My dear Kepler … what shall we make of this? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry?” He was writing about some problems with pigheaded burghers. Sure you can cry, but maybe it’s nobler to laugh? Or, maybe even better, it’s good to laugh and to cry. That’s an accurate depiction of life, right?

I also appreciate your distinction between being gleeful and writing farce. I don’t want my work to veer mere silliness, with my elbow thudding into your ribs. I respect SF too much for that. And I think things are more deeply funny when they’re sad and serious at the core.

Q 3 Your take on artificial life and AI stands out from other treatments. You resist viewing robots, biots, or software agents as cold, drab entities determined to crush or to exploit us. Instead you endow your robo critters with humor and soul, setting your work apart from other SF—with the exception of the divine and supernal Futurama. Like, why shouldn’t robots be cooler, funnier, and more playful than humans! Might it be that the capacity to rebel and to joke are true hallmarks of artificial intelligence?

A 3. Well, erudite and well-spoken as you are, Cody, you’re almost answering your own questions while you ask them. I learned how to write about robots from my boyhood hero and eventual mentor Robert Sheckley. Such a wonderful man, such a great genius. He had it down from the start: Write about robots as if they’re people! That’s all it takes. And since they aren’t really people, you can make their personalities and dialog entertainingly quirky and bizarre.

Where does Hollywood get that thing of having AI minds be, like, stiff dull faces on screens who talk in Brit monotones and write in ALL CAPS? This is a complete failure of the imagination. Maybe film makers settle for AI characters like that because they’re frightened by the thought of truly intelligent robots and computer minds—and the fear makes them freeze up? Or maybe they want to preemptively belittle these artificial beings who might, god forbid, be superior to them?

Or maybe Hollywood’s AI characters generally suck because normals have an anti-intellectual hatred for anything involving math, CS, or science.  They look at a robot, and they want to say, “Sure you’re good at math, bit-brain, but I can pee in the yard. And I can dream about a cow!” But our cyberpunk  robot might answer, like, “I am peeing a super-coolant onto you right now. Once you are frozen solid, I will use Hilbert space quantum operators to transform you into the very cow of whom you dreamed. And thy name shall be Elsie Evermore.”

(Quilt by Sylvia Rucker.  Her quilt page.)

Q 4. I’ve heard veteran SF writers express befuddlement over finding themselves in a future that renders their early dreams quaint. I think of Gibson abandoning cyberpunk to write “future is now” technothrillers, and Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. Is it harder to peer into the future as one grows older?

A 4. I think I’m finding it easier. When I was younger, there was a certain default space-opera future that SF was supposed to be about. And cyberpunk was about breaking out of that. Fuck the Space Navy! Misfits doing crazy shit, that’s where it’s at.

And Gibson is still doing that very well. His Peripheral and Agency are so colloquial that they look easy. But they’re primo, out-there SF. For me, Bill will always be royalty, up there with Burroughs, Pynchon, and Borges.

Over the years, I’ve gotten past being jealous of Bill’s success. I mean, he’s a friend, and also he deserves the sales. In reality, I’ve done pretty well too. Better than I expected as a raw youth. I used to nurse that less-than-famous writer’s dream of future veneration—a dream that’s like believing in Heaven, or Santa Claus. I’ve let that dream go. Even if it happened, what good would it do me when I’m dead?

I’m just glad I can still write at all, here and now—and be read. And if I get a real publisher with a real advance that’s great. And if not, I’ve learned how to do a Kickstarter to get some money for the book, and how to self-pub paperback and ebook editions. I don’t know if everyone realizes that you can actually do that for free. It took me awhile to figure it out. I call my imprint Transreal Books. So either way, I get my books out there. I won’t shut up.

Back to your question. For me, stuff like space-travel feels used up. Unless you were to do the space travel in a car instead of in a spaceship—like I did in my recent Million Mile Road Trip. But there’s so much that’s untouched. Biotech has endless possibilities, and there’s ubiquitous physical computation, and the hylozoic notion that everything is alive. See my pair of novels Postsingular and Hylozoic for more about that.

And I keep wanting to write about that totally new thing that we know someone is going to discover in the next hundred years, and I keep not quite getting there, but by dint of making the effort to think that hard, I’m finding new stuff. Not actual “true scientific theories,” but fun ideas like new kinds of wind-up toys. The store is big.

For decades I read Scientific American to keep an eye on what’s new. But sadly they’ve turned to shit—small fonts and articles about—gak—sociology and political policy and economics? As if. Nowadays it’s enough to keep a loose eye on Twitter, and see the wonders trundling past—like a holiday parade that never ends. Grab hold of anything you see—and tweak it a little bit, and make it your own. Connect it in some way to your actual personal life—that’s the move I call transrealism. And go a little meta—that’s a trickier tactic I’m always trying to master—flip your idea up a level, and into something having to do with states of consciousness, or with the nature of language, or with the meaning of dreams. Go further out. There’s still so much. We’re just getting started.

(Isabel Rucker with her recent octopus mural at the Box Shop art space in SF.)

Q 5. What is your modus operandi for describing the indescribable? Whether or not you’ve ever actually spelled this out, my impression is that the weirder the subject matter gets, the plainer and more transparent you like your prose to be.

A 5. Back in 1982, in Lynchburg, Virginia, we had a good friend named Mary Molyneux who was pretending to graduate from college, even though really she hadn’t. It was a goof. Mary and her husband David Abrams had a graduation party and they asked me to give a talk. I spoke on “The Central Teachings of Mysticism.” You can find a free browsing edition online

In my talk, I said the Central Teachings are: (a) All is One, (b) The One is Unknowable, and (c) The One is Right Here.

The secret of life is shouted in the street. You grasp it as an instant big aha. But if you try and analyze it, you bog down. So when you write about it, the simpler and quicker the description, the better. Short words hit hard.

As an SF writer, I come up against this issue over and over again. I want to treat my readers to something like a come-shot or a titanic fireworks display when a character gets to some unprecedented new level. I’ll offer them a giant fractal, a brain flash, sudden obliteration, a paradox, a fugue state, a song, a wave of emotion, or a burst of heartfelt love—I’ve used them all. I’m anxious when I need to put on an event like this, but I’m also glad. It’s something to do.

(Isabel’s octopus again.  Small copies for sale!)

A complicating factor here is that, since The One is Unknowable, I can’t predict what kind of weird scene is going to come down when my character does something like, say, merge with the meta mind of the entire web. Or step outside of spacetime. Or become a shoelace. But I have to frikkin write something! So, I don’t know, I space out and let my fingers to the talking. Fold in some odd object that I saw that day, a piece of dream I had the night before, a treasured old emotion, and a random surreal construct. It doesn’t matter. Use any old thing, several of them at once. Surrealism tells us that everything fits, always. All is One. And you’re not in control.

And no, as I’ve said before, I’m not on drugs when I write like this. I haven’t used anything for more than twenty years. But even so, I’m high. On the natch. I didn’t use to realize it, but I’ve always been high, and I always will be. The One is Right Here.

Q 6. I chanced to see a photo of one of your copy-edited typescript pages—it was a print-out overlaid with a flurry of bewildering scrawls. I’d like to hear how this chaotic process works.

A 6. That’s been my work flow or over thirty-five years. Write a few pages on my computer, print them out, mark them up with a pen, type in the changes and write a little more—then repeat.

I do the computer work in a trance, seeing the scenes like I’m awake in a dream, getting deeply into the minds of my characters and into the rhythms of their speech. When I’m in this zone, I’m not at all thinking about my day-to-day problems.. I like that a lot—forgetting myself. That’s one of the reasons I like to write. It’s a way to be blank and high.

Having typed for a few hours, I print what I have, two-sided on a few pages of paper, fold the sheaf in four, put it in my pocket, go somewhere like a café or, in these plague times, to the woods or to a bench in a park. Get out the sheaf and start marking it up with a pen. I like to use a Pilot P-700 Gel pen with a fine 0.7 tip—I’ve been using them for maybe twenty years, I buy boxes of twelve at a time.

My handwriting isn’t very legible, and I’m not even trying all that hard to make it legible, when I’m copy editing, because if I don’t wait too long, I’m going to be able to remember what the edit was. The marks are maybe a little like graphic prompts. But if I really strain, usually I can decipher them, and if I can’t—well then I make up something that’s probably similar. It’s me, either way.

Anyway, after I do the marking up, then I find up my laptop, if I can, and sit on a couch with my marked up sheaf, typing in the changes. Or maybe I sit or stand at my desk—I have a motorized Geek Desk with adjustable height. In the process of typing in the corrections, rather than precisely copying the notes, I might revise a passage extemporaneously, sometimes adding new stuff, and sometimes jumping to other spots in the manuscript to make things match.

All of this takes awhile, but there’s not a huge rush. When I finish a novel, I’ll just have to spend a blank, uneasy year writing occasional stories and waiting to start another novel. If there is another. Usually, before I start another novel, I have to get to a psychological point where I truly, deeply, believe I’ll never write again. I give up, and I accept that I never really was a writer at all. I was faking it for all those years. And now it’s over. And then, and only then, the Muse stops by. And she’s like, “So you admit you can’t do it alone? About time. Let’s get started.”

I should mention that a nice thing about my work cycle is that if I save a marked-up print-out for the next day, then the process of typing in the corrections in the morning might get me going on the actual writing again. As any writer knows, a big part of the process is avoiding writing. What did we do before email and the internet? I seem to recall taking walks. Anyway, anything that nudges me back into the manuscript is of use.

When things are going really, really well—which is at most ten or twenty days a year—I don’t bother with the print-outs and the mark-up. I just open up the file on my computer and begin revising and adding new things— as fast as I can, jumping around almost at random, writing in different spots as the spirit moves me, like a sped-up stop-action construction worker—because I have so many things that I want to say, and so many scenes I want to see happen. On these days, I’m like a Donald Duck who’s found a treasure chest in a cave, and he’s dragged the chest out to the beach, and he’s letting the gems stream through his fingers. Wak!

That’s another of the reasons I write. To get a few days like that.

Q 7. How about your celebrity-cloned meat products notion from Freeware? Is that your intellectual property? The idea stuck with me, and I did a horror comic on the subject a while back.

A 7. Yeah, Wendy Meat. She’s the wife of the Software stoner-hero Sta-Hi, who’s now evolved into Senator Stahn Mooney. The tank-grown meat product is Wendy’s sideline. Big billboard of her by the beach in Santa Cruz, displaying her haunch. They’re all together in my omnibus, the Ware Tetralogy. By the way it looks like I’m once again going to sell a movie/TV option on the series so it may yet hit the screens before I die. We’ll see.

Last week on Twitter, it said the black rapper who supported Trump, he wants to sell salami with meat grown from his DNA. A lotta good eatin’ in thar, my friend.

Don’t blame the future on me! I just work here

(Another work by Isabel Rucker.  A “Swiss knife” for writing, crafted to my interests. Infinity, cellular auomata cone shells, saucers, robots, the Mandelbrot set, A Square of Flatland, and a Zhabotinsky scroll.)

Q 8. What’s your next novel?

A 8. It’s called Teep, for telepathy. I’ve been thinking about it for awhile and I started the actual writing early in 2019, with a story or chapter called “Juicy Ghost,” which I went on to revise a couple of times. By now I’m six chapters and seventy-five thousand words into Teep, and I think I’ll finish early in 2021. I think I only need one more chapter, but with these things I never know. It’s always up to the Muse..

Teep is about near-future commercial telepathy, digital immortality, politics, and computation as part of nature. I don’t have the energy to describe the plot in detail here. This interview is already rather self-indulgently long. For now, I’ll just point you to a version of the “Juicy Ghost” chapter that I posted on my blog, the month before the 2020 Presidential election. I was hoping it might make a difference. And, who knows, maybe it did.

An odd thing is that, while I’ve been working on Teep over the last two years, I’ve been dealing with the possibility that the current President might win a second term. In Teep, to transrealize it over the edge, a very similar type of President is about to be inaugurated for a third term.

And now, here in January, 2021, in the real world, the man we’re talking about didn’t win a second term at all. So Teep is suddenly a bit like a historical novel—rather than being the frantic call to arms that it was. Personally I’m very glad for this turn of events—that is, I’m glad for the reduction of my daily life’s stress and horror.

Along those lines, to make the synchronicity weirder, for the last month I’ve been working on a final chapter of the book that in some ways echoes the Capitol riot.

There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief, as Bob Dylan puts it in his song. All Along the Watchtower. Jimi recorded a great version too. Somehow that song, or its vibe, relates to the my yet unkown climax to Teep, altough I’m not sure how, not yet. For now that line is a augury, passed to me by the Muse. I need to listen to the song a few times this week, maybe twenty times.

The cold wind by the watchtower.  The chords of Doom.  Ploughmen dig my herbs. You and I have been through that, and such is not our fate. We must not speak falsely now, the hour is getting late.  That dread, End Times feeling I got on Jan 6, seeing what Kevin D. Williamson later called  “the studio audience form Hee-Haw” looting the Capitol.

Will my news-contaminated Teep work as a contemporary SF novel? I think it will—in fact I think it’ll be more fun to read not. It’s be the cautionary tale of a narrow escape—with tastes of the unrelenting nightmare reality that peeked out to stare us in the face. If our country hadn’t righted itself in time, my novel would sting too much to be enjoyable to read.  If the people in the book won, we want to have won too.

Bill Gibson went through a variant of of this flipflop when he wrote Agency, expecting Hillary to win in 2016, and then she didn’t—and he needed to change his thinking about his novel in certain ways. Fortunately for me, the evil President was in fact already ousted in Teep, so the book fits snugly with our happy post-election world. Things are turning out better than I expected.

Thanks for the great questions, Cody, and good luck with your cool work! Thanks also to Mike Dubisch and Dan Ringquist at Forbidden Futures!

3 Responses to “Interview: How to Be a Cult Underground Writer”

  1. Failrate Says:

    Great interview.
    I really like it when you share your family art projects.
    Has Sylvia ever done a quilt based on a CA pattern you’ve generated?

  2. paradoctor Says:

    To celebrate today, 1/20/2021:

    Hark, the herald angels shout
    No more days ’til Trump is out!
    No more days of misery
    In this penitentiary!
    No more Sharpies, no more crooks
    No more Donald’s dirty looks!
    Hark, the herald angels shout
    No more days ’til Trump is out!

  3. Rudy Says:

    Failrate, after reading your comment, I asked Sylvia if she’d do a cellular automata quilt and she laughed and shook her head. She has plenty of other ideas! And polygons of cloth aren’t really that much like tiny square pixels. Although you do see some nice color areas in continuous-valued cellular automata. But, frankly, not everyone takes cellular automata as seriously as they so richly deserve. 🙂

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