Introduction to Transreal Cyberpunk

by Rob Latham


This is the introduction for Rudy Rucker & Bruce Sterling’s collection: Transreal Cyberpunk.
Introduction is Copyright © 2016 Rob Latham.


Science fiction, like science, is a collaborative enterprise, in two ways. First, there’s the encompassing “megatext” of the genre that all writers dip into, borrow from, contribute to, and collectively revise over the course of their careers. William Gibson invents cyberspace, and countless other writers jump on, adding and tinkering and retrofitting; somebody attaches hydraulic tubes and chrome handlebars and, voila!, we have steampunk. This is how the field grows, and always has.

But SF, uniquely among popular genres, is also literally collaborative, rife with famous writing partnerships: Pohl and Kornbluth, Kuttner and Moore, Niven and Pournelle. Harlan Ellison published an entire volume of collaborations with other authors, Partners in Wonder. For some reason, cyberpunk in particular has inspired much close teamwork: three of the stories in Gibson’s seminal collection Burning Chrome are collaborations; Sterling and Gibson coauthored the steampunk novel The Difference Engine; and Rucker has coauthored stories with seven writers, including fellow Mirrorshades authors Paul Di Filippo, Marc Laidlaw, and John Shirley.

So on the one hand, there’s nothing unusual about Transreal Cyberpunk, Rudy Rucker and Bruce Sterling’s collection of the nine stories they wrote together between 1985 and 2015. On the other hand, this book is unlike any other collaboration I know of in the field, an example where the whole is not only greater than the sum of its parts, but wilder, and weirder, and more wondrous.

Both authors are essentially satirists, but their temperaments couldn’t be more opposed. Sterling’s satire is cold, precise, analytical, almost machine-like in its distanced bemusement at human foibles, while Rucker’s is warm, good-natured, slapstick, with a forgiving fondness for human idiosyncrasy. Sterling’s methods combine punk irony and hardheaded extrapolation, while Rucker’s mix Beat goofiness and gonzo improvisation. How can such disparate aesthetics possibly fuse?

Well, it wasn’t easy, as the authors detail in their individual notes on the stories. Each tale was apparently a struggle of wills, involving multiple drafts, in-person spitballing, endless bickering via phone and email, and (one gets the sense) sometimes tense standoffs and uneasy negotiations. But despite their many differences, the authors are clearly the best of friends: they love each other, as well as science fiction, avant garde literature, and visionary forms of technology. They are both gadflies in their peculiar ways, and both are drawn to that odd technocultural junction where the marginal meets the cutting-edge. Both have done their time in the lecture halls of interdisciplinary conferences and the boxy cubicles of entrepreneurial start-ups, where all manner of possible and abortive futures get incubated. And both, I think it is fair to say, have done their share of mind-altering drugs.

Certainly the fiction they produce together is psychedelic in its effects, a strobing mindfuck of ideas that comes at the reader helter-skelter. Sometimes you feel the need to drop the book and grab ahold of your chair. The volume is like a fictional zoo thronging with crazy critters of all kinds: reincarnated space dogs, flying jellyfish, string-theory ants, biotech leeches. Metamorphosis runs rampant: characters turn into writhing blobs, spacetime twists and explodes, and the prose itself shifts and mutates. Rucker and Sterling are big fans of William Burroughs, and one can sense his mordant presence in the occasional eruptions of collage and biomorphic horror.

But the writer I was reminded of most while reading these tales was Thomas Pynchon, who has the same wacko energy, the same fondness for oddball characters, and the same sharp-eyed, loveable ferocity. There’s even a wink to Pynchon in one story, a reference to his made-up drug oneirine, from Gravity’s Rainbow. According to that novel, oneirine’s phenomenological effects are “like stuffing wedges of silver sponge, right, into, your brain!” And that pretty much summarizes the singular impact of reading Transreal Cyberpunk.

Even readers familiar with Rucker and Sterling writing on their own will be amazed by what their combined impudence and erudition yields. Despite all the zany invention, there are recurring themes and locales, of course. Apocalypse scenarios run rampant, from the historical (the Tunguska explosion) to the highly unlikely (twelfth-dimensional cosmic collapse). In one of his story notes, Sterling even refers to their compositional methods as “a ridiculous catastrophe.” And the sites the authors are drawn to are spaces where innovation in all its forms can range free: scientific outposts, high-tech labs, digital media workshops, blogger confabs.

Most of the stories are set in some real or imaginary version of California, with its ethos of libertarian license and subcultural self-fashioning. It’s a world Rucker knows quite well—indeed, it’s his home base: he’s one of the finest chroniclers of West Coast outlawry since the early Steinbeck (who gets a shout-out in one of the stories). In this laidback technotopia, Sterling is like a visitor from another planet, skeptical where Rucker is accepting, dubious where Rucker is sanguine, a hipster rather than a hippie. Sterling’s instinct is always to hide behind the pose of a no-nonsense, dispassionate, if not slightly blasé raconteur, while Rucker’s main urge is towards the heartfelt, the confessional, the whimsically revelatory. Yet both are audacious, captivating storytellers, and their contrasting styles bring out the best in one another: Sterling lets his hair down, gets a little funky, while Rucker takes on a harder, more cynical edge. The result is nothing less than astonishing.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, “transrealism” is a term of Rucker’s coinage designed to refer to a combination of science-fictional inspiration and quotidian, if not memoiristic authenticity—or, as Sterling puts it at one point, a “mix of the visionary and the mundane.” Influences range from Burroughs to Hunter S. Thompson to Philip K. Dick, the effect being of an everyday world shot through with veins of hallucinatory wonder, fissured with portals into strange dimensions. Rucker’s early novels, Software and Spacetime Donuts, are classics of the form, and it was a newspaper review of those works by Sterling that first drew the two authors together. They met in 1983, and by 1985 had become, if not kindred spirits, then partners in crime, authoring a hilariously surreal take on the origins of the space age, “Storming the Cosmos,” for Asimov’s Science Fiction. As their story notes here make plain, they met infrequently over the years, but when they did, the sparks of inspiration flew, giving birth to some of the oddest works of contemporary SF I know of.

The transrealism of these stories lies in the fact that each contains a mismatched pair of friends, refractions of Sterling and Rucker, with the authors sometimes speaking for themselves, sometimes ventriloquizing one another. The history of SF is full of “buddy story” cycles, from Asimov’s I, Robot to Lem’s Cyberiad, but Transreal Cyberpunk differs from these precursors since the identities of the protagonists don’t stay fixed. In one story, we’re given pair of Russian cosmo-nuts who discover an alien stardrive while zonked on psychedelic mushrooms, in another a pair of digital tinkerers dealing with an extra-dimensional ant invasion. The genders and sexualities of the duo morph from story to story—at one point forming a romantic couple facing down the end of the universe together. The pairs fight, they flirt, they fend off mutant “petware.” What stays consistent is a bantering tone drawn from classic screwball comedy, as the brainiac buddies debate Big Ideas while dashing from one mad escapade to another.

While this might sound somewhat formulaic, that is not the effect at all. Indeed, these aren’t just SF buddy stories, they’re metafictional reflections on buddy stories—and, more than that, potent fictive meditations on the virtues and vicissitudes of friendship itself. They don’t just reflect, they embody collaboration, dialogue, disputation. The stories are organized chronologically, and the characters seem to grow older together, the tones darkening, the humor taking on a sharper edge. The final story, written expressly for the volume, features a serene sage who faces down an ecological catastrophe with stoic bemusement. But he has not lost his youthful exuberance: after all, he has a kraken for a sidekick!

Transreal Cyberpunk is a labor of love from two of the most protean SF authors of the past three decades. It is also a goofball chronicle of a unique and admirable friendship. As with most friendships, the book loses its temper at times, or makes a brazen fool of itself, but it also rises to rapturous heights of zonked-out fellow feeling you’re unlikely to find anywhere outside the pages of Kerouac or Rabelais. Science fiction is the richer for it.

----Rob Latham, UC Riverside, November 22, 2015.