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How To Write. Getting Ideas.

January 16th, 2022

Lately I’ve been writing some “How to Write” posts for my blog and for Medium. For this one, I’m using excerpts from my huge document All the Interviews, which you can read as a PDF online. Today’s topic is “Getting Ideas.

From an interview by Nozomi Ohmori. Tokyo, 1990, for Hayakawa SF Magazine
There is a strong relationship between my nonfiction and novels. For instance, White Light can be considered as a sort of novelization of Infinity and the Mind. And Infinity and the Mind also includes the Software idea about self-reproducing robots evolving to become intelligent; this is in a section called “Towards Robot Consciousness.”

The ideas in The Fourth Dimension appear in The Sex Sphere and again in Realware, which has a number of scenes in the fourth dimension. The Hacker and the Ants can be thought of the fiction version of the research I carried out to write my software package Artificial Life Lab.

My fantastic fake-nonfiction novel, Saucer Wisdom, introduced the science ideas used in Freeware and Realware. The ideas include the Freeware “uvvy” communication device, the Realware “alla” matter controller, and the aliens who travel as radio waves. It’s like now I’m reaching a point where even my nonfiction is speculative.

I used to like to say that SF is my laboratory for conducting thought-experiments. But maybe when I said that I was just trying to impress my academic friends. Now that I’m older, I’m more likely to tell the truth. I don’t write SF to help my science. If anything, I study science to help my SF! I love SF for the ideas, but more purely I love it simply for the rock’n’roll feel of it, the power-chords, the crunch, funk.

Now I’ve been teaching software engineering in Silicon Valley. At the low level, teaching programming is like teaching automobile repair — just having to explain these random arbitrary things like the part-numbers of the pieces inside some particular model vehicle’s carburetor. And you can’t just skip over that stuff because the whole point of programming is to get a nice program that works really well on some specific actual machine.

At a higher level, I’ve learned a lot about computer stuff like fractals, chaos, cellular automata, complexity, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Life, so it would seem like a good idea to write a book about that. But these topics are very picked over; too many people have written about them. It’s like looking for a cigarette butt on the West Point parade ground. Even so, in 1997 I was trying hard to get a contract to write a nonfiction book like this. I wanted to tie the computer-inspired ideas more closely to immediate perceptions of Nature and to one’s own mental experiences. But somehow ended up with a contract to write Saucer Wisdom, a book about my fictional encounters with a man who’d been shown the future by some saucer aliens! It’s not always easy to predict what book you end up writing. Certainly my work with computers has very much affected the way I see the world, and maybe someday I can figure out a marketable way to write about this.

From an interview by Michiharu Sakurai. Tokyo, 1997, for [relax]
Transrealism means writing about your immediate perceptions in a fantastic way. The characters in a transreal book should be based on actual people. This has the effect of making the characters be richer and more interesting. One inspiration for me in doing this is Jack Kerouac, who thought of his novels as a single linked chronicle. Though many would just call Kerouac’s books autobiographical novels.

My transreal novels aren’t exactly autobiographical: I have never really left my body, climbed an infinite mountain, met a sphere from the fourth dimension, infected television with an intelligent virus, etc. But they are autobiographical in that many of the characters are modeled on family and friends — the main person of course being modeled on me. The science fictional ideas in my transreal fiction have a special role. They stand in for essential psychic events.

The quest for infinity, for instance, is nothing other than the soul’s quest for God. Or, more mundanely, it represents the individual’s quest for meaning. In another sense, a White Light at the top of a transfinite mountain stands for the psychedelic experience, which loomed large in those years when White Light was written (1978 – 1979). But, again, the whole point of the psychedelic experience, at least from my standpoint, was to see God. Another inspiration for me in pursuing transrealism is Philip K. Dick. His blackly hilarious book A Scanner Darkly was a real inspiration for me in forming my ideas about this way of writing. And in fact Scanner had a blurb on it describing the book as “transcendental biography,” which was probably the reason I coined the word “transreal.”

In a nutshell, transrealism means writing about reality in an honest and objective way, while using the tools of science fiction to stand for deep psychic constructs.

From an interview by Tatiana Shubin un San Jose, 2003, for Math Horizons.
You asked about math and SF. One thing we do in mathematics is to investigate the consequences of constraints or assumptions. You might, for instance, add a new axiom of set theory and then see if any nice theorems come out of this. Or you might make a definition, such as “an Archimedean solid has regular polygons for its faces (not necessarily all the same) and has the same arrangement of polygons meeting at each vertex,” and then carry out a search, partly empirical and partly theoretical, to characterize the objects satisfying your definition.

Science-fiction can be carried out in this vein. Thus I might ask what would happen if people had “femtotechnolgy” wands that would turn dirt or air into whatever kinds of objects they wanted. Or what would happen if people could make hundreds of copies of themselves. Or what it would be like if we had a mountain as tall as all the transfinite ordinals.

Science fiction can be thought of as a laboratory for carrying out thought experiments. The bare idea of a femtotechnolgy wand doesn’t tell you much. You need to do some work to investigate the consequences. In effect, you have to carry out a simulation of a society with your additional assumption. This is in some ways similar to what we do in mathematics.

Note that just thinking about a question often isn’t enough. You need to write something down. The paper does part of the work, that is, the act of writing elicits further ideas and fills in details, regardless of whether you’re writing literature or math.

Something I learned from mathematics was to never turn back from an idea just because it seems too counterintuitive. Logic can take you to some very strange places.

All this said, I need to point out that science-fiction is also quite different from mathematics. SF is a form of literature, after all, and literature involves creating realistic human characters and using words to capture one’s sensations and emotions. Personal human experience isn’t something that mathematics directly deals with.

From an interview by Lori White in Oakland, 2005, for Strange Horizons
You asked me about Edwin Abbott’s book Flatland. When I was in high-school, perhaps the tenth grade, my best friend and next-door neighbor Niles Schoening told me about this odd book he’d found in the Louisville Public Library. About characters who were squares and triangles and lines. I was intrigued, and I read the book.

On the first reading, the book confused me. Even though I’d read some Golden Age science fiction stories about the fourth dimension, I didn’t I initially understand that Flatland contains a series of analogies intended to help us visualize the fourth dimension. At the time I wasn’t yet aware that the fourth dimension is something solid and precise that it’s possible to actually understand. And, on a first reading, the satirical aspects of Flatland threw me off as well. The hero A Square is kind of a Victorian Everyman, not all that bright, and full of dumb received ideas about social class.

When my parents took me to begin Swarthmore College in the fall of 1963, my father bought me a paperback edition of Flatland in the little town drugstore. He himself was interested in the book; he’d recently become ordained as an Episcopal priest, and he saw the main character A Square’s experiences in the third dimension as an analogy to the spiritual life. I dipped into the book several times in the coming four years, but still didn’t get very passionate about it. I was too busy being a college student.

My interest finally came to a boil in 1970. I was at Rutgers University working on my doctorate in mathematics, and all sorts of things about mathematics were becoming clear to me, ranging all the way from the meaning of infinity and logical proof down to how carrying and borrowing work in pencil-and-paper arithmetic. Finally I began to understand what Flatland was getting at.

I was also getting interested in relativity theory, and one problem that nagged at me was how the geometric fourth dimension suggested by Flatland relates to the fourth dimension as used in relativity theory to represent the axis of time.

I was married by then, and we’d had our first child Georgia, and there was this one weekend when my wife had taken the baby to go visit her parents at the Watergate hotel in D. C. I was listening to a great new vinyl Frank Zappa album, Chunga’s Revenge, smoking pot, and thinking about the fourth dimension. I was also into underground cartooning then, I was drawing a strip called Wheelie Willie for the Rutgers Daily Targum. On this one magical evening alone with my speakers propped up the desk playing “The Nancy and Mary Music,” I started making Rapidograph drawings of A Square and of the spacetime diagrams of relativity theory, working them into an explanatory narrative, with captions and little bits of connective text. One of the nice things about the Flatland characters is that they’re very easy to draw!

A few weeks later my father was visiting our apartment and I showed my work to him — I had maybe a dozen pages done by now — and he was interested but a little baffled that I’d become that interested in the ideas of Flatland. “Where are you going with this?” Where I was going was into my career as a science and science fiction writer. But I didn’t know this at the time.

My friends in grad-school even began teasing me about my interest in Flatland a little bit. I was carrying around Dionys Burger’s Flatlandesque book Sphereland, and an English major friend asked me, “So is your career goal to write, like, Tubeland?”

My first teaching job was at what’s now called SUNY Geneseo in upstate New York and I took over a course called Foundations of Geometry. I was supposed to be focusing on axiomatic approaches to geometry, and I covered Euclid, but most of my course was focused on the fourth dimension. I wrote up some lecture notes that I mimeographed for the students; the notes were initially called Geometry and Reality and they grew into my first book, Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension (Dover Publications, New York 1977).

In my first book I invented some further adventures for A Square. And my 1983 story collection The Fifty-Seventh Franz Kafka included several science-fiction stories involving the fourth dimension, including “Message Found In A Copy of Flatland,” and “The Indian Rope Trick Explained,” both of which include drawings of good old A Square.

I also took another crack at a nonfiction book about fourth dimension: The Fourth Dimension (Houghton Mifflin, Boston 1984.) In the course of this book I describe events in an imaginary book called The Further Adventures of A Square. I tell about A Square having affair with the Flatlander A Hexagon’s wife Una — I really enjoyed copying the style of Flatland — which was already archaic at the time that Abbott wrote the book, remember that he was, among other things, a Shakespearean scholar.

At the very end of writing my Fourth Dimension book, I hadn’t tied up one last loose end, I’d left A Square cornered by an angry A Hexagon. And I had a dream of A Square down in Flatland, chirping up at me for help. So that went into my book too, at the very end, another excerpt from The Further Adventures of A Square. Here’s a quote from The Fourth Dimension (pp. 202-203).

I felt myself as but a Thought, a baseless fragment of some recurrent Dream. All around me I sensed my Dreamer’s mind. Mustering my courage, I cried out my plaint.

I: Can you hear me, my Lord?

Dreamer: And how! What time is it?

I: There is no Time — so says the Sphere.

Dreamer: Well, yeah. Not for you, anyway.

I: Return me to my fellows, oh my Author. Grant that the Hexagon forgives me.

Dreamer: I can do that. And thanks, I’ve enjoyed being with you. I hate to say good-bye.

I: But surely you will always be with me? Is not my World a fragment of your Mind?

Dreamer: It’s not my mind, really. I’m just filling in. Who knows who’ll dream you next. You’re the real immortal, Square, not me. You’re an eternal Form.

For an instant I could see it All: the boundless Truth, the many Dreamers, and my own life’s passionate play.

I was actually crying when I wrote this.

What I was getting at is that when you write about a shared world, like Flatland, or the Star Wars universe, or for that matter human history, you’re describing characters who in transcend any individual author. And that’s kind of awesome.

From an interview by Carmine Treanni. in Rome, 2005, for Quaderni D’Altra Tempi
When I start, I always have in mind a few crucial situations or devices that I’m eager to explore and depict. These ideas arise to some extent spontaneously, and to some extent from thinking about scientific and social ideas that interest me.

Once I have a vague idea of the book’s theme, I begin working on figuring out the characters, the geography, the society, the tone, the point of view, the story arc, the physics, and, above all, the plot outline.

I write about all these ideas in a notes document that I develop in concert with my novel; usually my notes documents end up nearly as long as my books. I post each of the notes documents online when the corresponding book is published.

The virtue of having a notes document is that then there’s something I can work on when I don’t quite feel ready to write the novel.

When a book’s going well, I can average about a thousand words a day. When I get my thousand words, I print it and go to the coffee shop and reread it and mark it up, then type it in again and repeat the process. I might cycle through a given section three times in a day, and the next day maybe one more time and then I move into the next section.

I tend to be somewhat anxious when I work, worrying I won’t be able to get things to come out right. In general, I worry too much.

From an interview by Ernest Lilley, Brandywine, Maryland, 2006, for SFRevu
I’m so sick of quantum mechanics getting a free ride. It’s an intellectually empty edifice, a false front with nothing behind it. They used to be able to get away with saying, “ah, reality is stranger than we can know,” but I think a lot of us have had it with that line of mystery mongering. Our brains are made of the same quantum mechanical matter as everything else in the world, so if there’s an explanation to be had, there’s no reason we can’t understand it. The foundations of quantum mechanics suffer from a complete and utter bankruptcy of new ideas.

According to a newer new line of thought — I’m thinking of people like Stephen Wolfram, Lee Smolin, and John Cramer — there could well be a deterministic subdimensional physics below quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is like mist over the landscape of the crisp underlying reality.

You mention predestination, which is a way of broaching the question, “If the future is determined, does that mean I don’t have free will?” Maybe we don’t have free will, but in practice this isn’t so bad because, at least in the world we live in, the future is computationally unpredictable. Turns out there’s a distinction we didn’t use to be aware of. The future can pre-exist in an idealized kind of way, but it may well be that it is even in principle impossible to predict it. This is widely believed to be the case in our world.

In Mathematicians in Love, they start out in a world in which the world’s computation is in fact simple enough that they can make a device to predict the future, but they end up in our rich and gnarly world, where prediction is a practical impossibility. I also discuss these ideas in my nonfiction book, The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul.

From an interview by R. U. Sirius, in San Francisco, 2007, for MondoGlobo
A lot of the ideas in my recent novels come from Stephen Wolfram’s work. My The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul was largely about his work. The basic idea is that any natural process can be regarded as a computation. We define computation in a fairly broad sense to mean any deterministic system that obeys definite laws. And it doesn’t have to be digital.

The digital thing is sort of a red herring. We have this idea that being a computer is about being digital. But computers aren’t actually digital, OK? They’re made of a bunch of electrons. And the electrons are fuzzy analog wave functions.

So you can look at a brook or an air current and you can say, “That’s doing something complex.” And if you look at the natural world, there are four kinds of things that you see. Where something is sort of stable — not changing — it’s static. Or else it’s doing something periodic. Or it’s completely fuzzy and like totally scuzzy and screwed up. Or it’s in the interface zone — which is what I call the gnarly zone — the zone between being periodic and being completely scuzzy.

Life is gnarly. Plants are gnarly. Air currents are gnarly. Water currents are gnarly. Fire is gnarly. In Wolfram’s view, every one of these actually embodies a universal computation, similar to a universal Turing Machine or a personal computer, and in principle they can compute anything that you want it to. I agree with him.

Wolfram says interesting things about evolution. He does talk about evolution a little bit. Someone might say, “How could a butterfly have evolved that precise pattern on its wings? Or how could we evolve the exact shape of our body.” And Wolfram makes the point that natural systems are actually fairly robust computations. They like to do things like make spots on butterfly wings or grow limbs from animals. The genetic code doesn’t have to be as finely tweaked as people sometimes imagine. You could actually perturb it quite a bit and you would still get plants and animals that look pretty similar to the way we look now. So it’s not so much that things evolve to perfection. They just get to a level of functioning well enough. In fact, we aren’t tuned to complete optimality.

From an interview by Anneli Rufus in Berkeley, 2009, for East Bay Express
The ideas trickle in unpredictably. Often I’ll push for an idea, focusing on a story situation and trying to imagine what comes next. When I’m brainstorming like this, it helps to be taking notes, either on a scrap of paper, or by actually typing into my laptop. Making little drawings helps, too. But I don’t always get the full insight that I need while I’m pushing. The search seems to continue in my subconscious, and maybe a few hours or even days later I’ll get an “aha” moment about what I need to do. That’s what we call the muse.

And I do go out and do research. When I was working on Hylozoic, I made a trip to Hieronymus Bosch’s home town, s’Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands. I used the material from that visit a lot, it was rich. And My wife and I lived for week in a flophouse on Valencia Street in San Francisco, and I picked up some local color there. And I read this scholarly book by David Skrbina, Panpsychism in the West, about the history of the idea that objects might be able to think. And always I’m cruising the web, watching movies, reading…looking for clues everywhere.

From an interview by Mike Perschon, in Edmonton, Canada, 2009, for Steam Punk Scholar
I think there’s still a lot of room of all kinds inside science fiction. My genre’s house has many mansions.

The field isn’t very old when you think about it—I’m only like the second generation of science fiction writers, next in line after Fred Pohl. But already you have to be careful not to repeat the old things. I don’t want it to be like I’m throwing down standardized cards that say, like, time machine, spaceship, robot. And I don’t want to write SF that’s parodistically or self-mocking. If the ideas become juiceless tropes, that’s not interesting. As an extreme of this, in certain comedic SF books I feel like the authors are saying “Oh let’s just be silly—SF is all silly garbage, let’s be silly together.” It degenerates into fan fiction where, again, you’re just throwing down picture cards and laughing at them. That’s not a route I want to take.

It’s all about making up new tropes, or using the old ones in fresh ways. There’s always more cool new stuff we can work with, and the future is coming faster than people can absorb. We don’t want to fall back on recycling whatever Heinlein and Asimov did, any more than a contemporary musician wants to emulate Sinatra or even the Beatles. That’s over, it doesn’t speak to our time.

I’m particularly leery of using things that I see on TV or in the movies…that crap is so watered down, it’s written by fifteen people, it’s completely under the establishment’s control. Star Trek is another way for the government to grind its boot into your face, another way for the rulers to indoctrinate the masses with lies about society.

I like to think of science fiction as an edgy literature, like the beatniks or the punks, where we’re turning our backs on the bullshit, we’re trying to make a new world, we’re trying to look at things with fresh eyes. And it’s always possible to look at things with fresh eyes. It’s never been easy to do that, but it’s not any harder now than it ever was.

I think it’s exciting when you have science fiction where you don’t depend on your characters working in a government lab. If you just need to have an arbitrary door to another world, then let’s do it. I mean, there’s been so many surprises in the history of science, why would we think we couldn’t still have something really surprising happen?

And if it’s mysticism—fine. We really have no idea what’s really going on.

Visions of the Metanovel

January 14th, 2022

The Singularity was brought on by some nanomachines known as orphids. The orphids used quantum computing and propelled themselves with electrostatic fields.

The self-reproducing orphids doubled their numbers every few minutes at first; fortunately, they’d been designed to level out at a sustainable population of some sextillion orphids upon Earth’s surface. This meant there were one or two orphids affixed to every square millimeter of every object on the planet. Something like fifty thousand orphids blanketed, say, any given chair or any particular person’s body. The orphids were like ubiquitous smart lice, not that you could directly feel them, for an individual orphid was little more than a knotty long-chain molecule.

Thanks to the power of quantum computing, an individual orphid was roughly as smart as a talking dog, possessing a good understanding of natural language and a large amount of extra memory. Each orphid knew at all times its precise position and velocity, indeed the name “orphid” was a pun on the early twenty-first-century technology of RFID or “Radio Frequency Identification” chips. Rather than radio waves, orphids used quantum entanglement to network themselves into their world-spanning orphidnet.

The accommodating orphids set up a human-orphidnet interface via gentle electromagnetic fields that probed though the scalps of their hosts. Two big wins: by accessing the positional meshes of the orphids, people could now effectively see anything anywhere; and by accessing the orphids’ instantaneous velocities, people could hear the sounds at any location as well. Earth’s ongoing physical reality could be as readily linked and searched as the Internet.

Like eddies in a flowing steam, artificially intelligent agents emerged within the orphidnet. In an ongoing upward cascade, still higher-level agents emerged from swarms of the lower-level ones. By and large, the agents were human-friendly; people spoke of them as beezies.

By interfacing with beezies, a person could parcel out intellectual tasks and store vast amounts of information within the extra memory space that the orphids bore. Those who did this experienced a vast effective increase in intelligence. They called themselves kiqqies, short for kilo-IQ.

New and enhanced forms of art arose among the kiqqies, among these was the multimedia metanovel.

In considering the metanovel, think of how Northwest Native American art changed when the European traders introduced steel axes. Until then, the Native American totems had been handheld items, carved of black stone. But once the tribes had axes, they set to work making totems from whole trees. Of course with the ax came alcohol and smallpox; the era of totem poles would prove to be pitifully short.

There were also some dangers associated with the orphidnet. The overarching highest-level-of-them-all agent at the apex of the virtual world was known as the Big Pig. The Big Pig was an outrageously rich and intricate virtual mind stuffed with beautiful insights woven into ideas that linked into unifying concepts that puzzle-pieced themselves into powerful systems that were in turn aspects of a cosmic metatheory—aha! Hooking into the billion-snouted billion-nippled Big Pig could make a kiqqie feel like a genius. The down side was that kiqqies were unable to remember or implement insights obtained from a Big Pig session. The more fortunate kiqqies were able to limit their Big Pig usage in the same way that earlier people might have limited their use of powerful psychoactive drugs.

If the Big Pig was like alcohol, the analogy to smallpox was the threat of runaway, planet-eating nanomachines called nants—but I won’t get into the nants here.

“Covid: Third Year” Jan, 2022, 40 x 30, acrylic.

Although the postsingular metanovelist Thuy Nguyen had some trouble with Big Pig addiction, she eventually recovered and began work on her remarkable metanovel Wheenk. Thuy wanted Wheenk to be a transreal lifebox, meaning that her metanovel was to capture the waking dream of her life as she experienced it—while sufficiently bending the truth to allow for a fortuitously emerging dramatic plot. Thuy wanted Wheenk to incorporate not only the interesting things she saw and heard, but also the things that she thought and felt. Rather than coding her inner life into words and real-world images alone, Thuy included beezie-built graphic constructs and—this was a special arrow in her quiver—music. The effect was compelling; in later years users would say that accessing Thuy’s work was like becoming Thuy herself.

Among Thuy’s metanovelist friends during the time she worked upon Wheenk were Gerry Gurken, Carla Standard, John Medford, and Linda Loca. Each of them had their own distinctive approaches to creating a metanovel.

Gerry’s metanovel Banality was a vast combine of images all drawn from one and the same instant on a certain day. No time elapsed in this work, only space, and the story was the user’s gradual apprehension of a vast conspiracy woven throughout not only our world but also throughout the worlds of thoughts and dreams. The images were juxtaposed in suggestive ways, and were accompanied by a spoken voice-over delivered by a virtual Gerry Gurken who wandered his memory-palace at the user’s side.

Gerry’s title, Banality, had an ironic resonance, for his timeslice was located at orphidnet time-zero, that is, 12:00:00 PST on the first day after the beezies had implemented their protocol of having the orphidnet save, a hundred times per second, the positions and velocities of every orphid on Earth. This postsingular moment marked the day when history had truly changed forever, and what did Gerry find there? Human banality, the same as usual—but with something odd and sinister beneath the surface.

By the way, Gerry, who was a convivial and gregarious sort, preferred to select the images for Banality not by browsing in the orphidnet time-zero database, but rather by roaming the realtime streets. He had a good eye; he saw disturbing connections everywhen and everywhere. Often as not, the beezies were able to scroll back from current sightings to find nearly the same image in the orphidnet time-zero database, but even when the match was wildly inaccurate, that was fine with Gerry too. To his surrealist sensibilities, a cauliflower was as convulsively beautiful as a catfish.

Banality would have taken hundreds or even thousands of hours to explore in detail, and it bulked larger every day—in that sense Banality was like a blog, albeit a blog eternally focused upon a single global instant of time. Any ten-minute block of the work was fascinating, disorienting, and revelatory—leaving the user’s mind off-center and agog. Unfortunately, by the twenty-minute mark, most users found Banality to be too much. The work was like some bizarre, aggressively challenging sushi bar that the average person abandons after tasting only a few dishes: geoduck, sea cucumber, nudibranch, and jellyfish, say, and then it was always, “Thanks so much, very interesting, gotta go.”

The metanovelists occasionally experienced the phenomenon of having one of their characters send messages to them—they called this feedback phenomenon blowback. Gerry Gurken, for one, had regular visitations from the simulated Gerry Gurken of Banality, the virtual Gerry clamoring that he wanted metanovelist Gerry to edit in a girlfriend character for him. Telling this story, portly Gerry would dart hot intense looks at Thuy Nguyen, as if he were planning to feed a model of her to virtual Gerry, which was perfectly fine with Thuy, and she said so, Thuy being in a lonely-but-coned-off emotional state where she was ready to accept any admiration she was offered, as long as it was virtual and with no strings attached.

Intense, lipsticked, nail-biting Carla Standard used what she called a simworld approach in creating her metanovel You’re a Bum! Her virtual characters were artificially alive, always in action, and somewhat unpredictable, a bit like the nonplayer characters in an old-school videogame. Rather than writing story lines, Carla endowed her characters with goals and drives, leaving them free to interact like seagulls in a wheeling flock.

You’re a Bum! was experienced through a single character’s point of view, this protagonist being a homeless young woman who was enlisting people to help her unearth the truth about the mysterious disappearance of her kiqqie boyfriend. There was some chance that he’d been abducted by aliens. The heroine was bedeviled both by her mother’s attempts to have her brought home, and by the advances of a predatory pimp. Backing her up were an innocent younger-brother figure, a potential new boyfriend, a mysterious federal agent, a wise old Big Pig addict, and a cohort of hard-partying kiqqie friends.

For the You’re a Bum! dialogue and graphics, Carla had her beezies patching in data from the day-to-day world: conversations of kiqqies in San Francisco bars, shops, apartments, and alleyways. Each user’s You’re a Bum! experience was further tailored with data drawn from the user’s personal meshes and social situations. In other words, when you accessed Carla’s metanovel, you saw something vaguely resembling your own life.

By the way, Thuy Nguyen’s two sessions with You’re a Bum! proved painful, even lacerating. First she’d relived a moment when she and her former boyfriend Jayjay stood under a flowering plum tree in the Mission, Jayjay shaking the tree to make the petals shower down upon her like perfumed confetti, all the while Jayjay’s eyes melting with love. And then she’d seen their breakup, but more objectively than before, with the simulated Thuy hungover from the Big Pig, her clothes in disarray, Thuy hysterically screaming at Jayjay in a metapainting-lined alley, and poor Jayjay’s trembling fingers nervously adjusting his coat and hat.

Like Gerry Gurken, the excitable John Medford was one of Thuy’s admirers, but he held little physical appeal for her. He was too thin and overwrought, too dandruffy, too needy. As part of his doomed campaign to engage Thuy’s affection, Medford had undertaken The Thuy Fan, an unwriteable and unreadable metanovel wherein every possible action path of his young heroine Thuy would be traced. Waking up with a man, a woman, or nobody in bed beside her, Thuy hopped out of the right or left side of her bed, or perhaps she crawled over the head or the foot. She put on her slippers or threw them out the window, if she had a window. In some forkings she jumped out the window herself, but in most she went to take a shower. In the shower she sang or washed or had sex with her partner. And when she emerged, she might find a table by her bed bearing a breakfast of lox, lobster, steel-cut oats, or a single boiled ostrich egg. In some forkings, Thuy had no time to eat, as her house was on fire, or menaced by an earthquake or a giant ant.

In practice no human author would have had the time and energy to contemplate so richly ramified a document as The Thuy Fan, but John Medford had his beezies helping him by autonomously roughing in sketches of ever-more action paths. As the mood struck him, Medford would add voice-over descriptions to the paths; he had a flair for making anything at all sound interesting. But, densely tufted as the branchings were, Medford only managed to fully polish Thuy’s action fan for the first two and a half seconds of her day. Random assassins, meteorites, a stroke, the spontaneous combustion of Thuy’s pillow—so many things were possible. And, insofar as Medford’s goal was to charm the real world Thuy into his arms, The Thuy Fan was a failure. Medford eventually set the work aside, declaring it to be finished.

As his next project Medford began an inversely forked work called April March, lifting both his title and concept from the celestial pages of Jorge Luis Borges. Medford’s plan for April March was to start with a scene on a particular day and to document plausible variants of what happened on the days before. To make the work more tractable than The Thuy Fan, Medford was austerely limiting his branching factor to one fork per day. The initial scene, set on April 1, would present an ambiguous conversation between a man and a woman at an airport, followed by two versions of March 31, four versions of March 30, eight versions of March 29, and so on. Medford planned to march as far as March 24, making a thousand and twenty-three scenes in all, linked together into five hundred and twelve plausible action paths which would constitute, so John claimed, an all but exhaustive compendium of every possible kind of detective story.

Bouncy Linda Loca created a metanovel entitled George Washington, depicting the world as seen from the point of view of a dollar bill. What lent her work its piquancy was how literally she’d managed to execute the plan: while perusing George Washington you felt flat and crinkly; you spent most of your time in a wallet or folded in a pocket; and when you came out into the air the main thing you saw was countertops and people’s hands. The beezies had helped by providing Linda with the life histories of real, orphid-meshed bills. The user could of course scroll past the dull parts, but the presence of the realistic data gave the work heft and seriousness.

When, once in a great while, Linda’s George Washington dollar changed hands, the bill moved the story along by buying drinks, influence, or sex, and thereby sketching the rise and fall of a young cop whom Linda had named George Washington as well. Young officer Washington became corrupted due to his sexual attraction for a promiscuous older woman named Donna, who talked him into executing a hit on her landlord, who turned out to be George’s biological father, this fact being unknown to George until too late.

For a time, Linda had blowback issues with her George Washington character because, to round him out, she’d made him an aspiring writer. Problem was, George began pestering Linda with messages about her metanovel—dumb suggestions, by and large, for the character was, after all, only a beezie simulation of a human, and not a true artist. He failed to grasp, for instance, the dark, erotic beauty of a four-hour scene consisting of the slow shifting of the dollar within a felt-appliqué wallet in Donna’s tight jeans while Donna trolled Mission Street for men. By the same token, George was unable to understand that the precise convex pressure of his own virtual buttock upon the eponymous dollar as he sat writing at his virtual desk might be more interesting to his creator Linda Loca than what he wrote.

Weary of arguing with her character, Linda edited out virtual George’s love of writing, and made his hobby bowling instead.

As it happened, Thuy’s old boyfriend Jayjay ended up with Linda Loca. And then, while trying to prevent an outbreak of nants, Jayjay died. In the instant of extreme grief and despair when she learned of Jayjay’s death, Thuy finally finished Wheenk.

The pieces of the metanovel came together like a time-reversed nuclear explosion. Her adventures in the kiqqie underworld of San Francisco, her lost love for Jayjay, her worries about the threat of the nants, a particular cone shell she had on her dresser, her mother’s face the day Thuy had graduated from college, her father’s bare feet when he tended his tomato plants, the dance Thuy had done down the rainy street one night while exulting over her metanovel—everything fitting, everything in place, Wheenk as heavy and whole as a sphere of plutonium.

Her Great Work finally done, Thuy pulsed the Wheenk database to the global orphidnet. Her pain had produced artistic transcendence.

Note on “Visions of the Metanovel”
Written May, 2006.
Mad Professor, 2007.
Reprinted in Complete Stories.

In the summer of 2005, I read Accelerando, a collection of linked short stories by Charles Stross (Ace Books, 2005). These stories had a tremendous effect on me; Stross showed that it’s possible to go ahead and write about what happens after the co-called Singularity.

As many readers will know, the Singularity is a notion invented by the novelist and computer scientist Vernon Vinge in a 1993 talk—to read the original talk, just search the web for “Vinge Singularity.” Vinge pointed out that if we can make robots as intelligent as we are, then there seems to be no reason that the robots couldn’t plug in faster processors and bigger memories to then be more intelligent than people. And then—the real kicker—these superhuman robots can set to work designing still better robots, setting off an upward cascade of ever-more-powerful machines.

Some timid souls have suggested that writers and futurologists must stand mute before the Singularity, that there’s no way for us to imagine the years beyond such a cataclysmic change. But, hey, imagining the unimaginable is what thought experiments are for! And Stross shows us how; he blows right past the Singularity and deep into some very bizarre and fun-to-read-about futures.

In his Accelerando the solar system has become concentric Dyson spheres of computing devices with only our Earth remaining like “a picturesque historic building stranded in an industrial park.” And some minds in the shells want to smash Earth, simply to enhance their RAM and their flop by a few percent.

This struck me as being no different, really, from people wanting to fill a wetland to make a mall, to clear-cut a rainforest to make a destination golf resort, or even to kill a whale to whittle its teeth into religious icons of a whale god. I was outraged. But also very intrigued by the idea.

And so I began writing my novel Postsingular (2007). The novel opens with an attack of world-eating nanomachines called nants. The nants are rolled back, at least temporarily, and then one of the characters introduces a more benevolent kind of nanomachines called orphids, as described in “Visions of the Metanovel.”

I’m very intrigued by the question of what kind of art we might make given vastly improved abilities. By way of researching the question, I studied Jorge Luis Borges’s visionary writings, particularly his tale, “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain,” which indeed describes an imaginary novel called April March. (The Quain piece appears in, for instance, Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions.) Also of use to me in this context was the Stanislaw Lem’s 1979 book, A Perfect Vacuum, in which he reviews a series of nonexistent books.

Although Postsingular features a kiqqie metanovelist named Thuy Nguyen, I didn’t include the full text of “Visions of the Metanovel” in my novel. My sense is that people reading a novel don’t want to negotiate a bulky sequence of intellectual games. But I felt that the games might seem amusing if presented as a single short piece.

Writing and Painting.

January 13th, 2022

Selections from interviews asking about my painting and my writing.

#217. Elephants.

2009. Interview by Charlie Jane Anders for io9.

Q. Do you think your writing changed when you started painting a lot?

A. All along, I’ve made little pen and paper drawings of my scenes before writing them, but now I enjoy the more heavy-duty process of breaking out my kit of acrylic paints. I took up painting when I was writing my historical novel about the painter Peter Bruegel, and I started using paintings for pre-visualization while I wrote Frek and the Elixir.

A painting takes longer than a drawing, and I get more deeply into it. My sense is that I’m using a different part of my brain when I paint a picture - as opposed to when I’m revising my written outline. It’s like visiting a different muse. I get tired of thinking all the time, and when I don’t know what to put into an upcoming scene, it’s nice to just get out the paints and see what happens.

Whether I’m writing or painting, I don’t necessarily know exactly what I’m going to come up - but painting gives me a different way being surprised. Painting has taught me a few practical things about writing as well. When I’m doing a painting, for instance, it’s not unusual to completely paint over some screwed-up some bit of it and start over. I think this has made me feel more relaxed about revising my fiction. And I’ve also noticed that the details that I haven’t yet visualized are the ones that give me the most trouble - but that the only way to proceed is to put it down wrong, and then keep changing it until it works.

Q. Do you think that working as an artist helps your writing to be more visual? Do you think it helps you have an eye for the telling detail or the vivid description? You’ve always had really surreal imagery in your books, but do you think it’s gotten more visual and less cerebral with books like Postsingular?

A. I’ve always sought to provoke the reader with a steady flow of powerful images. And, at the same time, I like to keep things moving with action, dialog, and the stream of consciousness of the main character. Absorbing a story is quite different from looking at a painting. With a painting you have a synoptic view, that is, you can overview the whole scene at once. But in reading a story, you have to build the scene in your head by processing a linear sequence of descriptions. I don’t like to overdo the visual description in the “fine writing” sense, which can be a pain for the reader. My goal is to put in just enough description so that when the reader looks back on the scene, they have a mental image similar to the one I started with. I don’t mean that I want to be stark or minimalist, what I mean is that I like the conciseness of poetry - where you line up exactly the right words and phrases to set off the intended response.

Q. Is the visual a big part of “world building” for you? Do you visualize your settings and scenes as images before you start to think of them as places where stuff occurs?

A. All along, I’ve had a visual imagination. For me writing is a little like dreaming while I’m awake. That is, I see the scene in my mind’s eye before I write it. Sometimes I’ll nurse an image of a place or a situation for quite some time before I write about it, in fact I sometimes write a book simply to be able to mentally visit certain locales that I’ve dreamed up. I pretty much can’t write a novel unless I have an image of a fabulous place where I want to go. By writing about these scenes, I make them more real to myself. And painting is another way to layer on more details.
Q . When you’re dealing with a fantastical topic, like a post-singularity world or robots on the moon, do you think having a strong visual sense is one way to ground the narrative and make it feel more real?

A. Oh yeah, everything has to be visual. I think I learned that from Robert Sheckley and Jorge Luis Borges. Ideas are important, but what you want in a novel is an objective correlative for the idea. You don’t want to go on and on about your bogus scientific explanations, you want to show the reader some weird little physical device. Imagine, say, a wriggly green horseshoe with antennae on it, call it a jinker - and when you point your jinker at some object, the target object becomes weightless and the size of a matchbox and you can carry it off in your pocket. Maybe the jinker talks to you telepathically, maybe pairs of jinkers like to get together and mate, and while they’re doing it, all the objects in your house are floating around and changing size. That’s all much more interesting than talking about spatial metrics and gravity tensors!

#47. Welcome to Mars

2009. Interview by Henry Baum for Self-Publishing Review.

Q 282. What’s your relationship to painting versus writing fiction? It’s great to see the cross-pollination of the painting The Sex Sphere on the cover of the novel of the same name, but I notice a much different style in your painting than in your novels. Like Welcome to Mars can be described as a kind of childlike utopia and your novels don’t really fit that description.

A 282. In my own head, my paintings look very much like the scenes in my novels. Since I’m known as a cyberpunk, people sometimes imagine that my novels are dark and full of machines, but that’s not the kind of book I’m writing these days. In recent years I’ve become interested in scenarios where the machines have withered away and been replaced by bio-tweaked plants and animals, or futures where our computational devices have migrated down into the very quantum vibrations of the atoms around us. And this leads to a world that does in some ways resembles a utopian fantasy landscape.

198. The Halo Card

2016. Interview by Liz Argall for Lightspeed webzine.

Q. In your transrealist manifesto you cited the importance of organically finding a story, what might be described as sketching rather than plotting. I’m intrigued to see how many of your paintings are part of your novel writing process. Could you tell us a bit more about how your visual arts practice and writing practice interweave and feed into each other?

A. It’s the left-brain / right-brain thing. Part of my mind fabulates tales and thinks in words. Another part of my mind sees images and dreams up flash. It’s useful to do a drawing or even an oil painting that relates to whatever might be in one of of my upcoming chapters or stories. The paints and canvas do a lot of the work. I shove the colors around and see what I get. By the way, you can see my paintings at Of course, if I can get loose, my writing can be that way too. Sometimes I’ll be tempted to go with a completely crazy and out-there scene, even though, in the current terms of my story, it doesn’t make sense. Turns out it’s almost always better to go with that impulse, and to do the gnarly scene. You and the readers want to have fun and to see wild things. And you can patch in an explanation later. Another lesson from painting is that revisions are easy. You can always paint over a fence or daub in a tentacle. It’s just paint, it’s just words.

176. Ponytails

2019. Interview by Jeff Somers for B&N SciFi & Fantasy Blog

Q. 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.

216. Calder Grabs Crab

2019. Interview by Robert Penner for Big Echo ezine

Q. Since I mentioned Blake it might be a good moment to talk about the relation between what you write and what you paint. Could you could say a few words about working across media? How does that kind of play across forms shape your ideas?

A . I think it’s the attitude that’s the important thing. The specific ideas - well, I always just think about the same few things, whatever I’m doing. Sex, gnarl, color, sounds, and the now. I’m here in this rich, amazing reality and - I can’t believe it! My family teases me. “Be quiet, Rudy. You always say that.”

So, okay, I have no mind. It’s my attitude that’s the key. What kind of attitude is needed in order to write, or paint, or take photos, or to assemble a zine from arbitrary grunge mailed in by strangers?

Be loose. Spontaneous bop prosody. Forget yourself. Keep it bouncing. Ruin it, fix it, ruin it again. Make it fun. Revise, revise, revise. God is in the details.

Painting has made some of these practices clearer to me. Like the whole concept of painting over an awkward patch - yeah. And the importance of popping the colors and working the chiaroscuro.

If I’m painting to match a sketch, it’s a drag, and it doesn’t really work. It’s better when I’m mindlessly dabbling, just following the shapes and the colors, and letting my brush loose. Ditto for writing. I don’t worry too much about outlines. I prefer surprise. If the action takes over, and the chracters are talking, and I’m dreaming while I’m awake, and transcribing what I see - that’s when it’s good. I’m in it so deep that I’m gone.

All paintings Copyright © Rudy Rucker 2022. See my paintings page for more info.

“Everything Is Everything.” SF Story.

January 6th, 2022

Here’s the January, 2022, version of a story I’ve been revising off and on for a couple of years.  I think this version is pretty tight and funny.  I published an early version of it in the zine Big Echo back in October, 2020. And that would  make it hard to publish the new version on in a zine, so I’m posting it here.  And I have some hopes that this story may yet work as a chapter of a new novel.

The story’s a little long for a blog post, so I broke it into three parts with links to the parts—in case you want to read it in separate sessions.

Everything Is Everything, by Rudy Rucker
1. Vi
2. Wick
3. Vi

1. Vi

Vi’s husband Wick has always been a good napper. He announces one, settles in, and a minute later he’s gone. Vi neither admires nor belittles the behavior—it’s just an aspect of how Wick is. But, okay, maybe his napping makes him seem lazy. Like a dog. Vi prefers to stay awake and keep an eye on things.

Wick and Vi are spending an August weekday afternoon on Seabright Beach in Santa Cruz. It’s windy. Wick is half an hour into his nap. As soon as they arrive, he made a shelter by opening their beach umbrella, laying it on its side, and wedging the umbrella’s edge into the sand.

Vi walks down the beach to the lighthouse and back. The wind is strong enough that it’s the main thing she thinks about. Usually at the beach she thinks about the shapes of the waves, about where the pelicans are flying to, and about the possibility of sighting seals, dolphins, or whales. Also she likes to recall the bygone days she spent on this beach with the kids when they were in high school. Damn the wind.

Vi sits down beside the inert Wick. As far as Vi is concerned, the umbrella isn’t a wind break, not with her sitting on her beach chair. Her hair whips at her eyes. Her book pages flutter savagely.

“Wick.” Silence. “Wake up, Wick. We have to move.” Silence. “Wick!”

He makes a low noise. Moves his arm. He’s quick to sleep, and quick to wake. Maybe quick isn’t the right word.

. “I was in a dream,” mutters Wick. “I heard your voice. I thought it was part of the dream.”

“Fraid not,” says Vi. “I’m real. The wife. We have to move closer to the bluff. Or drive downtown.”

“Lie flat on the ground like me. Next to the umbrella. And put a towel over your head.”


Grunting with every motion, Wick sits up.

“I dreamed I was in the  seminar room on the top floor of Cal Berkeley math building,” he says. “Where they have these classic math models on shelves, things made of balsa wood or glass or plaster or strings stretched between pins. Not exactly that room because it’s my dream. And I keep trying to understand what they’re talking about in the seminar.” Wick pauses, then presses on. “They weird thing is that I keep going back to this same dream.”

Math seminar?” says Vi, fastening on that. She giggles. Wick’s thoughts amuse her. “Why not a wild party? Or flying in the clouds? Or sex? Why not let your dreams be fun?”

Wick rises to his feet. He’s out of sorts. “The seminar would be fun if I could understand it. The speaker—well, the speaker is an alien.” Wick snugs his straw hat down onto his head as far as it will go. Peers up and down the beach.

“The seminar speaker has a whole lot of faces,” Wick tells Vi. “Her name is Ma’al. She’s like a sea anemone with a head on the tip of each feeler? And the heads are telling riddles. All of them talking at once.”

“Riddles about what?” asks Vi, intrigued despite herself.

“Some of the riddles are from math. Like: Can you untangle Alexander’s Horned Sphere? Is Conway space larger than the class of all ordinal numbers?  What’s the square root of alef-one? Never mind. There were some children’s riddles too. Why is the Sun like a loaf of bread?

“You used to tell that one to the kids,” says Vi. “It rises in the yeast, and it dies in the vest!” She pats her stomach the way Wick always does after he tells that joke. “You got it from your father, right?”

Wick nods. “Yes. In fact I saw Pop’s head on one of the anemone’s arms just now, and Pop was the one asking that riddle. So is Pop the Sun, and my dream is a loaf of bread? Or I’m the son of the Sun and I bred the bread to make a Conway space sandwich?” Wick shakes his head. “Probably I’m imagining the part about Pop. But the math is real.”

“You’re saying that every time you nap you have this dream?” asks Vi, beginning to feel uneasy.

“It started last week. I didn’t want to tell you. I don’t think it’s really a dream. I have a feeling they’re homing in on me because of my papers about Conway space.”


“The anemone and her friends in the seminar room. It’s a place in Conway space—named after John Horton Conway, who formalized the mathematics of our world’s space-time-scale plenum. Absolutely continuous above and below. You’ve heard me talk about it a million times.”

“Yadda yadda,” says Vi.  “Tell me more about the weird aliens.”

“They welcome me,” says Wick. “I’m, like, a beacon for them. A couple of, ah, plenum scouts might visit. I’ve been talking to them.”

“Stop this, Wick. It’s not funny. You’re going too far.”

“I’m not trying to be funny. I’ve been dreaming the seminar room for days and days. Doesn’t that prove something?”

“No. I say you had the stupid dream for the very first time just now. I say you’re imagining you had it before. A fake deja vu. A Wick glitch. Not a conversation with Conwy space aliens. Come on now, Wick.”

He haves a sigh and gives Vi a loose hug. “I’m glad you’re here. You’re probably right. Thank you for living with me.” He hoists his pack onto his back. Folds up the umbrella. “So—screw the beach? We go downtown?”

“First let’s sit on the bluff,” says Vi. “It’s such a pretty day. Let’s not waste it on being crazy.” They start across the sand toward the stairs on the cliff.

“I was almost there,” mutters Wick after a bit, turning rebellious. “I only needed a little more nap.”

“Why do we even come to the beach if all you want to do is nap?” snaps Vi.

“A beach nap has twice the value of a couch nap,” intones Wick. This is one of his pet sayings. Vi can tell he’s trying to be jocular now, trying to recover lost ground. He raises his finger like a wag offering a quatrain. “I feast on ocean roar / Old dreamer in the sand / My skull transmits the sun / My canny brain grows tan.”

“It’s like napping is your religion,” says Vi. “A religion for dogs.”

Oh yeah?” goes Wick. “Just wait till those plenum scouts bring me my magic egg.”

Vi doesn’t bother to answer. It’s too ridiculous. They trudge along in companionable silence. They’re used to each other.

Seabright Beach is half a mile long and nearly a hundred yards wide. Vi was hardly able to believe her good fortune when first she saw it, thirty years ago. Wick had landed a job as a math prof at San Jose State. And Vi had a gig as a research librarian at Stanford—with a fatter salary than Wick’s. They had good careers, and they retired last year. And Wick is still writing papers about Conway space. And now he’s dreaming about it. Losing his shit.

Mounting the stairs, Vi admires the succulent, flowering ice plants on the bluff. Some wasps are feeding on a dead rat, the insects very elegant with their striped abdomens, like fashionistas at a low-down dive.

At the top of the bluff, Wick and Vi stash their stuff in Vi’s car, which is parked on a lane that runs along the edge of the cliff, with a sidewalk and a railing on the ocean side. They sit on a bench beside the car, enjoying the horizon, the wrinkled sea, the little sails.

“You see?” says Vi. “Perfect day.”

“The beach never disappoints,” agrees Wick. After a bit, his head droops and he slips back into his nap. Like a dog licking his balls, thinks Vi, exasperated with her husband. But she lets him doze.

Her mind drifts peacefully—but then here comes a new problem. A man and woman parallel-park their white Mercedes in the space ahead of Wick’s and Vi’s car. The couple sits there with their windows open, looking at their phones, ignoring the view. They’ve left their engine running. Boring, unnecessary noise. Vi hates that. And the fumes. She elbows Wick.

He snorts, snaps awake, and peers at the Mercedes—on high alert.

“Hear the engine?” says Vi. “They’re entitled pricks.” This  is a phrase Wick and Vi use. You need it a lot in the Bay Area these days. EPs for short.

“I was talking to my seminar crowd just now,” Wick tells Vi.

“Tell the entitled pricks to turn off their engine,” says Vi, bearing down.

“They’re the Conway space scouts!” exclaims Wick. “With my special egg.”

“I want that engine noise off,” repeats Vi. “You’re not hearing me.”

“I do,” he says. “But I’m shy about talking to the scouts.”

“Shy?” cries Vi. “A brick shy of a full load! I’ll do it myself.”

Vi marches over to the Mercedes. The blonde woman passenger is turned slightly away from the window, looking down at her phone. The screen shows something like a super-intricate tribal tattoo.

The woman’s hair is a mussed bed-head do. Vi can see the curve of her cheek, but not the corner of her mouth, nor the tip of her nose. The woman must know Vi is here, but she shows zero sign of noticing her. EP that she is.

Vi walks to the other side of the car and glares at the driver. His strong, tan arm rests on the frame of the open window. Naturally he wears a chunky, oversized gold watch.

“Hey!” says Vi, a little louder than polite. The driver turns toward her.

Instead of a face, he has a smooth, undulating patch of skin that follows the contours of his skull. As if his features have been sanded away—with a supple sheet of human leather laminated over the holes.

Vi hears a throaty giggle from the EP woman next to the guy. The woman has, Vi now realizes, a face like the man’s: a Zen garden of blank mounds and blind hollows, framed by her ratty blonde do.

Vi’s stomach turns; she tastes acid in her throat. The mannequin-like EPs have their heads cocked at snotty, confrontational angles. And now the mouthless man speaks. He’s humming from his throat, vibrating his skin.

“Take the magic egg, Vi.” His voice is a damp flutter. “In the back.”

With a machined thunk, the trunk of the idling white Mercedes pops open.

The EP woman is throat singing too, but not in words. Her grainy croon rises and falls. The EP man yodels a warped, screwed recitative—too fast to understand. Like a magic spell.

“Wick!” calls Vi.

Finally in action, Wick is out of their car. He makes his way to the rear of the Mercedes and reaches into the trunk.

“Score!” he calls to Vi, holding up a leathery little ball like a turtle egg.

Vi runs to their car and throws herself into the driver’s seat. Clumsy with panic, she presses the gas too hard, and she rear-ends the Mercedes. As if weightless, the vehicle skitters forward, hops the railing, coasts outward, and hangs in the air, thirty yards beyond the edge of the cliff. It’s not really a car.

The Mercedes-thing swathes itself in translucent shells of colored light. It makes a sound like neon bacon in an X-ray pan. The faceless man and woman stick their arms out the side windows. Their fingers grow and branch, silhouetted against the sky and sea, with the twig-tips sputtering black sparks. The vehicle expands like a trick reflection from a concave mirror..

As the phantom passes through Vi’s body she feels a sense of—exhilaration. Like an ozone gasp of Alpine air.

“A taste of the raw Conway space plenum,” babbles Wick, who feels it too. “The primeval quintessence. Absolute infinity, unmodified. Foof!”

The tingly sensation fades, along with any vestige of the alien craft. Vi is alone with Wick in her car. Time to go home. She sets the car into motion, and finds her way to Ocean Street—which injects them into Route 17, bound for their house in Los Perros.

“So what happened?” Vi asks Wick.

“It’s because I finally understood the math seminar,” says Wick, quietly exultant. “We found a cascade of diffeomorphisms that maps from there to here.”

“Give me an answer with no math.”

“I’m a beacon. I glow. The plenum scouts came to me. Riding that Mercedes like a UFO with my magic egg in the trunk.” Wick keeps shifting the little ball from one hand to the other, as if weighing it. “Not literally an egg, I hope. More like a capsule is what I’m thinking. With special stuff in it. They call it smeel. And once it gets out—” Wick’s voice trails off.

“This is a horrible,” says Vi. “A nightmare.”

“A dream come true,” says Wick.

2. Wick

Despite his show of bravado, Wick is afraid. The ball from the aliens has an adhesive quality against his palms. Like a barnacle wanting to settle onto a rock. Like a leech that’s ready to dig in.

He isn’t fully clear what the smeel is supposed to do. Surely Ma’al the anemone and the scouts explained this at the seminar—but it’s hazy. Something to do with the scale axis.

According to Wick’s papers, physical space is a transfinite, absolutely continuous Conway space, a plenum extending through every size level. Very few read Conway’s seminal On Numbers and Games, some read Donald Knuth’s Surreal Numbers, and nobody reads Wick. Such is the fate
of genius.

But now, yes, someone does care about his work! Off in some bizarre cranny of Conway space, Ma’al the alien anemone sensed Wick’s thoughts and dreams. And with mad recklessness, Wick has guided the space scouts here. Did they make some kind of deal?

Anxious Wick feels an overwhelming need for a session of deep meditation—what Vi would call a nap. But he doesn’t dare annoy her more than he already has. Nor, as a matter of fact, does he want to take the risk that the leathery ball’s tissues might, say, grow all over the surface of his body and transform him into a paralyzed stash of living food.

And so, during the half hour drive to Los Perros, Wick fills the car with what he imagines is cheerful chatter about his philosophy of the absolute scale-free continuum. It doesn’t go over.

“Put that sick egg on the charcoal grill and torch it,” says Vi as they pull into their driveway.

“No!” cries Wick. “How can you say that?”

Their house is on a slope, with a carport and a guest room beneath the main house and its deck. Beside the carport, amid straggling bamboo,  a small chicken coop houses a cock and a hen.

“Wrap the egg in newspaper,” instructs Vi as she kills her car’s engine. “Drench it in charcoal lighter. Ftoom! I mean it.”

“It’s valuable,” protests Wick, keeping the egg out of her reach. “Full of smeel. I’ll let our chickens watch over it.” His lips feel numb and his voice sounds quacky. His body feels overly tuned. Maybe some of that smeel is seeping through the egg’s rubbery shell.

Moving fast, Wick goes into the chicken coop and  nestles his wondrous egg on a clump of dirty straw. The cock and the hen don’t like it. They squawk and flap; they scratch compulsively at the dirt.

“You’re hopeless,” says Vi, nearly in tears. She stumps up the front steps to their house’s main door. Slam.

Wick takes the downstairs door into the guest room, flops onto the bed, and falls instantly asleep. He’s back in the seminar room. Break time. The semi-familiar figures are chatting. All along he’s been thinking of them as lumpy, shaggy mathematicians. But none of their shapes is right. They’re not humans at all. Funny he hadn’t noticed this before.

The massive, purplish-green anemone named Ma’al squats against a wall, feeding on a large smoked salmon, that is, the faces at the tips of the anemone’s feelers are nibbling at the pink flesh. Wick’s father’s face isn’t there anymore.

Maybe the food isn’t salmon. Maybe it’s Pop’s body. Like Jesus? Dies in the vest. Wick and Pop argued the week before Pop died—and Wick still feels bad about it. He peers at the salmon that might be Pop’s corpse.

“A treat to your taste?” says the faceless and deeply tanned entitled prick from the Mercedes. The plenum scout, with his partner at his side. Him with his gold retro watch, her with the expensive bedhead do. Wick wonders what they really look like. Or if that question makes sense.

“The egg you gave us,” begins Wick. “You say it’s full of smeel. But I can’t remember what smeel does.”

“Always happens when we make deals with low rezzers like you,” rasps the woman. As before, her face vibrates the sounds. “You goobs wave with it when you’re on the dark dream. But when you come down, you’re jaggy and lost. Voxelated. No flow. Mental gaps. Empty Dedekind cuts.”

“Smeel lets you control size scale with your eyes,” interrupts the smooth-faced man. “I’m Qoph and she’s Fonna.”

“I’m Wick.”

“We know,” says Qoph. “We had this conversation before.”

“Wick’s a lightweight,” says Fonna. “He’ll never learn to drift.”

“I fully understand the scale-free nature of Conway space,” insists Wick. “Down past the fractions and the irrationals, past the infinitesimals, past the reciprocals of the transfinite alefs. And upwards just the same.”

“A sniff of smeel, and you’re at the wheel,” Qoph says in an encouraging tone..

“I’d like to be,” says Wick. “I’d like having smeel. But what do you want? I forget.”

“We want to settle into your and Vi’s niche,” said faceless Fonna, with a toss of her tousled head. “Qoph and I will move to your level. Imitate you. So you and Vi have to clear out. Okay?”

“More of us will come later,” puts in Qoph. “Ma’al the anemone is heavily promoting Los Perros. Thanks to your mighty mind, Wick.”

Wick feels very uneasy. “And that egg is what Vi and I get in return?”

“The egg’s just a sample,” says Fonna.  “A taste. Once we close,  you and Vi get a keg of smeel.”

“A small keg,” puts in Qoph. “Round, with a handle and a nozzle. About six inches across.”

“Ample supply for wandering Conway levels,” says Fonna. “Wick and Vi sniffing out a new home! What an adventure!”

“This is a dream,” says Wick, not liking this. “It’s a dream and it’s not true.”

“We’ll be with your chickens in the coop when you wake,” says Fonna. “Ready to move in! We’ll peck open your sample egg of smeel. It’s a gas, gas, gas.” She does a giggle thing in her throat.

“Raw smeel,” adds Qoph. “Slippery. Tingly. Potentiating scale transformations.”

“Should our goob friends shrink or should they grow?” Fonna asks Qoph, pertly cocking her head as if in thought.

“Big is small,” observes Qoph with a shrug. “Small is big. Conway space has no standard meter. Right, Wick?”

“Main thing is that Wick and Vi will be clearing out,” repeats Fonna. She glares at Wick—or surely she would be glaring, if she had a face and eyes.   “O. U. T.”

“This is all wrong!” cries Wick.

“So right,” says Fonna.

All the creatures in the so-called seminar room are laughing at Wick. Including Ma’al the anemone, waving her stalks in glee. Wick looks again at the little objects in the glass cases. Those aren’t math models. Those are 3D images of houses. And this is a real estate agency.

Fonna flips into a fake flirtation routine.  She puts her arms around Wick. “Don’t fret, dear man,” she hums. “You’ll find someplace else. If you’re good, I might come visit you. We could have a fling.”  She moves closer, as if meaning to kiss him. But she doesn’t have lips. She’s a skin-covered skull with big hair.

Wick wakes with a strangled scream. Outside in the coop, the chickens are going wild. Crowing and cackling. Wick’s heart sinks when he sees that an extra hen and rooster have appeared. The new chickens are going after the leathery egg. Pecking the hell out of it.

The egg pops with a tiny sound, very clear, very precise, as if demarcating the end of Wick’s old life.

A heavy, amber gas oozes from the sagging egg.. It curls through the air like whiskey in water, an exquisite tangle of fanciful swirls. Smeel. It drifts into the guest room as if the house’s wall weren’t even there—and enters Wick’s body.

It’s near the end of the long summer day. The most gorgeous day Wick has ever known. The chickens are calm. He looks around the shabby guest room, perfect in every way, beautiful beyond imagining. He hears Vi moving around upstairs, perhaps making supper, perhaps not angry at him. Her sounds are intricate, delicate, refined. He’s in paradise.

Wick feels he can nudge the size scale with his eyes.  He narrows his gaze and—he’s a two-legged ant on the rumpled rug. Whoops! He widens his vision and he’s  back to normal size, no, bigger than that, he’s a gawky giant who hunches to fit below the low ceiling.

Here comes a sharp knock on the door to the yard. Wick’s smeel-rush fades, and he’s his own right size. Opens the door. It’s a man and a woman in business-casual summer attire, their voices  garbled. Qoph and Fonna.

They have features now. Standard-issue Los Perros entitled pricks who might be tech execs or heavy-hitter realtors. And a minute ago they were the extra chickens in the coop. And before that, they were Conway space scouts in the phantom Mercedes.

“So we’re ready to wrap this up,” says Qoph.

“I’m stoked,” says Fonna. “Ma’al has been pitching your place bigtime.”

Qoph holds up an amber plastic sphere with a hand-grip and a screw-capped snout. “Smeel keg!” he says. “Do you love it? You and Vi can go scouting. “Like newlyweds.”

But Fonna is frowning as she looks around. “I can’t believe Ma’al said this place has vintage charm,” she says. “It’s—shoddy. Grotty. The ceiling so low.”

“We’ll give it a try,” says Qoph. “A starter home. Gets into the Los Perros loop while we learn to blend in. Did you hear Ma’al say you can model a human personality as a Baire set of cardinality alef-three, Fonna?. Fun!”

Fonna is scowling. “I’m telling you now, if we acquire this this shitbox, we raze and rebuild.”

“Can do,” says the equable Qoph. “Ready to close, Wick? Go ahead, take the smeel keg. With that in hand, you and Vi can rove. Take a shot at being high plenum drifters.  Hell, you can take our Mercedes if you like.”

“We don’t really have to give them all that,” Fonna says to Qoph. “We could just kill them. That’s what some of the scouts do.”

“Not our style!” booms Qoph. “I’m giving Wick his keg, you bet! And, hey Wick, I picked up on you jiggling your scale just now. You’re born to be a scout, no doubt. So don’t harsh the man’s buzz, Fonna.”

Fonna switches gears. “There’s some especially nice territory if you scale down from here by a factor of -alef-two,” she trills. “Go homesteading among the wee!”

“That’s where you’ll find planet Gnab, as a matter of fact,” adds Qoph. “Where Fonna and I used to live. Take your smeel keg to wriggly old Ma’al, pay her a squirt, and she’ll show you the way to Gnab.”

“What’s Gnab like?” asks Wick, curious despite himself.

“Mostly water, with lush islands. No cities. Maybe a little like your South Pacific atolls. There’s some local humanoid Gnabbies. Fonna and I used to eat them. We were flying jellyfish there, you understand.”

“It’s an easy pattern to instantiate,” says Fonna. “Ma’al can show you that too.”

“Sounds fun,” says Wick, his voice flat. “But, um, Vi might not like it.”

Buk-buk,” squawks Fonna,  as if annoyed by Wick’s hesitation. She drifts back into chicken mode and begins scratching the guest room floor with a large, clawed foot. As if hoping to turn up worms. Worms like Wick and Vi.

Wick wishes this was a bad dream.  But it’s not. He’s here, and it’s real, and he can’t wake up.

Qoph’s face is beginning to flow. He’s remodeling himself to look like Wick. And Fonna—oh god, she’s changing into Vi.

“Does this work for you?” asks Fonna, cozying up to Wick once more. “As a mating trigger? Do you want to make love?”

Wick emits a sob of terror. He was a fool to have gotten himself and Vi into this.

“What’s happening?” calls the real Vi from upstairs.

“You wait here,” Wick tells the Conway space scouts. “I’ll talk to my wife. We’ll see what we can work out.”

He runs upstairs. The unwanted visitors stay downstairs, softly clucking to each other.

3. Vi

Giddy from the smeel, Vi is taking Wick’s ideas to heart. She likes them. Space is a glittering continuum that runs up and down, from Nothing to Everything, with stars twinkling within our very bodies, the stars like plankton in the sea, like spangles on an scarf. Yes.

Wick has been yelling at someone downstairs, and now he stumbles up the basement steps, carrying a six-inch ball of—piss? He trips on the top step, and falls flat on his face, still clutching his ball.

“What if I sink right through the floor?” says Wick, lying there. “Thanks to the smeel. I could dissolve.”

“Stand up, Wick. It’s scary when old men fall.”

Laboriously he gets to his feet. “The entitled pricks want to replace us, Vi. They want to move in. We’re supposed to trade our lives for this keg of smeel.”

“I thought I heard them,” says Vi. “The ones from the car?”

“Yeah,” says Wick. “At first they didn’t have faces. Then they were chickens in our coop. And now they look like you and me. Qoph and Fonna.”

“Here to live our lives?” goes Vi. She half-thinks this is a joke. “Why bother. It’d be a laugh to see them try and put on Christmas for our kids..”

“They want to be us, and we’re supposed to move to planet Gnab,” says Wick. “Scaling down by a factor of alef-two. I don’t want to do it, Vi. I’m scared.”

Vi looks out the window, thinking things over.

“Look,” she says after a bit. “If those entitled pricks can look like us, and if they can look like chickens, then they can look like anything at all. They can move here, fine.  But there’s no reason they have to replace us in particular. To hell with that. I’m not moving to fafa-two or whatever it is..”

“You go tell them that,” says Wick. “I’m not good at making deals.”

“Vi will fix.”

“Thank you.”. They go downstairs.

Vi starts right in on Qoph and Fonna. “You two look like crap. Like inflatable love-dolls. Like plastic masks. Uncanny valley, guys. Nobody will go for it. People will snub you. Being Wick and Vi is harder than you think.”

“We can do it,” insists Qoph. “You’re just a fractal Baire set of cardinality alef-three.”

“Fafa three? Ha. We’re deeper than you can ever know. You should imitate something easy. More your speed.”

Qoph is taken aback. Vi has him worried. “What if—what if we came here and lived as chickens?” he suggests.

“Are you crazy?” interrupts Fonna. “The chicken coop is even worse than this shitty house.”

“So rude,” says Vi. “Fact is, you’re not classy enough for our house, Fonna. Although, yes, the chickens are worse.”

“We’re not gonna just up and leave,” says Fonna.

“Be wasps!” intones Vi. She leans forward for emphasis, and stares into Fonna’s bogus face. “Yellow jackets. The most gorgeous creatures on our globe. Shiny and lethal. Like flying motorcycles. Amazing colony scene. They have underground burrows in our patch of bamboo. Yellow jackets’ bodies are striped, and their wings are iridescent. Ultra-chic.”

“Show them to me,” says Fonna.

“I’ll lure some to our deck,” says Wick. “Come on upstairs.”

Wick brings a chunk of smoked salmon from the fridge and sets it on a saucer on the railing.

It’s dusk, the time of day when the wasps fly back to their nests in the dirt of the bamboo patch. They notice the salmon smell right away, and five or six of them land on the pink flesh. The wasps are dainty, with elegantly curved surfaces, cool compound eyes, intricate legs, expressive antennae.

“I love them!” exclaims Fonna.

“You can replace the queen of a wasp colony right now,” says Vi. “The queen’s larger than the others.”

“What about me?” says Qoph.

“You can be a sexless drone,” says Fonna, needling him. “Or a male who dies after inseminating his queen.”

“No, no, Qoph can be the queen of his own colony,” says Wick. “Give this  scout a break. There’s at least three colonies in the bamboo, Fonna. I was looking at them the other day, wondering what to do. If you guys take over, you can get order the colonies not to land on our food while we eat. Win win.”

“Live in separate colonies,,” muses Qoph. “I like it. Fonna and I can have full-on wars instead of bickering.”

“Sting, sting, sting!” goes Fonna, taking to the plan as well. “We’ll invade other colonies and take slaves. Summary executions! Royal jelly!”

“Sweet,” goes Qoph. His eyes play across the rickety, unpainted deck. “I hope you’re not disappointed, Wick and Vi. I know it would be signal honor to have us assume your roles in the Los Perros ecosystem. But your house, it’s—”

“Beneath our status,” says Fonna, fully into her entitled prick mode..

“How did you two ever get so snotty?” asks Vi.

“We could ask you the same,” says Fonna. “Just remember: quite recently we were dreaded flying jellyfish on Gnab.”

“And before that we were writhing Conway space flaws,” says Qoph. “Like cosmic strings.”

“Titanic centipedes,” says Fonna. “Alef-seven miles long!” Briefly she pauses, coolly gazing at Wick and Vi. “But that’s enough about us. Toodle-oo, low peasants.”

The odd beings’ bodies flex, flow, warp, and rescale. And now they’re wasp queens. Vi has a fleeting urge to swat them, but surely this would end in tears.

The queens rise with the other wasps, angling through the dying rays of sun, threading through the bamboo shoots to their new homes—two of the underground wasp nests, larva-filled burrows in the dirt. They’ll decapitate the resident queens, and begin their reigns.

“Room for all of us,” says Wick. “As above, so below.”

“You and me,” says Vi. “In our substandard home.”

“And look,” says Wick. “They left us our keg of smeel. Let’s take a hit.” He releases a puff of the dense, amber gas. Like a cosmic bong. The aethereal substance percolates through bodies, like mist through trees.

Vi flops into a deck chair and stares at the railing, pushing and pulling against it with her eye-beams. Her body waxes and wanes. Wick’s doing the same. Getting the hang of it..

“Should we should go further?” asks Wick.

“Not yet,” says Vi.  “Let’s be ordinary for now. Let’s go inside and make love.”

Copyright (C) Rudy Rucker 2022. An early draft of this story appeared in Big Echo in October, 2020.

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