by John Shirley

Part Two - Rudy Rucker: Transreal

"White light messin up my mind
Ooh don'tcha know
it's gonna make me go blind..."
-- the Velvet Underground, White Light/White Heat
It was years ago, at a science fiction convention, and Rucker was weaving through a party, many storeys up in the sterile suite of a convention hotel. He'd come looking for a real party and he was finding only a convention party. So he decided to try to spark his own festivity. And he spotted a well known lady Scientologist...whereupon he latched onto her substantial leg and began to HUMP IT LIKE A DOG. He babbled poetically at her about taking that scientological broom out of her butt and loosening up, as she frantically sought to dislodge him...

Well I've loved him ever since. Any mathematician, in his cups or not, who'll hump the leg of an uptight high-profile Scientologist -- he's okay with me. (More lady scientologists ought to get their legs humped in parties, but never mind...) Rudy's lifestyle has changed since then, perhaps, but not his spirit. He's a good family man, a working scientist, teacher, and disciplined author: and he's as free a spirit as they come, this side of learning the answer to the Death Koan.

Peruse Rucker's early novel WHITE LIGHT. Better be told now: This novel is BIGGER than cyberpunk. This book is TRANSREAL.

You can find cyberpunk elements here; you can detect tropes which transferred their heat to cyberpunk. Our protagonist is a rogue mathematician, kind of guy who calls himself a "head", who quotes Kerouac and engages in experiments with dreams in an effort to access infinity, tries to fit his splintered-square of a peg into the round hole of a smallish state college somewhere in upper New York State. In short, the dude's a rogue, he doesn't fit in. He's alienated from his wife and feeling guilty about it -- we see this in a lot of Rucker books -- and though WHITE LIGHT's hero cheerfully exploits the establishment he couldn't care a negatively-numbered fig for its values. He wants a redefinition of reality. He's a goddamn cyberpunk, at least in tone and attitude. Plus, he's living in a hyper-tense (and almost hypertext) convergence of information and output. He signifies. He's heavy with noise like guitar feedback and he's ever-more jittery licks per second like the Ramones. (The first wave of punk rock had just peaked when this book came along). He's a fuckin' cyberpunk, without all the hardware. Instead of hardware, instead of cyberspace, Felix Rayman has the astral plane. He's got sets of infinities. He's got the hypersphere. All of which accesses so very much more than mere cyberspace, as Rucker has always known.

There are drugs in this book, here and there, in more ways than one. Cyberpunk probably wouldn't have had that faintly hallucinatory sheen around the edges of its dirty chrome fittings if not for drugs. Rucker's made no secret of the chemical experimentation back in the 60s and early 70s that informed some scenes in this book; the white light itself is, to some extent, a codification of a particular psychedelic experience. We all had different lifestyles back then. But for a real Seeker, drugs are superfluous, or only of passing interest; and so they are for Rudy's characters, ultimately. Ram Dass said that psychedelics are like a business call: once you get the information, you hang up the phone. If you're smart.

I think a lot of people probably ripped this book off, consciously or unconsciously. I think the movie GHOST is about half borrowed from an early section of this book, where Felix has an Out of Body Experience and meets ghosts who behave remarkably like the confused, paranoid ghosts in GHOST, a film which came along well after the 1980 of WHITE LIGHT; I suspect this book of having informed the better stuff in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? and maybe some of the work of Marc Leyner and William Kotzwinkle, too.

In the book you now minutely discolor with the effluents on your oily fingers, Rucker found a way to infuse the paradoxical, absurd fantasy of another mathematician, Lewis Carroll, with quantum physics, Einsteinian math theory and mysticism. So doing he widened science fiction's parameters until they shattered; he took some of what Philip K Dick attempted in A SCANNER DARKLY - probably an influence on WHITE LIGHT --and he pushed it past the realm of the absurd to the strange place where cartoonlike absurdity interlocks with grim, concrete reality. (Have you noticed how, nowdays, life imitates satire?)

Only the few, the cool, the brave in science fiction really listened: Marc Laidlaw, Paul Di Fillipo, Don Webb, a few others, although the honesty and grittiness with which Rucker evokes the Average Guy underlying the Average Scientist might well have influenced certain works by William Gibson and Greg Bear and Bruce Sterling. But mostly this book influenced people outside the field, like, probably, Kathy Acker and --did I already mention Leyner?

Who among the well-known science fiction writers would dare to give us a scene like the one in WHITE LIGHT in which the hero, in an astrally altered state, becomes Donald Duck in a Scrooge McDuck comic, only to have his heart cut out by an Aztec priest? Who would dare a digression this patently ludicrous, this inexplicably touching? Who could successfully carry off such a tour de force...but Rucker?

As for sheer writing, there's probably no one like him; especially as relates to this particular and particularly-insane tome. His writing implacably stalks the reader with a strikingly effective use of plainspoken description, then snares you, yanks you down into shining fissures of poetic otherwheres. The book opens with a quote from Neal Cassady; the Beats and the Merry Pranksters are declaiming in some smokefilled dada soiree in a hidden back-room of this novel's Escherlike corridors of realization.

That's what this book has: states of realization, each with its own infinitely replicating continuum. It has story, momentum, gripping narrative, but I don't know if it has a great deal in the way of plot per se. I asked Marc Laidlaw what he thought of this book; he said when he read this and other Rucker works he'd think at first that the stories, though fascinating, were aimless, unstructured -- then, when he was unable to stop reading, he began to realize: "This guy knows exactly what he's doing!"

He knows diabolically what he's doing, all right. Conventional plot isn't part of the plan. Rucker is declaiming from Transreality. Besides being conceptually linked to his nonfiction book INFINITY AND THE MIND, this book is part of Rucker's Transreal cycle. Each book is rooted in Rudy Rucker in some intimate way; each character some side of Rucker's own personality, and corresponding to some period in his life (but not necessarily written in that period): THE SECRET OF LIFE corresponds to 1963 - 1967; SPACETIME DONUTS to 1967 to 1972; WHITE LIGHT to 1972 to 1978; The SEX SPHERE to 1978 - 1980; THE HACKER AND THE ANTS to 1986 - 1992. Each book explores the realizations about life, subjectively and objectively, Rucker had during those years. And each book is itself a kind of manifesto-in-prose for Transreal writing. The basic manifesto is to be found in Rudy's collection TRANSREAL! published by Wcs Books; here are selections: "Transrealism writes about immediate perceptions in a fantastic way...Transrealism tries to treat not only immediate reality, but also the higher reality in which life is embedded...The characters should be based on actual people. What makes standard genre fiction so insipid is that the characters are so obviously puppets of the author's a Transrealist novel the author usually appears as an actual character...if indeed you are writing about immediate perceptions then what point of view other than your own is possible? ...The Transrealist artist cannot predict the finished form of his or her work. The Transrealist novel grows organically, like life itself...Nevertheless, the book must be coherent. A good maze forces the tracer past all the goals in a coherent way...Transrealism is a revolutionary artform...Each mind is a reality unto itself. As long as people can be tricked into believing the reality of the 6:30 news, they can be herded about like sheep."

Like the math prof in WHITE LIGHT, Rucker was an assistant professor at a bucolic state college from which he was fired; but he scored a grant and went on to struggle with the continuum problem while he was writing the novel and reading Georg Cantor's philosophy of math in the original German.

"My Transreal novels," Rucker says, "aren't exactly autobiographical: I have never really left my body and gone to infinity's Heaven, 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 modelled on family and friends - the main person of course being modelled 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 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."

Honesty is a touchstone of Rucker's characterization. His rendering of people is painfully, relentlessly, hilariously honest. There's a Bukowski quality in it; but Bukowski never tried to take his readers up stairways of infinity sets.

Rucker talked intelligently of lucid dreaming and astral projection long before it became New Age fashionable; he worked in weird synchronicities long before Synchronicity became a watchword of the metaphysical counterculture; he spoke of spiritual progress in terms of interfacing a higher intelligence characterized by mathematical purity, a kind of Pythagorean mysticism for the post-Einstein world, in a way that eerily evokes the Hermetic mysteries of millenia past: mysteries in which he was not likely to have been directly initiated.

In WHITE LIGHT Rucker commandingly synthesizes mysticism, pop imagery, the Devil Himself, Jesus Christ, the great mathematicians and their ideas, "head culture", and even voodoo - into a novel that takes us on a wild journey to infinity, to the Absolute, and back again.

A wild ride, people say, about a book like this. Is that all you think it is? Next time you take a trip with Rucker, keep your eyes open.

And remember: though this book truly belongs in the cyberpunk Core Collection, Rudy Rucker has always been BIGGER than cyberpunk.

Rudy Rucker is Transreal.

Copyright © 1999 by John Shirley