Items Tagged: origins

by Paul di Filippo

(Originally published in the 2003 Readercon program book)

So Rudy and I are ambling through downtown Providence, having just debated the merits of visiting a nearby porn store to search for a sizzling tape of some Euro-starlet he’s especially keen on, a visit we reluctantly decide against, since it’s such a glorious winter’s day outside and we don’t want to immur ourselves in the bleachy windowless jerkoffitorium, and lo and behold, we come upon Providence’s outdoor skating rink, this bright noontide a-flow with the graceful and clumsy pirouettings of school-vacationing kids and their adult minders, and this California Boy–who, by the by, prior to his cross-continental journey to lecture at Dartmouth has dug out of his Los Gatos closet under the urgings of his beautiful and caring wife Sylvia and in preparation for the rigors of a New England winter an absurdly puffy Michelin Man down coat which I estimate was the height of fashion circa 1979–this California Boy (California Boy by way of Kentucky, upstate New York, Germany and Virginia, natch) gets a look of sheer delight on his amiable, beatific face and impulsively expresses his fondest wish at this exact moment in the spacetime continuum, which is to essay some cool-rockin’ ice-time after not having skated for umpty-ump years; and of course I, being the well-mannered accommodating host, cannot voice my doubts about how well Rudy’s putative proficiency on blades has endured the unchallenging years of Beach Blanket Bingo out in La-la Los Gatos, so all-atremble at the ghastly accusatory images of banner headlines in the next issue of Locus reading FOUNDING FATHER OF TRANSREAL LITERATURE SUFFERS CONCUSSION WHILE BEING HOSTED BY CARELESS CLOD; IN COMA, BUT LUCKILY WAS PREVIOUSLY UPLOADED TO MOLDY PLATFORM, I accompany Rudy to the skate-rental office (we in our excitement [his] and dread [mine] inadvertently bypass the ticket window and are shortly hauled up by the scruffs of our necks to pay the requisite entry fees), where Rudy swiftly selects and straps on skates then knife-walks wobble-ankled down the rubber trail to the rink, all the while I’m trailing behind like a weepy Lou Costello barely restraining my flubber-lipped moans and wailing solicitations to whatever gods watch out for ice-skating cyber-gonzo hacker mathenauts, and finally the moment of truth is here, the tips of Rudy’s blades hit the ice, and he’s launched out onto the glassy, skull-cracking expanse, amidst the squealing ten-year-olds and embracing adolescent lovers and cool-moving dudes and dudettes in spandex, and I grip the railing and close my eyes, opening them after an interminable agony of suspense to see –

The boy is SKATING! He’s no Sonja Henie, but he’s got some basic Hans Brinker moves! He cutting integral signs in the phase-transitioned water, inscribing calculations for the square roots of imaginary numbers into the rink’s surface. Astonished, I wave and cheer from the sidelines. Rudy acknowledges my boosterism with a humble British Royal hand-wag, all the while innocently grinning like the Cheshire Cat–if that Cat ever was costumed like a goosefeather-buffered refugee from the Great Blizzard of 1978. (And sure enough, as if in deference to Rudy’s choice of gear, the following day will usher in a snowstorm of near-blizzard proportions, cancelling Rudy’s flight to New Hampshire and diverting him instead onto an interstate bus, a “catastrophe” that would send most other travelers bughouse, but which in Rudy’s case only brings a blissed-out expression of awe at nature’s majesty.)

As I gradually relax enough to really enjoy Rudy’s playful, unselfconscious performance, a revelation–and a lesson–sweep over me. The revelation is: this impulsive, devil-may-care hurtling forward into a novel experience and the deriving of great joy from meeting the challenge (or even from honorable failure) is absolutely typical of the man. For him, the contemporary world–and by extension, the future–is not the scary, downbeat, menacing, dystopian landscape of deadly pitfalls it is for so many of us, SF writers or not. Rather, it’s a vista of possibility and potential, a realm of plastic playfulness, a buddha-field of likely enlightment. Samsara is nirvana, after all, and if we ever hope to experience satori, it’s got to arise out of the muck of daily living. For Rudy Rucker, life is the grandest mystical hack. And if you don’t play, you can’t complain.

This uncommonly sane and healthy and humorous attitude is instantly apprehendable across the whole range of his writing, implicit from his very first book to his latest. Whether in his several non-fiction volumes that explore the weirder frontiers of mathematics and information science and AI and consciousness studies and cosmology, or in his many novels which embody those same intellectual concepts in all-too-human personages, Rudy always expresses a sense that “the world is so full of a number of things, that I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” (Robert Louis Stevenson, the famed source of that quote, once also wrote to a friend, “I believe in the ultimate decency of things,” and that sentiment, I think, also can be detected right below the surface buzz and glitter and absurdist, gnarly chaos of Rudy’s creations.)

But this core optimism and and upbeat bodhisattva acceptance-openness does not preclude a fine, rueful appreciation of life’s perpetual hand-delivered engraved invitation for dramatic fuckups. There is certainly no other body of SF by any major writer that features more bumbling, cack-handed screwed-up losers than Rudy’s oeuvre. (Okay, maybe the entire combined catalog of Robert Sheckley and William Tenn comes close.) Rudy’s protagonists are intimate with failure, humiliation and cosmic-emotional-social constraints. As a longtime afficionado and emulator of the Beats, Rudy knows deeply the bittersweet Kerouackian angst that accompanies even our highest successes. After all, this is the man who once said that if he possessed a time machine, his first action would not be to go back to the past and kill some famous inhuman monster of history, but rather go back into the past and kill himself! In the words of They Might Be Giants, “Everybody dies lonely and frustrated, and that is beautiful.” Somehow the balance tips towards grace and glory, even when standing amidst the wreckage of a life or a world.

So my revelation about and from Rudy Rucker, man and writer, is this: if you just open your eyes and mind, if you bravely look both higher and lower than the common individual typically does, with an open heart, across all the infinite fractal scales of existence, you will see that the cosmos is a wonderful place, “not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.” And as a unique individual, each of us must report back as faithfully as we can, sharing our insights in whatever artistic modes best suit us.

As for the practical lesson Rudy’s spin on the ice taught me, it was even simpler: Trust the Rudester, even when it does not appear he knows what he’s doing. When he tells you he’s going to write a historical novel about Breughel (As Above, So Below), don’t doubt that it will knock your socks off in the same manner as any one of his SF books. When he tells you that he’s going to write a non-fiction opus about UFO’s (Saucer Wisdom), don’t imagine that he’s turned into Whitley Streiber. Trusting the Rude Boy stood me in good stead recently, as I wrote my own novel, Fuzzy Dice, something of a Rucker homage. Whenever I got stuck, I just “twinked” Rudy (“to twink” is a coinage of Rudy’s, meaning “to run a mental simulation of an individual on your personal wetware”) and instantly all roadblocks vanished. I even tried to follow Rudy’s scheme of “transreally” incorporating bits and pieces of my autobiography into Fuzzy Dice. Transrealism being, in Rudy’s memorable phrase, “writing just like yourself, only more so.”

Just this year I had occasion to be in Rudy’s stomping grounds, the San Francisco Bay Area. (I didn’t spontaneously try hang-gliding or surfing or plastic surgery or any other West Coast recreation other than cable-car riding, perhaps proving that I haven’t yet fully internalized the Rucker Philosophy.) We met with a bunch of other folks at one of Rudy’s favorite restaurants, a tapas bar in the city. Rudy’s delight at introducing all his friends to the exotic cuisine of the place was palpable. Directing everyone to sample various dishes, he was like some Buddha maestro of Iberian good times. After we were all sated with grease-smeared faces, we paid the bill and exited out onto the darkened SF, CA, street. Rudy turned to me.

“I put this place into one of my books. Right in front of this restaurant, a pterodactyl swoops down and snatches up one of my characters.”

That’s my Rudy. He sees pterodactyls in urban landscapes where others see only rats or panhandlers (but he sees the rats and panhandlers too, and deems them equally vital).

Long may he be himself, only more so!