For today’s Sci-Fi Saturday, we have Juicy Ghosts (2021), the latest novel from mathematician turned science fiction writer Rudy Rucker. The library blurb describes it as “a fast-paced adventure novel, with startling science, engaging dialog — and a happy ending. […] It’s also a redemptive political tale, reacting to the chaos of a contested US presidential election.”
It’s very clear from the text — and explicit in his Afterward — that the novel was inspired by recent American politics. The story features a cruel tyrannical President who, backed by Big Money, steals a third term.
And is taken out by technological wizards. As the blurb said, a happy ending.
Rudy Rucker is one of the (perhaps lesser known) founders of literary cyberpunk. He’s also written non-fiction books about mathematics and computer science. His fiction writing style is breezy and lyrical with a strong bebop tone to his novels.
I’ve liked his work since his first science fiction novels, White Light (1980) and Spacetime Donuts (1981). Those aging paperbacks sit on my shelf next to two others of his: The Sex Sphere (1983) and Software (1982).
And while I enjoyed them all okay back in the 1980s, at the time I wasn’t quite up to his wacky rather off-beat writing. I likewise found William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, the two well-known founders of literary cyberpunk, a bit challenging to read. All three cross the boundaries of transparent storytelling. Their writing has style. Readers must bring something to the table — something I didn’t quite have 40 years ago.
Apparently, I do now. Not long ago I re-read Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and enjoyed it much more than I did back in the 1980s. I’d been meaning for a long time to return to Gibson, and when I saw Apple ebooks had on sale the Burning Chrome collection of short stories, I grabbed it immediately. [The collection includes the short story Burning Chrome (1982) as well as Johnny Mnemonic (1981), the basis of the 1995 Keanu Reeves movie that people seem to reflexively hate for reasons they can never explain but which I love.]
Enjoyed it a lot, and that led to me pulling my paperback copy of Neuromancer off the shelf. Enjoyed it a lot, and that led to getting the sequels, Count Zero (1986) and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988), from the library. Enjoyed them a lot. [See these posts.]
A lesson I’ve learned over and over in revisiting books I read long ago and didn’t quite connect with is that maturity and life experience really do matter in how one approaches, understands, and enjoys life. I have much more appreciation now for things (such as jazz or onions) that never much grabbed me in my callow youth.
My library app, Libby, has a Tags feature that allows one to make up and apply tags to books. Those books then appear under that tag (a bit like a playlist). I’ve got three such lists:
- Queue: books I plan to read next.
- Want to Read: books I hope to get to eventually.
- Possibles: books I might read someday.
These lists evolve over time as I read tagged books, or change my mind, or see other books to add to one of the lists. For months, I had Rucker’s The Ware Tetralogy (2010) tagged as Want to Read.
I try to avoid learning too much about a book or movie I plan to read or see. It’s less about spoilers and more about not having the experience influenced by blurbs or reviews. Therefore, I avoid reviews and tend to only skim over a blurb looking for keywords that might commend the piece to me.
The quick glance at the blurb for The Ware Tetralogy made it sound like fun, and I’ve been meaning to return to Rucker’s science fiction for years — in large part because I really loved his non-fiction mathematics book, Mind Tools: The Five Levels of Mathematical Reality (1987). Some of my fascination with math is due to that book.
I so avoid learning too much beforehand that it didn’t even sink in that the book, as the title says, is a tetralogy — a volume of four sequential novels:
As I mentioned above, the first one, Software, sits yellowing on my bookshelf. Just as with re-reading William Gibson’s books, I enjoyed these a lot. They’re about humans and robots with AI and free will. As the story opens, the robots, called “boppers”, live on the Moon, and Earth is in a cyberpunk dystopic funk. Some robots sneak onto Earth to kidnap Cobb Anderson, the computer scientist who figured out how to give them true intelligence and free will. Cobb is mostly hated by those stuck on Earth. The robots want to (destructively) scan his brain and upload him to a robot body. They intend to give him the same immortality that they have.
Things get crazy from there. Events include a virus that destroys all silicon chips, new fungus-based computing devices that replace them, and an accelerating curve that ends with the ability to program reality itself. Rucker’s stories, for all the bebop wackiness, are hard science fiction, but take technology to rather fantastical levels. Science, computing, and human consciousness are his foundation, but he launches into the outer limits from there.
If you like cyberpunk and hard-ish SF with an emphasis on computing and consciousness, I recommend them.
Juicy Ghosts likewise launches from a foundation of computing and consciousness, but Rucker takes this story in a completely different direction. For one, no robots or AI. The reality Rucker presents here uses bioengineering (also used in The Ware Tetralogy). Instead of robots, there are “ball walkers” — two-legged, armless “kritters” (bioengineered low-intelligence living beings) with big hollow heads used to carry things. A bit like a cross between a pack mule and an ambulatory cargo drone.
The story begins with two counter-culture researchers doing development and field testing of a fungus designed to allow full telepathic communication between users. A limited form already exists using “uvvies” — “soft lumps of intelligent computational piezoplastic” that use “quantum vortexes” to probe user’s brains. They’re what replaced smartphones. These can even use “gossip molecules” to communicate feelings.
But that’s only the beginning. The first chapter, The Mean Carrot, has exactly what the title suggests, a mean carrot. About the size of a dog, mobile and capable of acting like an attack dog. And it has a secret inside. The first chapter also features a living sleigh named Vixen. Whatever else the story is, it’s a lot of weird fun! Later you’ll encounter a giant loaf of bread dough and a redwood tree, both acting as computation and data servers.
The villains of the story are the tyrannical President Ross Treadle and his Top Party. Ross is about to win a third term by using a specially engineered highly communicable virus that infects minds and converts them to Top Party drones. (Which is one of the best metaphors ever for describing what happened to politics in the last decade.)
Days before the election the heroes are able to counter the virus, which destroys the Treadle majority, but the Top Party is able to steal the election anyway (despite his opponent having won both the popular and electoral vote). The heroes aren’t down for the count, though, and manage to assassinate the tyrant (using bioengineered wasps).
That may sound like a major spoiler, but it all happens in the first quarter. Remnants of the Top Party continue to be a threat to the heroes, but a lot more is going on involving “lifeboxes” — something like Facebook pages but containing far more information about the user. Their entire life can be backed up to their lifebox.
Which, under the Top Party, leads to a form of digital slavery, especially for those who physically died and no longer have a body. To pay the rent to continue to exist on the server, they must take gig work, often controlling ball walkers or other low-intelligence kritters (such as eight-legged spider cabs).
The title, by the way, is based on how the digital entity existing in a lifebox gets “juice” from being linked with a living being — ideally to the human the lifebox is a copy of, but almost any living being provides some “juice”. This aligns with the notion that our brain needs to be in a physical body to function properly. Many researchers in the field of AI have pondered the necessity of providing physicality to enable true machine intelligence (assuming such a thing is even possible).
I’ve only scratched the surface of this adventure. The story moves along at a fast pace. I was so caught up in it that I read nearly the entire novel in one sitting. I finished the last chapter the next day.
As the blurb promised, there’s a happy ending, including some cathartic aspects for those badly dismayed by the dishonesty and cruelty of the previous administration. If only life imitated art. I’m very stingy with Wow! ratings (I grade on the curve), but this one comes very close. I give an easy and strong Ah! (or a borderline Wow!) rating. Certainly, one of the more enjoyable science fiction books I’ve read recently.
(I quibble because the writing style and technology may not appeal to every reader as much as they do to me. For me personally, I’d give it a soft Wow! rating.)
In general, if you like cyberpunk, and you’ve liked Gibson or Sterling, but have never read Rucker, I recommend checking him out. Rucker, much more than his two cofounders, writes a bit tongue-in-cheek. He’ll make you smile, and his stories tend to have aspiration and upbeat endings. It’s a nice change from the more common dystopic cyberpunk ethos.
Above, I mentioned Rucker’s book Mind Tools and how significant it was to me. See my posts L26 and L27 and Beyond for just one of the big takeaways I got from that book. Very briefly, it’s the notion that any text (or digital file) can be viewed as a single very big number.
For example, “Wyrd Smythe” — in the simple L27 encoding scheme — is the number 4,931,261,828,415,914 (nearly five quadrillion, which is one-quarter of the total number of ants in the world). Obviously, books and files make much huger numbers. B³ numbers (Big Beyond Belief).
Stay juicy, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.
February 25th, 2023 at 9:15 am
Seriously, I wish someone could tell me why everyone hates the movie Johnny Mnemonic so much. As far as I can tell, it’s because everyone else does, and people are just running with the crowd. It’s actually a fun, and I’ve always thought pretty good, movie.
Someone once suggested the fanciful notion that it’s because people hate movies with “Johnny” in the title. There is some supporting evidence this might actually have a grain of truth. People also seem to universally and reflexively (and without a good explanation) to hate Johnny Dangerously, a 1984 comedy by Amy Heckerling. This one is even more inexplicable to me because it’s a really fun comedy and Heckerling has done some delightful movies, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless.
People (or perhaps, for once, I actually “sheeple”) are weird. There is also a reflexive hatred for Waterworld, the 1995 Sci-Fi movie starring Kevin Costner (and Jeanne Tripplehorn and Dennis Hopper at his over-the-top best). It’s a pretty fun SF adventure film.
In all three cases, no one has ever offered a particularly cogent reason for the hate.