Getting Transreal: An Interview with Rudy Rucker

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Few living sci-fi writers are as quietly influential as Rudy Rucker. The recipient of the first-ever Philip K. Dick Award, he is best known for the Ware series, that seminal cyberpunk tetraology, but he’s written dozens more  novels in a variety of genres, not to mention influential works of non-fiction. He also founded and defined science fiction’s Transrealist movement, which some argue has become a crucial element of modern-day genre writing.

The world may finally be waking up to Rucker’s distinct and unique genius: publisher Night Shade Books has declared 2019 the “Year of Rudy Rucker,” launching a campaign to boost his profile by republishing nine of his novels alongside his first new book in half a decade, a work that early reviews indicate might be a new Rucker classic: Million Mile Road Trip.

We caught up with Rucker over email to ask him about the new book, his old books, and whether or not he’s ever watched Rick and Morty.

This is Night Shade’s “Year of Rudy Rucker,” which, to this genre reader, feels way overdue. You’ve published 23 novels—where would you recommend a Rucker newbie get started?

Yep, Night Shade is issuing 10 books by me this year—nine reprints along with Million Mile Road Trip. A matching set of print books with great covers. I’m not sure I’d say this is way overdue, but I’m really glad it’s happening. If you’re an author, having your books in print is the blood of life. Which of my books to start with? Whichever one you get your hands on. I do like Mathematicians in Love a lot. And Saucer Wisdom is a hoot. But this week I’m gonna say that Million Mile Road Trip is a good place to start! Could be the best book I ever wrote.

Million Mile Road Trip seems like it takes inspiration, in part, from both Kerouac and Pynchon—with maybe a snort of Rick and Morty—your word “smeel” evokes “shleem” from that show a bit. Were they in your mind while you were writing?
For sure I thought about Jack Kerouac and Thomas Pynchon—Kerouac for his flow and his cosmic yea-saying. And Pynchon for the humor and long sentences and his use of the present tense. The SF cartoon show Rick and Morty has escaped my keen attention thus far, but I’ll check it out—I’m a huge Futurama fan.

The word “smeel” is one I’ve used before in my SF. Sometimes I invent words and they hang around like pets. To me, “smeel” sounds inherently funny. It’s a somewhat slimy and perhaps ethereal substance that fills up empty spaces in your body or brain. A parasite who’s latched onto you might say, “Our smeel is one.”

Your companion book, Notes for Million Mile Road Trip, is actually longer than the novel! The idea of following up reading a novel with that kind of metadata is fascinating; can you tell us more about it?

It’s hard to write a novel. It takes a year or maybe two years of tickling the keyboard at your desk or using a laptop in a cafe, and doing that pretty much every day, even on the days when you don’t know what comes next. This is where writing a volume of notes comes in. When I don’t have anything to put into the novel, I write something in the notes. I might analyze the possibilities for the next few scenes. Or craft journal entries about things I saw [that day]. Or describe some the people sitting around me, being careful not to stare at them too hard. Or think about how hopeless it is to try to write another novel, and how I’ve been faking it all along anyhow. The more I complain in my notes, the better I feel. I publish the finished Notes in parallel with with the novel, not that I sell many copies of the notes. Long-term, the notes will be fodder for the locust swarm of devoted Rucker scholars who are due to emerge any time now from their curiously long gestation in the soil.

What’s amazing about your books is the way you take some pretty high-level math and science and twist it into a rollicking sci-fi adventure. How do you manage that balance?
I’m blessed with a knack for drawing on both sides of my brain—the techy science side, and the dreamy literary side. I always wanted to be a writer. I was a huge fan of the SF master Robert Sheckley, and of the Beat author William Burroughs. And Jorge Luis Borges and Thomas Pynchon. And Flannery O’Connor. I studied math in college and grad school. Math always appealed to me. So clear and so intricate—the hidden machinery of the world.

It is, as you say, a delicate balance to have a book be lively, with romance and fun characters—and also to have it be based on logical science ideas. In studying math, I learned about starting out with some set of assumptions like, say, Euclid’s postulates or the axioms of transfinite set theory—starting out with a set of rules and then deducing what follows from them. In my SF novels, I’ll make some wild, far-out initial assumptions. But from then on it’s logical, and I get to see what ends up happening. I don’t really know in advance, not before I write the novel. That way its surprising and fun. I’m not trying to teach things to my readers. I want them to be amazed and to laugh and to be carried away.

You’ve been called a groundbreaker in genre—from your foundational writing in cyberpunk and transrealism, to being the winner of the first Philip K. Dick Award ever. What’s your take on the modern state of sci-fi, and what do you see for the future of the genre?
I’m not much involved with factions and fashions in the SF community—although I do have my old cabal of cyberpunks, transrealists, and the writers I published when I was running my webzine Flurb.

An odd recent phenomenon is that lots of mainstream authors are writing SF, but they won’t admit it’s SF. Lifelong literary-SF writers like me find this… irritating. It’s like the upper crust authors can dip down into our world, but they don’t want to let us out. Even if we’re writing high lit. I always think of Kurt Vonnegut’s line, “I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled ‘science fiction’… and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”

It’s been 36x years since you published A Transrealist Manifesto, and some argue that with the mainstreaming of sci-fi into popular-culture, we’ve reached a turning point, and transrealism will soon be the baseline for all sci-fi stories. Do you agree, or is it more complicated than that?
The idea behind transrealism it that you write in a fairly realistic way about your life and your feelings and about the lives of those around you—but then you bring in SF elements that can stand for subtextual aspects of your mental life. Like time travel stands for nostalgia and hope, and uploading your mind to a computer stands for going to heaven, and telepathy stands for someone actually understanding what the eff you’re talking about. Aliens stand for people from different backgrounds—when you come down to it, everyone’s background is different, and everyone you ever meet is an alien. Or maybe a zombie or a robot. The SF tropes are objective correlatives for things we have trouble writing about. And, yes, this transreal approach can be a baseline for present-day lit.

You’re considered a founding force in cyberpunk, and transrealism can be seen as a refinement or a response to cyberpunk; how do you view the genre today? Any new writers you consider true cyberpunks?
I’ll mention some cyberpunk authors who aren’t exactly new, but they’re younger than me.

  • Charles Stross’s Accelerando is a feast, an extravaganza, and one of the most important novels of the 21st Century thus far.
  • Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway is a revelation, a deeply imagined design for a new society.
  • Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous pops open the cyberpuzzle of who the robots, androids, and humans are.
  • Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas is the most radical novel I’ve seen in years—a call to arms.
  • Madeline Ashby’s Company Town is a wonderful evocation of the dark cyber near-future vibe.
  • The merry and demonic Charlie Jane Anders’s The City in the Middle of the Night is next on my reading list; I never know what she’ll do.
  • And while I’m at it: a shout-out for Ursula Le Guin and The Left Hand of Darkness. So heavy, so eye-opening, so hypnotic.

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?

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 170 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.

Unlike a lot of sci-fi, your writing often seems driven by a desire not to just be amazed, but to understand; your fiction is stuffed with details about science, math, and often obscure pockets of the world. What current obsessions are making their way into your work?
This takes us into the thought-experiment aspect of science fiction. When you turn your speculations into an SF story or novel, you go deep. You live in that imaginary world with your characters for weeks or months or even years. You unearth unforeseen glitches, and you move to higher levels of strange. Before I write a novel, I need an idea for something odd that I want to see happening.

One thing on my mind lately has been telepathy—I call it “teep.” I think it’s technically close enough that I could write about a teep business startup. And I see a way to make it new. Another beckoning theme is politics. It’s stressful to write about that stuff. But these days, there’s a feeling that authors should speak up. So I plan to edit a special political SF issue of Flurb later this summer.

Looking further ahead, I want to write about a heretofore unnoticed force of nature. It’s at the subquantum level. It relates to dark energy, and to consciousness. And once we get it tune with it, we’ll have all the free energy we need, and we’ll be able to live inside electrons, like in my novel Jim and the Flims, and to predict the future from soap films, like in Mathematicians in Love, and to levitate, like in Million Mile Road Trip, and to talk to rocks, like in Hylozoic. But I know there’s something more than even that, something wilder and deeper, something super new that will, in retrospect, seem obvious and natural. We’ll be like, why didn’t we think of that before? I hope the muse shows me.

You’ve been a professional writer and a publisher for decades; how has the business of getting your words out there changed in that time?
The biggest new thing is the ebook. Ebooks are literary immortality; they don’t ever go out of print. And writers can publish ebooks themselves for free. Not only that, writers can publish print books for free, too. And you can sell your self-published ebooks and paperbacks on big online sites such as Barnes & Noble. Personal freedom to publish to the world audience is a huge deal. No gatekeepers.

The catch, however, is that if you self-pub, it’s hard getting people to notice you. Including my nonfiction, I’ve published about forty books. And the first thirty or so were from commercial publishers. But in 2012, the publishers temporarily turned their backs on me. Like, “We’ve heard enough out of you!.” But I wasn’t ready to quit. And thanks to the new channels, I didn’t have to. I learned how to self-pub my own ebooks and paperbacks—I did my Collected Stories, my Journals, three novels, and an art book. I call my imprint Transreal Books. I ran Kickstarters for the self-pub books, which took the place of getting publishers’ advances. It was a lot of work.

And now, hallelujah, Night Shade Books has taken me into their fold. I’m back in the tribe and off the ice floe. I’m glad.

We’re glad, too—the world needs easy access to Rucker’s unique brand of sci-fi lunacy. Million Mile Road Trip is available now.

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