Finding God among the aliens

Cyberpunk author Rudy Rucker explores the mysticism of the cosmos, while dreaming of "mindfaxing" and pet dinosaurs.


Mark Dery
June 30, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Rudy Rucker -- who once told Jerry Falwell's "Vice Ayatollah" Cal Thomas to his face that "Christ sent me here to take you and Jerry out!" -- has found God.

Mercifully, the Revelation to Rudy, chronicled in his new novel "Saucer Wisdom," is just the sort of spiritual epiphany you'd expect from a seminal cyberpunk writer and professor of computer science at San Jose State University.

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Lying on a hilltop, recollecting his dream of a flying saucer "sketched in lines of pale light against a blue sky," Rucker remembers the Pythagorean belief that "the whole air is full of souls." He writes, "I felt the sun beating down on my closed eyelids, filling my eyes with bright light. God is everywhere, I thought, trying the notion on. God can hear me. And finally, for the first time in years, I let myself pray ... "

Not that "Saucer Wisdom" is "The Celestine Prophecy" for cyberpunks. Rucker's sensibility is a combination of gonzo humor, fictionalized autobiography in the Kerouacian mode (what Rucker calls "transrealism"), and the sheer, bugs-in-your-teeth thrill of scientific extrapolation taken to blitz-punk extremes. He's equally at ease with chaos science, cellular automata, live sex shows and ghostly visitations from Philip K. Dick (his mind-stretching new nonfiction collection, "Seek!," includes essays on these very subjects).

It's no surprise, then, that "Saucer Wisdom" is an antic romp through weird science and quantum mysticism on the eve of the millennium. The novel chronicles the time-traveling escapades of a harebrained alien abductee named Frank Shook, as told to the narrator, one Rudy Rucker.

Rucker records Shook's visions of things to come, glimpsed during his saucer rides into the future: "limpware engineering" (squishy, slithery machines made of programmable plastic), "mindfaxing," pet dinosaurs, "piezoplastic sewer slugs" -- all this and quark-flipping, too. (Quark-flipping is the sci-fi alchemy that enables Rucker's future-dwellers to fabricate virtually anything, from gold to chicken soup, out of thin air by changing protons into neutrons.)

More than anything, though, "Saucer Wisdom" is an unabashed account of the author's evolution from caustic agnostic into a cyberpunk who has made his peace with God -- or some post-Einsteinian version thereof.

According to an alien named Herman (only in a Rucker novel!), the universe itself is a living organism. "The cosmic-background radiation is the One Mind," he tells Frank Shook. "The vibrations of God are always present, just like the radio waves that encrypt interstellar travelers such as me. God is always prepared to appear within you if only you open your ... your heart." Was that beam of light that blasted Saul on the road to Damascus a "skull-etching information ray" from time-warping aliens? Only Rudy Rucker knows for sure.

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Science fiction, cyberspirituality and "the cosmic fractal of real life" were just a few of the ideas we volleyed back and forth in a flurry of e-mails this June.

I was stunned to hear pearls of cosmic wisdom such as "God is love" from the lips of a man who once used pages torn from a Gideon Bible for rolling papers. Can you offer any helpful hints for readers trying to reconcile the wise-ass skepticism of your earlier works with the wide-eyed mysticism of "Saucer Wisdom?"

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I've been interested in mysticism ever since I first heard the word in college. Mysticism in the sense of attaining direct contact with God, or the one or the divine nature of the universe. The eye on the top of the pyramid. The white light. Any problems I've ever had with organized religion have been caused by political differences rather than religious or theological differences.

In and of itself, there's no reason why Christianity should be associated with right-wing politics. Indeed, in the 1960s some of the most dedicated anti-Vietnam War activists were Roman Catholic priests. So it always grates when one sees Christ used as a poster-boy for right-wing political interests. It's comparable, in a way, to how Apple has been systematically using pictures of great thinkers to promote their style of machine. There's no intrinsic connection between Einstein and the Macintosh, just as there's no connection between Jesus Christ and the Republican party.

This said, I will grant that, regardless of anything having to do with politics, I'm more comfortable with religion than I used to be. I've always believed in a cosmic absolute, but only recently did I start feeling like it could make sense to pray. I would, by the way, take exception to your knee-jerk characterization of mysticism as "wide-eyed." One can in fact have a quite practical and, if you will, "narrow-eyed" reason for choosing to believe that God is everywhere and that God will help you if you ask: This kind of belief makes it easier to be alive.

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Critics often discuss your books in the same breath as cyberpunk novels by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Even so, your fiction has always struck me as more cyberdelic than cyberpunk. There's a playfulness to your writing that's in short supply in most cyberpunk, a Silly-Putty sense of the absurd that seems to descend from underground comix and pot-head humor on one hand and the thought-experiments of physicists like Schrodinger and Feynman on the other. Who are your literary precedents in SF and outside it?

I've often said that my work might more accurately be termed "transreal" than cyberpunk, "transreal" being a word that I coined to mean science fiction based on one's immediate life and daily perceptions. But certainly I have a lot of affinity with the cyberpunks. They're my friends, they're my favorite SF writers, I collaborate with them, and so on. In self-aggrandizing moments I think of us as an '80s version of the Beats. The Beats were indeed some of my biggest literary influences, also Thomas Pynchon and Jorge Luis Borges.

Growing up, my favorite SF writer was Robert Sheckley. He wrote wonderful short stories, which were real and funny and had gnarly science twists. And the main characters were often bumbling, flummoxed men whom one sensed were very much like the author himself. I eventually got to meet Sheckley; in 1982, he turned up in a camper van at my house in Lynchburg, Va., and lived in our driveway for a week. I can't remember exactly how he happened to come there; he'd read my "White Light" and he liked me. It was like a miracle to have Sheckley in my driveway, the great SF hero of my youth here in, as it were, his space cruiser.

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To return to the theme of spirituality, the shelves are groaning, these days, with books on techno-transcendentalism, such as Margaret Wertheim's "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace," which considers the mythologization of cyberspace as "a technological substitute for the Christian space of Heaven," and Jennifer Cobb's "Cybergrace: The Search for God in the Digital World." As someone who shuttles effortlessly between spiritual epiphanies and fractal geometry, what do you make of this stuff?

A few of them are good, but many don't have much content. The author talks to a bunch of experts and then strains for an epiphany, which is normally some very familiar received idea, written in italics. But I just finished "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace," and it was terrific.

Wertheim, for one, does have a clear, original, provocative idea. She talks about how the invention of perspective in the Renaissance gave people a mental tool for thinking of space as an undivided unity. She points out that once we had the idea of space, it was possible to develop physics. And this had the effect, says Wertheim, of crowding God and the angels out of our physical cosmos. She feels that in modern times we have begun to think of heaven as lying not in physical space but in cyberspace. As an example of this tendency she cites the science fictional notion of uploading your mind into a computer, as in my Ware books. [Rucker is referring to his interrelated SF novels: "Freeware," "Wetware," and "Software."]

I recently gave a talk called "The Dimensionality of Cyberspace" at the Public Netbase Project in Vienna. I extended Wertheim's line of thought a bit to come up with the following analogy: perspective is to physical space as cyberspace is to mental space. My point is that hyperlinked Web pages may serve as a good tool for creating models of how the human mind works. Both the Web and the human mind have a fractal quality; that is, if you start out to go from A to B, you tend to end up detouring into C, and then into D, E and on beyond Z.

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Speaking of fractals, much of your writing looks for the meaning of life in what you call "the cosmic fractal of real life." In "Seek!," you see patterns, patterns everywhere: in the ripples on a swimming pool's surface; in tree shadows; in the "arabesque two-dimensional curves" in Bruegel's painting, Peasant Dance. I have difficulty harmonizing your cybernetic vision of the cosmos as a "huge parallel computation" with your conviction, in "Saucer Wisdom," that "God is everywhere, and if you ask, God will help you." The latter seems like a humanist holdover; the former a post-human theology for an age of intelligent machines. How do they square? Or do they?

I see the universe as everywhere filled with beautiful computing that generates much of what we might think to be designed. Patterns emerge from the iterations, lovely ones. It's how things work. Parallelism, iteration, feedback. So who needs God? It's the old super-ultimate question: Why is there something instead of nothing? So, granted, there has to be some white light, some cosmic "a-ha," some ground of all being. But is it just a spark, or is this ultimate in any way an approachable mind, a possible friend or even lover? A couple of years ago I decided, after all these years, to suppose that God might actually heed a human prayer and could indeed give a person strength. Believing this, when I remember to, makes me feel happier than I used to.


Mark Dery

Mark Dery's latest book, "The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink," was published by Grove Press this year.

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