"Seek!": Rudy Rucker yearns for gnarliness

All that exists in that edge between order and disorder is gnarly and delightful, in the latest essays from the sci-fi writer.

Published June 30, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When the Internet burst into the public consciousness five years ago, it was a bit of a jolt for writers of cyberpunk science fiction and their devotees. Ever since 1984, when William Gibson published "Neuromancer," geeks everywhere had dreamed of a place where their tech-addicted lives were cool. They idolized Gibson's Johnny Mnemonic, Bruce Sterling's shapers and mechanists and Rudy Rucker's Sta-Hi -- tough, yet quirky types who navigated carnivalesque worlds drenched in virtual reality, cybernetics, pop culture, drugs, sex and anarchy.

Suddenly, fantasy was becoming reality. Everybody wanted to be online. "Technology as lifestyle" magazines like Wired, Mondo 2000 and Boing Boing appeared. Ordinary people, people in the suburbs, started having Net sex and hanging out in newsgroups and reading books with titles like "Virtual Community" and "The Cyberpunk Handbook." Geeks were in demand -- not just in the job market but on television. On television! To be interviewed by the expensively hairdo'd former cheerleaders who'd once seemed tangible only within the confines of 2 a.m. masturbational fever-dreams! It was unreal.

All this had kind of a funny effect on the prognosticators. Of course, their books were read more widely than ever before -- and they were invited to ride the wave, to consult on sci-fi films and write magazine articles about the high-tech world. But that insiderism corroded vision. Cyber novels in the '90s haven't had as many jazzy new ideas in them as the early books did. The big ideas are still there, but '90s cyberpunk -- Gibson's "Idoru" (1995), Sterling's "Holy Fire" (1996), Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age" (1995) -- has by and large continued to mull over concepts introduced a decade ago. And with the real world mainstreaming the Net world as fast as it can, it's begun to look as though the deeper potential of cyberpunk, the philosophical freak-outs the movement promised, will never be realized on a large scale.

That's why cyberpunk icon Rudy Rucker calls his new nonfiction collection "Seek!" The command is distilled from "Seek ye the gnarl," a typically wacked-out catchphrase he came up with while writing a manual for artificial life software -- software that allows computers to simulate the behavior of living cells.

"'Gnarl' is being used here in the sense of 'gnarly,' which is one of my favorite words now that I live in California," he writes in the introduction to "Seek." "I use it to apply to things that have a level of chaos that is tuned right to the boundary between order and disorder." To seek the gnarl, therefore, is to look for that level of chaos in everything. Anybody can seek the gnarl, and should, Rucker believes -- for to do so makes one a cultural saboteur.

Finding and maintaining chaos is Rucker's answer to the forces that would normalize his ideas. The ubiquity of this organized disorder is such a trippy idea, it's inherently resistant to mainstream assimilation. It's also a totalizing philosophy. As is clear throughout "Seek," Rucker believes gnarliness to be the defining quality of life, the universe and everything -- even human thought. He sums this up in "California New Edge," an essay originally published as the introduction to Mondo 2000's "1992 User's Guide to the New Edge:"

"A potentially infinite information structure can emerge from one simple equation, if the equation is iteratively coupled to a repetitive computation," he writes. "And THAT could very well be how the world is made, you dig, a simple rule plus lots and lots of computation. The world's 'rule' is the Secret of Life and the world's 'computer' is matter -- pursuing the analogy another step, the 'system software' for the world's 'computer' is physics."

Rucker reiterates this metaphor of the world as a computer throughout "Seek." In essays written over a decade he returns again and again to gnarliness, finding it in a dizzying array of situations and questions. His favorite metaphor for all things gnarly is the Mandelbrot Set, that mystically complex, surprisingly deep, yet mathematically definable icon of chaos theory. It pops up repeatedly in his essays, whether he's writing about chaos itself or life in California or visiting Japan. And the ideas exemplified by the Mandelbrot Set are visible in virtually every "Seek" here, which are themselves chaotically various, yet united by common themes.

With giddy self-confidence, Rucker pontificates about nanotechnology, complex mathematics, Japan's high-tech culture, the oddities of Silicon Valley, artificial life, chip fabrication plants and hacking code -- and about drugs, hiking in Yosemite, mysticism, scuba diving in the South Pacific, Pieter Bruegel, Jerry Falwell, Ivan Stang and a dog named Arf. The implicit message is one that's popular among techies: If you have a certain set of tools, you can master anything.

Your reaction to this maxim will probably have a lot to do with where you're coming from. Anyone who's devoted significant time to studying history and literature will chuckle incredulously at, for example, Rucker's hygienic formula for assessing literary value. As a humanities person myself, I'm impelled to quote it at some length in hopes of spurring a chorus of obloquy among my fellows:

The information in a pattern P is equal to the length of the shortest computer program that can generate P. This quantity, also known as algorithmic complexity, can be defined quite precisely and rigorously. If I find a certain SF novel about cats in outer space stupid and boring, it may not just be that I don't like cats. It may be that the book really is stupid and boring, as can be witnessed by the fact that the book has a very low information-theoretic complexity ... If I say something is boring, it's not just my cruelty speaking. It's objective fact. Something either has a lot of information or it doesn't. And if it doesn't have much information, it's a waste of time.

This sounds like a blueprint for self-satisfied sterility. Oddly, though, Rucker and many other cyberpunks couple such faith in overarching order with a decidedly unruly approach to society. Rucker conducts his life in a spirit of '60s-style anarchy: taking drugs, shrugging off momentary hankerings for wealth and status, deliberately irritating the powerful. With such experiences to draw on, his autobiographical writings are ceaselessly effervescent. He tells of wandering around New York City in a druggy daze, contemplating God while hiking in the mountains, fumbling with Japanese culture during a visit there -- all in fast-moving, colorful prose that dances and sparkles with life.

In one memorable passage he recounts how he gave the finger to his neighbor, Moral Majority leader Cal Thomas. "Christ sent me here to take you and Jerry [Falwell] out!" he shouted drunkenly. Beset with remorse two days later, Rucker dropped off an apologetic letter and a copy of his book "Infinity and the Mind." ("I was nervous doing this, as Friday he'd intimated he'd shoot me if I ever stepped on his property again.") Thomas responded graciously with a letter of his own and a copy of his book, "Book Burning." And so a tacit peace was reached -- though Rucker notes that shortly thereafter, Falwell spoke out against "this poisonous rot," science fiction.

"Seek" is full of goofy stories like this interspersed with optimistic reports on cool new technologies. Together they make this collection, much of which was written in the late '80s and early '90s, an extended flashback to the Net's carefree period. Its bad-boy quality is a welcome antidote to the banal avarice that's enervated the tech world. In an era when silicon millionaires devote their time to attending stuporous parties and dreaming up ever-more-garish ways to squander wealth, it's nice to be reminded of the radical promise the Internet once held.

Interestingly, though, such radicalism seems to go hand in hand with scientific arrogance, both in Rucker's book and in the real world. Are they inextricably intertwined? It's hard to say. They're certainly closely related, as Rucker's description of the impact of the modern computer revolution shows.

"Thanks to high-tech and the breakdown of society, you're free to turn your back on the way 'they' do it, whatever it might be, and do it yourself," he writes. "Before hackers it seemed like you needed a factory and an accountant and a bunch of workers before you could actually make something. But in the information economy, you can package it up and ship it right from your home."

A certain arrogance is required for such solitary ventures. It's also, apparently, a factor in Rucker's continuing creation of his wacky worlds. Certainly it took a zealot's stubbornness to forge a new mold for science fiction back in the dead zone of the early '80s. Whether arrogance is necessary to the tech revolution as a whole -- whether the progress of science will inevitably eliminate uncertainty and awe -- remains an open question. Maybe, if they can jar themselves out of their current rut, the cyberpunks will take that up next.

By Etelka Lehoczky

Etelka Lehoczky is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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