The Ware books mark another chapter in my quest to read the cyberpunk standard works. As chronicled before, I came into this blog project with an intense love of what I thought cyberpunk to be, without actually knowing much beyond Neuromancer or Shadowrun. Rudy Rucker was near the top of my Must Read list; last summer I finally girded myself up for the slightly daunting Ware series. (Any time four books are crammed into one compendium, the length is intimidating.) Rucker’s place in Cyberpunkia is a bit like Graham Chapman’s in Monty Python: a true anarchist among a group of mere zany genius. Even compared to Bruce Sterling, no mainstream denizen himself, Rucker is gonzo, his books somehow distilling cutting edge math and computer science with hallucinogenic depravity.
In fact, taken in terms of cyberpunk, the Ware saga was almost impossible to parse. Neo-noir Asian cities are replaced by Louisville; AI and sinister cyberspace denizens give way to robots that smell of cheese; black leather and mirror shades are far outnumbered by Bermuda shorts and surf boards. Very little of Rucker’s seething, squishy near-future has anything to do with, say, Chiba City. It wasn’t until I listened to this episode of the Coode Street Podcast that I understood the difference between the Cyberpunk Movement and the cyberpunk genre. (Coode Street, by the way, is required listening for anyone wanting to make sense of SFF as a whole.) Once I saw this, everything made sense. Rucker is part of the Movement, but the Ware books are most definitely not in the genre.
To summarize Coode Street (and plenty of other scholarly types), the Cyberpunk Movement arose in the early 1980s not as a bunch of authors deciding to write about the internet, but as a bunch of authors reacting to the blockbuster SF of the 1970s that seemed to ignore the advances of the New Wave, using instead the basic tropes and assumptions of Golden Age SF. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Niven and Pournelle, would be Example #1 of the offending stuff. The early cyberpunks disavowed the Golden Age world view like the New Wave before them, then wrote stories that reflected the new realities of the 1980s. It is perhaps coincidental that Neuromancer codified what would later become the cyberpunk genre, while the author was attempting something else entirely. Ware fits in neatly with this narrative, much more so than with any attempt to reconcile Rucker’s boppers with Gibson’s hackers.
Ware is in fact a direct response to that most venerable and hoary SF warhorse, Asimov’s I, Robot. Why, asks Rucker, should these self-aware entities subject themselves to the blatantly human centered and human serving Laws of Robotics? Rucker is also anticipating the singularity dialogue, which like Asimov tends to assume that AI will naturally be more rational than and coldly superior to our feeble brains. The Ware robots short circuit the Laws of Robotics early on, seeing no good reason to be humanity’s benevolent slaves, and quickly prove to be every bit as petty and illogical as their creators. The robots have no shortage of zany plots, leading to scenes of brain-eating robots driving around in ice cream trucks, a loopy take down of Stranger in a Strange Land, and drugs that literally turn users into puddles. We visit, in addition to the previously mentioned cyberpunk hotbed of Louisville, a part of Florida ceded by the US to cranky geezers, the robot controlled Moon, a dilapidated Santa Cruz, a Bay Area where Silicon Valley never happened and the population of weirdos held steady, and a Tonga that has been visited by aliens.
Adding to the weirdness is Rucker’s professed secondary objective: an exploration of the drug use of the future. The boppers and moldies themselves (the robots of the Ware universe) are a direct counter to Asmiov, but the rest of the books blithely cross SF with Jack Kerouac and Naked Lunch, all with, to quote Weird Al Yankovic, “just a hint of cheese.” The cheese in this case is literal, as the moldies are made of odoriferous soft plastic and attract a certain type of human that gets off on the smell. This is occasionally not for the faint of heart. The merry band of hippies, stoners, surf bums, and computer programmers is led by one Sta-Hi, whose name should give some indication of what might be going on. It is very difficult to overstate the weirdness going on here.
And yet, there are some serious questions underneath the multiple layers of depravity. Rucker’s trademark math wizardry is present, as well as sidelong commentary on American race relations and our capacity to handle prosperity. By the fourth book, the reader realizes that it’s not all drug-fueled craziness. All of the intelligences on display reflect our own idiosyncrasies and foibles, some more sympathetically than others. Nobody in Ware, from Sta-Hi on down, will be recorded in the annals of our most valiant heroes, but they all have something to say about the way we treat each other.
Condensing the entirety of The Ware Tetralogy is a bit of a hopeless task. The story careens from cyberpunk to social commentary to hallucinogenic drug use to bizarre comedy in the space of one or two paragraphs and utterly frustrates attempts at summary. It is not perhaps for everyone. The target audience however, will appreciate the ride. Rucker doesn’t seem to get the press that Gibson or Sterling does, probably because he is so out there, but he is an integral part of their clique. Ware is perhaps his greatest achievement and deserves wider recognition; it is required reading for any serious student of contemporary SF.
Rating: This is taxing me severely. Are there any beat poets of football in the UK? Perhaps an iconic chronicle of debased hooligan culture?