The Ware Tetralogy

The Ware Tetralogy
Rudy Rucker

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?

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Strata

Strata
Bradley P. Beaulieu
Stephen Gaskell

I got my copy of Strata from an early giveaway on the excellent Far Beyond Reality blog. It then sat unread on my hard drive for some months, until a trans-Pacific flight prompted me to finally buy a Kindle and set into a few of the ebooks that have been piling up. Strata thus has the honor of being the very first title for my Kindle; I finished it just out of sight of land. Until a couple of years ago, Strata probably wouldn’t have been published on its own. At 70 pages, it is more likely to have been a novella anchoring a short story collection or fix-up, rather than an independent publication. In these electronic days however, one can slap a much lower price tag on and pitch a novella by itself, which is exactly what the authors have done. The story feels just right at its present length, but with a couple hundred pages less to process, my critical reaction is destined to be proportionally shorter.

Strata is what happens when Anakin Skywalker’s pod racing meets the Pullman Strike of 1894, if the resulting offspring were to be marinated in a fiery inferno. The story starts off knee-deep in solar plasma, as two men race through a course that skims dangerously through the outer layers of the sun. They are employees of a massive power station that orbits near the sun, shipping the harvested energy back to a hungry Earth. Management appears to have slept through that part of Trickle Down Economics 101 when students learn that profits eventually make their way to the unwashed masses, as the bosses are perpetrating the usual Management tricks. Tickets to the station are cheap, tickets home are exorbitant, everything costs more than the workers can make, which drives them into a drug-induced and debt-ridden stupor.

From there, racing comes in and out of the story, but most of the narrative follows labor issues. The situation on the largest power station is explosive, to put things mildly, with plottings, secret police, sudden disappearances, turncoats, spies, and other such fun and shadowy stuff. Beaulieu and Gaskell take advantage of the shorter form to keep tension ratcheted up throughout; the novella length allows room to elaborate but prevents reader exhaustion. While the solar racing bits are more creative, the labor unrest is also engaging. The situation is predictable, though the authors prevent things from disintegrating into a Marxist screed. Through it all, the solar racing acts as an anchor for both Labor and Capital, and thus the story as well.

Strata is a good read and certainly worth the small price tag. I’m sold on Beaulieu’s writing and plan to check out the Slavic fantasy trilogy he has out from Nightshade. Hopefully this novella will get enough attention to draw more SF from the pair, as I will certainly give it a read if they deliver.

Rating: The Pacific Futsal Cup. Both the sport and the book are compact, end-to-end action on a smaller scale.

2312

2312
Kim Stanley Robinson

2312 is quite a ways down my reviewing queue, but somehow it has forced its way to the top. I think this means that my subconscious isn’t done with the book yet, since it still clamors for attention a week after I finished reading. 2312 is a complex, demanding novel that rewards the attentive reader with ideas and images that linger long after the last page is read and the book returned to the shelf. At the same time, it is strikingly contemporary; Robinson is taking questions that fill the newspapers today and builds his future history on the answers he finds.

Robinson is not, by his own admission, a writer of nimble or action-packed stories. Much like the magisterial Mars trilogy, 2312 moves at a stately pace, unafraid to pause for reflection, to peek under stones, or to take in the view from a scenic point. There is action, danger, tension, and drama, but they come gradually and over a period of several years of story time. This is the anti-24, an antidote of sanity in a frantic ADHD world. 2312 is more compact than the Mars books, with fewer infodumps and navel-gazing. Brief interludes of historical text, lists, stream of consciousness writing, and other errata serve the same function as a detailed infodump, in fewer words and with a greater conservation of storytelling momentum. Still, the phrase “taut narrative” does not apply.

I must confess parenthetically that, as a frequent shill for greater economy of prose, I feel a bit like the dreaded flip-flopping politician when I praise a Robinson book. In my defense, there are clear differences between bloat, self-indulgence, and quality writing that happens to be dense or slow. There are a lot of words in a Robinson novel, but he means every one of them and it behooves the reader to pay attention.

The story centers primarily around two characters: Swan and Wahram, with a couple of peripheral folks occasionally adding perspective. Swan is an artiste from Mercury who is drawn unwillingly into Solar System politics. Wahram is a diplomat from the Saturnian League who engages with Swan, sometimes in concert, other times in counterpoint. The musical reference is not just metaphorical, as the two actually create music together in a way that reflects their actions through the book. Indeed, music fills a very specific background role throughout 2312, as Beethoven, Brahms, Glass, and others provide the soundtrack. (Again not totally related, but Robinson convinced me to give Phillip Glass another try. Unfortunately, even with the goodwill engendered by the book, I just can’t get into the Glass style of minimalism.)

Swan and Wahram move through a Solar System teeming with human life, investigating a mystery, tracking down a terrorist, helping an environmentally compromised Earth, and teasing out the possibility of an AI singularity; all things that may or may not be related beneath the surface. Again much like the Mars books, Robinson creates a future history that seems so natural and inevitable that one comes away from the novel convinced that The Future can only be like this. He has explained in interviews that this future history is not the same as the trilogy, but the end result is almost identical. The observant reader will note both the divergences and similarities, but also catch an easter egg or two that scramble the multiverse a bit.

The author also borrows ideas liberally from earlier works, most notably the moving city on Mercury, but in many cases these ideas are used because, to Robinson at least, they are the most practical and likely paths that we will walk. Among these are the economic system he proposes, the likely outcomes of current environmental and political problems, and the ultimate uses of asteroids and other space-based resources. The terraforming in particular has been mapped out in several scientific writings, so he’s not really taking gambles there. I have seen a small number of reviews that call out the anti-capitalist bent to Robinson’s book (no surprise there!), but few of them fully address the shortcomings of our current iteration of economic experimentation or the need a space-based society will have not just for new science, but for new social structures. Any serious reader will come away from 2313 with an appreciation for the depth Robinson brings to his universe, though with it comes the danger that books that merely transpose our current society wholesale into the future will satisfy that much less.

Another word I have seen bandied about in discussions of the book is “Utopia.” I am uncertain why people started labeling the 2312 society as such, but I guess in these dark times, any book that is not clearly a near future with an Earth devastated both politically and environmentally is now Utopian. Of course, Earth in 2312 is exactly that, a gargantuan sink hole propped up only by the efforts of those who have escaped into space; a planet full of poor, hungry, and bitter people that are ravaged by war and corruption. Robinson, like many of us, can see no reasonable alternative to this dark future. In space however, all is not lost. Humanity has mined the asteroids, transforming them into hollowed out terrariums that move between the planets. We have seeded some with lost ecosystems, turned others into massive farms, and yet others into interplanetary cruise ships brimming with decadence. Mars has a breathable atmosphere and a temperature warm enough for shirt sleeves, the moons of the gas giants host their own colonies, and even Venus is slowly capitulating to our engineering might. Politics rages, each power center leverages is economic might for its own purposes, and, while war is not a feasible threat in the book (gravity wells and asteroids make for a whole new level of mutual assured destruction), this is no beatific, system-wide harmony.

What this says to me is not utopia, but a throwback to the optimism of Golden Age SF. Problems abound and people are venal, but we have found a way for science to lead us onward. Swan and Wahram don’t find all the answers, nor do they solve even a fraction of the problems facing humanity, but they society they live in is facing forward. I find it depressing that simply asserting, “Science can improve our lives,” is now a Utopian sentiment and suspect that this is behind some recent murmurings in the community about how SF is exhausting itself, isn’t leading the way forward, or just plain isn’t any fun anymore.

This is all just scratching the surface of what is on display in 2312. I could probably write a (very boring) dissertation just on the music and economics, but the above paragraphs should give a passable summary. Despite what may sound like a heavy slog through social science musings, Robinson delivers some truly stunning set pieces. From Terminator, Mercury’s perpetually moving city-on-rails, to views of Saturn from verandas on its moons; space elevators where the passengers all sing Philip Glass operas during the ride to the glittering skyscrapers and Venetian canals of now-flooded Manhattan, 2312 is full of images that promise to remain long after plot details are forgotten. One scene in particular, which I won’t spoil here, will leave Sierra Club members in stunned amazement, wishing fervently that they could be alive to see it happen. Robinson tempts me sorely to have my head frozen, in the vain hope that I can be revived when his history comes inevitably true.

Summing up a major work like this in a blog post is utterly fruitless, but I have tried to capture the scope and depth of the book. In a year of heavy hitters, 2312 stands out as possibly the most impressive SF novel. I would not be surprised to see Robinson cut a swath through the awards, though there will be stiff competition. Regardless, this is a massively important novel. It tells an interesting story, gives us fascinating and complicated characters, addresses the unavoidable challenges facing us while pointing a hopeful way forward, outlines a comprehensive and plausible future, and still manages that all important sense of wonder. Robinson provides the buzz that we crave from SF and the meat that serious readers demand. 2312 is must-read stuff and is heading straight for the SF canon.

Rating: A Champion’s League final. No true fan will want to miss it.