Mathematicians in Love
Tor: 364 pp., $24.95
The Uncollected Short Stories
Thunder's Mouth: 320 pp., $15.95 paper
IN the Rudy Rucker universe, giant cone-shelled mollusks cross into parallel universes and devour brains to chit-chat with humans, characters shout out sentences like "Hyperspace safari" just to sound cool and a Web-based reality show called "The Crazy Mathematician" is the latest sensation among tech-savvy hipsters. These are some of the outlandish details to be found in Rucker's latest novel, "Mathematicians in Love," which ostensibly concerns itself with two students hoping to make a big kill by way of a scientific breakthrough, and "Mad Professor," his most recent volume of short stories.
It's not all as preposterous as it seems, in part because Rucker's enthusiasm is infectious. He is an author determined to entertain by any means necessary. And that can mean characters spontaneously deciding to change gender through thaumatology or the 57th form of Franz Kafka bickering with his predecessors, among other lawless leitmotifs that grab the reader by the lapels.
Rucker, part of the initial wave of cyberpunk authors that includes Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, was a professor of mathematics and computer science for much of his life and has remained a prolific fiction writer for nearly 30 years. While Rucker's fields of expertise have inspired most of his fiction, his stories are also indebted to the wit gracefully executed by the late Robert Sheckley, to whom Rucker has dedicated "Mad Professor."
In his introduction to "Mad Professor," Rucker cites four factors that spawn his stories: thought experiments, power chords, gnarliness and wit. In other words, Rucker isn't just a hard-core science geek but a true-blue Californian. In fact, it's almost impossible to read a Rucker book without encountering the word "gnarly." One component unmentioned here is the Rucker-styled "transrealism," a form of poetic realism in which Rucker draws upon personal experience, melding this with a speculative fiction-plot staple, such as time travel or a parallel universe. This generates, by way of the weld, symbolic and often perceptive narratives sometimes atoning for genre implausibilities.
This is not to suggest that Rucker's results are entirely successful or even entirely perceptive. His short stories, particularly those contained within "Mad Professor," are often hit or miss. This is largely because Rucker's results are reminiscent of a bawdier Chuck Jones cartoon on mescaline. One story features Edgar Allan Poe resurfacing on a male appendage. Another tale, "Cobb Wakes Up," has the title character jumping from body to computer to body, assimilating the consciousness of all the forms. Upon waking up in a new host, Cobb is greeted by a man who says, "Yee-haw and flubba geep. I'm Chunky, the seven-moldie grex who's running this emulation." This isn't the most comforting thing to hear when getting your corporeal bearings, and it reflects Rucker's occasional tendency to trawl along the narrative's surface instead of delving into a story's social possibilities. But for every misfire, there's a charming story like "2+2=5" (written with Terry Bisson), in which two elderly ex-professors, aiming to beat a global counting record, discover an unexpected quality within numbers.
The collection contains another tale, "Guadalupe and Hieronymus Bosch," with a promising premise: The great artist Bosch is kidnapped and displaced into the present day, with the world, as a result, a more mirthless place. Unfortunately, Rucker's tendency to generalize about women bogs down the story, whose first sentence reads: "As an unemployed, overweight, unmarried, overeducated woman with a big mouth, I don't have a lot of credibility." Credible or not, with Connie Willis, Kelly Link and Ursula K. Le Guin scintillating in a male-dominated field, it's disconcerting to see an imaginative writer like Rucker resorting to unimaginative stereotypes.
Much like those of his precursor Philip K. Dick, Rucker's narrative skills fare better in his novels, where his idea-meshing shines and where the format forces him to find focus. "Mathematicians in Love" doesn't always possess the high-octane thrust of previous novels such as "Spaceland" and "The Hacker and the Ants" and takes a plodding detour into an inter-dimensional limbo known as La Hampa. But it is, for the most part, an invigorating entertainment laced with satirical riffs on rock 'n' roll, surfing and the emerging medium of vlogs (video blogs) now found prominently on YouTube.
A Hungarian-Chinese PhD student named Bela Kis (the latest in Rucker's array of Pynchon-like character names) narrates the book. Bela is on the cusp of discovering a theorem that will allow him to peer into the future, anticipating the weather forecast or, in a less innocuous mind-set, tracking the stock market's outlook and striking it rich. The mathematicians in question bear wry similarities to Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs during the early days of Apple Computer. They are often more in love with their studying than they are with women. "I don't want to flirt. I want to do math," notes Paul, the Wozniak-like technician to Bela's Jobs-like conceptualist.
The novel is set in a parallel universe closely resembling the San Francisco Bay Area, with Bela often addressing the audience as "Dear Reader." It's an interesting homage to Thackeray that doesn't quite pay off. The problem with settling upon gnarliness is that the parallel universe here is more inspired by a cheesy episode of "Sliders" than the culturally rich alternate worlds within Dan Simmons' "Ilium." Rucker's dimensional terrain is identified almost exclusively by its slightly differing taxonomy (for example, the Heritagists and the Common Ground Party stand in for our two-party system) rather than any social or historical tipping points.
But one doesn't necessarily turn to Rucker for sustained casuistry. Rucker often surrenders his ethical starting points to the ingenious ideas that infiltrate his noggin. One reads Rucker to be entertained, and to observe his characters' freewheeling libertarian principles. Liberty, whether through money, scientific triumph or a casual roll in the hay, is what motivates his characters. Even so, when Alma, the woman with whom the two mathematicians fall in love, tells Bela, "I'm just a shuttlecock in some weird power-badminton game between you and Paul," one can't help but wonder whether this might reveal something about her true narrative role.
Though Rucker may resort to awkward cliches ("vale of tears"), he makes up for this folderol with punchy prose living up to the promised gnarliness and power chords. When a businessman wows Bela with his technological savvy, Bela remarks, "It was a little like seeing John Q. Milquetoast pick up a ukulele and play extreme buzz-saw blitzdreg rock." And Rucker has a cockeyed courage naming an attorney August Cochon and having doctoral candidates base their studies almost exclusively on Dr. Seuss.
If rock 'n' roll is the muse lighting Rucker's fire, then "Mathematicians in Love" is, particularly in its first half, a bona-fide conflagration. But since Rucker is a dependable geyser of ideas, it's a mystery why the man can't plunge deeper into the reservoir. "Master of Space and Time" coupled "One Thousand and One Nights" with the pursuit of science. Substantial chunks of "Mathematicians in Love" and a few of the stories in "Mad Professor" suggest similar connections between transrealism and mythology. But if Rucker is no Moliere, he's at least still good for some bright burlesque. *