SF Writer Rudy Rucker: Everything Is Computation

Rudy Rucker's novels are fun and funny romps. Rucker leads us through complex, technology-rich, multi-leveled worlds that teach us about how the universe works through the eyes of a mathematician, a scientist, and a humorist. His characters are usually young, hip and unsinkable. But lurking inside all of the playfulness, Rucker's examinations of the characters and characteristics of our time always have satirical bite and a moral center.

Aside from that, he's a great fuckin' guy. I know, because he worked with me on Mondo 2000: A User's Guide to the New Edge. His novels have included The Hacker and the Ants: Version 2.0, Master of Space and Time, and Frek and the Elixir. The most recent of his many non-fiction works was Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to Be Happy. And then there's his delightful new novel, Mathematicians in Love and his new science fiction webzine, Flurb. We talked about these projects in this two-show conversation for NeoFiles.
To listen to the full interview Part 1 in MP3, click here.

To listen to the full interview Part 2 in MP3 click here.

RU Sirius: Here's an early quote from Mathematicians in Love: "The key new insight is that any given dynamical system can be precisely modeled by a wide range of other dynamical systems." And that seems to be central to the mechanism of your novel.

RUDY RUCKER: Yeah. That's a sort of dream of mathematics that emerges every few years. It's emerged as the idea of catastrophe theory. And then again as chaos theory. And then as dynamic systems theory — complexity theory — Wolfram's A New Kind of Science. Basically, there are only a few possible forms that underlie the things that are happening in the world. And the feeling is that if I can sort of strip something like the weather down to its rawest mathematical form, I can then look at that form and I can find another system that actually shares the same pattern. Because if there's only a few little patterns and yet there's so many diverse things in the world — lots of things are actually going to have the same pattern. So a cup of tea can be a perfectly good model for a hurricane. And then, to predict what the hurricane's going to do, all you have to do is prepare your cup of tea so it's in the same state as the hurricane. Then you watch it for a minute and read out where the hurricane's going to be. So you begin to use nature as a kind of computing system. And that's the key idea in the novel. The characters take this gimmick and they're able to make a device that perfectly predicts the future.

RU: As I understand it, the idea is basically that computation is implicit in everything. And we learn how to use that.

RR: Yeah. A lot of the ideas in my recent novels come from Stephen Wolfram's work. Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul was largely about his work. And the basic idea is that any natural process can be regarded as a computation. We define computation in a fairly broad sense to mean any deterministic system that obeys definite laws. And it doesn't have to be digital.

The digital thing is sort of a red herring. We have this idea that being a computer is about being digital. But computers aren't actually digital, OK? They're made of a bunch of electrons. And the electrons are fuzzy analog wave functions.

So you can look at a brook or an air current and you can say, "That's doing something complex." And if you look at the natural world, there are four kinds of things that you see. Where something is sort of stable — not changing — it's static. Or else it's doing something periodic. Or it's completely fuzzy and like totally skuzzy and screwed up. Or it's in the Interzone — what I call the gnarly zone, between being periodic and being completely skuzzy.

Life is gnarly. Plants are gnarly. Air currents are gnarly. Water currents are gnarly. Fire is gnarly. In Wolfram's view, every one of these actually embodies a universal computation, similar to a universal Turing Machine or a personal computer, and in principle they can compute anything that you want it to. I agree with him.

RU: I've never really been quite able to understand Wolfram's stuff. But I've heard that he shows that there can be types of evolution that differ from Darwinian evolution.

RR: He does talk about evolution a little bit. People will say, "How could a butterfly have evolved that precise pattern on its wings? Or how could we evolve the exact shape of our body." And he makes the point that natural systems are actually fairly robust computations. They like to do things like make spots on butterfly wings or grow limbs from animals. The genetic code doesn't have to be as finely tweaked as people sometimes imagine. You could actually perturb it quite a bit and you would still get plants and animals that look pretty similar to the way we look now. So it's not so much that things evolve to perfection. They just get to a level of functioning well enough. In fact, we aren't tuned to complete optimality.

RU: Functioning "well enough" plays into your novel. There's the development of a technology that makes the lead character mathematician's theory into something that's usable as a prediction machine. And the guy who's marketing this machine — his attitude is good enough is good enough. And he starts putting it out there.

RR: That's right. Computer scientists proved that all sorts of things are impossible to do. And then someone backs off and says, "Well can't I get something working reasonable well?" And it turns out not to be such a difficult problem.

RU: I'd venture to say that this novel is even more playful than your last one, Frek and the Elixir. Both books are satirical and there are recognizable dark forces based on current culture. But with this one, your main characters are pretty much consistently fun and they seem to exist in a somewhat more pleasant universe. Would you agree with that?

RR: Yeah, although the book actually starts in one universe, and then the characters are in a second universe, and then in a final third universe, which is our universe. I've described it as being like different drafts of a novel. If you're a novelist, you think, "Why wouldn't God do successive drafts of the universe?" And once he's finished one version, that draft would still exist and there'd be people living in it.

RU: Like your giant Jellyfish goddess in the novel. This sort-of parallel universe or metaverse is important in the story.

RR: There's sort of control room that's based on Micronesia — it looks a little like Micronesia. It's called La Hampa, which is Spanish for "the underworld." But it's not underworld in the sense of Hades. It's more underworld in the sense of gangland.

And the idea is — if you're going to meet people from all over the galaxy, the one way that you might be able to talk to them would be with math. Mathematicians, at least, like to believe that mathematics would be the same pretty much everywhere. Though if you delve deep enough, you can call it into question.

Anyway, in La Hampa, the cockroaches are oriented towards logic. And there are giant slime creatures that are oriented towards studying infinity. The lizards are into analysis, and there are these cone shell snails. This would dovetail with some of your interests, RU...

RU: Conotoxins! I'm searching around for a source.

RR: The cover of Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul is a picture of a textile cone shell. I did that because of Wolfram's work with cellular automata. There are these interesting, gnarly, irregular patterns that form into textile cone shell. It looks like this space-time track of a one-dimensional cellular automaton. It's a lot of little triangles. So I thought I should have giant cone shell snails as the aliens in my next science fiction book. And then, sometimes you get one of these gifts from the gods that happens when you're writing — something appears that's exactly what you need. So I discovered this article in Scientific American about these innocent-looking sea slug type snails that are actually very vicious. They send out this long snout with this little tiny tooth that's filled with this very potent venom called a conotoxin. And some scientists recently found a way to start using those conotoxins on humans. It's the ultimate painkiller. But it's such a powerful drug that you can't inject it. It has to be dripped directly into your spinal column. If it gets into your bloodstream, you have a heart attack. And as a side effects, people started hallucinating so much they have to be kept in straightjackets. It's not a light recreational drug, by any means.

RU: Although people do ingest some in your story, or they claim to have ingested some.

RR: At least at one point, my main character thinks he might have snorted some. It's going around.

RU: There's been some talk about parallel universes within the context of science and math and so forth. And I'm sure you have some thoughts and can tell us a little bit about how people have thought about this in the actual world.

RR: There are a number of theories. A theory that I've drawn on recently comes from a scientist named Lisa Randall. She wrote an interesting book called Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions. There's this problem in physics with the fact that gravity is weaker than the other kinds of natural forces. Its basic intensity is dialed down really low. And physicists wonder — why isn't it similar? And she has this explanation. Maybe there's this other brane, as they call it — there's a membrane, and part of reality is over there. And somehow it's siphoning off some of our gravity. I like that idea of parallel universes. It's sort of a specialized physics use of the parallel universe idea. The one that's used in more fiction is the old quantum mechanical model that whenever something could randomly go this way or that way, maybe it goes both ways, and then both the universes exist.

RU: It keeps on splitting off

RR: Yeah. But I've never liked that model. I don't want every possible universe to exist because then nothing matters. You know? It's like you say, "I want a sculpture" and they give you the block of marble and they say, OK, the Venus de Milo's in there. Big fucking deal.

RU: Do you think we're in an infinite universe; or an approximately infinite universe; or a quite finite universe?

RR: I think there's a finite number of parallel universes. I think there are successive drafts of the universe that have been worked on. And they're getting better.

RU: Like the jellyfish.

RR: But is our universe infinite? It's interesting — fifteen years ago it seemed like the physicists had it all wrapped up — you know, we had a big bang, our universe is so-and-so large. It's going to collapse back. It's a hypersphere. End of story. Now, all their theories are going down the toilet. Supposedly 70% of the mass in the universe is dark energy.

RU: I keep hearing 90%.

RR: Well, there's 10% matter, 20% dark matter, and then the rest of it's dark energy. And they don't even know what dark energy is. But supposedly the universe is expanding faster all the time and it will never stop. That also means that it's been infinite all along, oddly enough. That's interesting. And if you have this idea that the universe is physically infinite, you sort of don't need parallel universes. Because if you say there's infinitely many stars, then you can sort of get into a law of probability kind of thing. You say, well look, all we need to do is hit the roulette wheel 10 to the 300th times, and the 10 to the 300th time, I'll get a planet that looks exactly like earth, except me and my social security number will be slightly different.

RU: Sometimes I suspect that other dimensions are leaking into ours and that's where some strange, unexplained experiences come from.

RR: I'm amenable to the idea of there being different levels of reality. I've always liked that idea.

RU: Moving on... let's not forget that this book has sex, drugs, math and rock and roll.

RR: If I'm writing a novel, my hero might as well have more fun than I do. (Laughter) So he's a guitarist in a sort-of punk rock band but in this world they're called dreggers

RU: I love the way the main, young character in your book keeps on getting into more complicated and difficult and weird and life-threatening situations. But he pretty much keeps on grooving. He keeps on grooving on the mathematics of things. It seems sort of like his way out of pain and depression.

RR: Yeah. That's my life story.

RU: Let's talk briefly about the politics of the novel. These guys are mathematicians. They have a powerful concept. And they have to decide, on graduating from college, about getting gigs and dealing with a particular corporation that turns out to be deeply tied into a political organization that is sort of a mirror world for the Bush administration.

RR: That's right. People often said cyberpunk was political, but I've really been putting more politics in my books in the last four years or so, because I feel that it's such a dark time in American politics. We have this completely illegitimate government. Bush didn't even really got elected. And it's doing such harm every day.

In the sixties, when the Vietnam War was raging, we had underground comics to cheer us up. So I want to write science fiction that support people and gives them more hope about the future. So I have an evil President called Joe Doakes who is with the Heritagist party, and a much more evil vice president named Frank Ramirez. And one of the highpoints for me, in writing the book, is when they do this giant punk-metal rock concert at this baseball stadium in San Francisco that has recently been renamed Heritagist Park, because the Heritage Party has bought the naming rights. And they manage to bring down the regime with that concert, which is sort of cool.

RU: Talk a little bit about the role of vlogging in the novel.

RR: Yeah, I myself blog a lot. And I'm interested in the idea of vlogging — video blogging. I put a lot about it into Mathematicians in Love. And this is one of those times where I was a little bit ahead of the future curve because in the year that it took for the book to come out, YouTube got big and vlogging really caught on. I push it a little further in the novel. There are people that are wearing a kind of camera called a vlog ring. You just wear this thing all day long, and it basically uploads everything you're doing, 24/7. And people compete over whose life is the most interesting. It's sort of like an "American Idol" thing.

RU: It's called "One in a Million." (Laughs)

RR: Right. And they're giving the vlog rings away at McDonalds so everybody will join. And, of course the Heritagists are combing through the data and using it.

RU: Right. People are doing the NSA's job for them.

RR: Yeah! The better to manipulate us.

RU: So tell us a bit about your SF webzine FLURB. What motivated you to start a science fiction webzine?

RR: Well, now and then I'll write a short story and I'll think, "Where can I publish this?" There aren't a huge number of short fiction markets in SF. There are two or three mainstream magazines. There's Asimov's Science Fiction magazine. There's Analog Science Fiction and Fact. And in England, there's Interzone. And then there are also some online zines. But most of the online zines don't actually pay you anything. So I thought it would be fun to gather some stories that are to my taste from my old friends and colleagues; and maybe some new people that I can contact and get interested. It's a little zine that comes out maybe three or four times a year. It's not a big deal, but it's another place to put my stories out there.

RU: On John Brockman's webzine Edge, they asked a bunch of famous scientists and thinkers and digerati types a question: "What are you optimistic about and why?" And a lot of people answered that they were optimistic because people were giving up on the idea of God — "the God delusion" as Richard Dawkins says. And your answered popped out at me because it was completely different and very much the opposite of what many people were saying.

RR: At the time I wasn't actually feeling optimistic. But I'm usually optimistic about my science fiction. So these ideas that I'm describing here are things that are going into some novels that I'm working on now. I would actually call this section "Universal Telepathy." But Brockman titled it "Unknowable Gaian Mind."
Read Rudy's brief Edge entry: click here. No, really, to continue the interview, read Rudy's entry.

RU: So I think Richard Dawkins and the Amazing Randi are right now having telepathic communication about how to shut Rudy Rucker up! It's a pretty risky statement to make in a forum that's full of major science heads.

RR: (Laughs) Well, yeah. The thing is — I think of myself as a science fiction writer now. So I no longer feel that I have to be reputable or responsible in what I say. (Laughs) You know? A lot of times, when people are asked to speculate about the future, they'll simply repeat the ideas that are in the air. It's like sheep standing in their stable, and they're urinating on the floor. And then they're lapping up the urine. And they're saying, "Gee, this sure tastes like piss, doesn't it?"

RU: (Laughs) Speaking of colorful images, you have a film in pre-production with Michael Gondry, based on Master of Space and Time. And I heard Dan Clowes was hired to write a script. Is that still happening?

RR: I'm less optimistic about that now. I haven't heard anything from Michael for, oh, almost a year. And I think the option expires next month. And my agent asked him if he wanted to renew it, and they said they didn't want to renew it. So I think they're not going to make the movie. I love Michael's work. He's a brilliant man.

RU: Before I let you go I want to ask you one more question. It's the same question that I asked Cory Doctorow on The R.U. Sirius show a couple of weeks ago. Your thought processes in your material is very science fiction-y. What novels outside of the science fiction genre do you read, and what do you really love?

RR: Well, recently I was re-reading some of the stories by Luis Borges. He's maybe my favorite writer of all. Just this week I'm reading a book by Charles Portis called Gringos. That's a really great book. It came out in the nineties. It's really fun to read. A bunch of hippies go down to Mexico for a harmonic convergence while the world's coming to an end. The saucers are landing. The usual kind of thing. He has this very jaded, dry tone. And, of course, I'm also reading Pynchon's new book, which seems like a drop-off in quality.

RU: Did you read Gravity's Rainbow as soon as it came out?

RR: I did. I read it — I read it for about five years. I kept re-reading it. It had a huge influence on me. I learned a lot about writing from reading Pynchon. He's such a beautiful stylist.

RU: It was very difficult to get started. I started it myself about four or five times before actually reading it all the way through. And I found that I had to make notes to read the entire book.

RR: Yeah. In a way it reproduced the experience of how you find out about things when you're growing up. You get a piece here, a piece there, and it takes a while to fit it all together into the whole narrative.

RU: But you would love puzzle types of novelists.

RR: Up to a point I like puzzles, but I also like a story that keeps you turning the pages. Stories that kick ass. I don't like to get too arty.

See also:
When Cory Doctorow Ruled The World
Neil Gaiman Has Lost His Clothes

4 thoughts on “SF Writer Rudy Rucker: Everything Is Computation

  1. “I don’t like to get too arty. “

    Trust me, you need have no fear about being remembered as an artist, Rudy!

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