The four-dimensional, posthuman worlds of Rudy Rucker

This review of Rudy Rucker‘s books was published in June 2002 in the late lamented Transhumanity magazine of the late lamented World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity+). I was editor of Transhumanity at the time.

If one is fed up, as I am a times, with the explicit sense of wonder that transpires from many novels situated in a posthuman future, entering the “transreal” world of Rudy Rucker is very refreshing. All main transhumanist concepts, including Artificial Intelligence (AI), mind uploading, nanotechnology, deep genetic and mental modifications, are explored and embedded in a narrative universe outlined with great scientific and literary skills. Rucker describes future wonders but does not shy away from down-to-earth details of everyday life: in his universe sex, “uvvys”, and “limpware dildos” can be combined in many exciting ways. Limpware is a very smart material used for toys, household appliances, etc., but also to provide flesh bodies (unfortunately very bad smelling ones) to artificial conscious intelligences. Uvvys are ubiquitous communication devices that can generate holographic displays in the air and can also interface to neural pathways (that’s why uvvys should be worn on the neck): in a sexual experience mediated by technology, a participant may not be actually aware of her/his real situation but be immersed in a sexual dream generated by the uvvy and perhaps of a radically different nature. A limpware dildo is a semi-intelligent sex toy: one of the many words that will have to be adopted to cope with a future technology wonderland where, despite all advances and new gadgets, humans are fundamentally still the same. And this gives me some real sense of wonder. As today’s kids learn how to live with the Internet and mobile phones, tomorrow they will learn how to live with uvvys and all changes predicted or proposed by transhumanists, and still things will look quite the same.

This is the universe of Rudy’s science fiction quadrilogy “*ware”: “Software” (1982), “Wetware” (1988), “Freeware” (1997) and “Realware” (2000). If you have not red the *ware books, please buy them now using the Amazon links above, read them, then come back to this review. I do not wish to spoil your pleasure.

The action begins in the forthcoming twenties, in a State of Florida that has been taken over by penniless senior citizens who spend their abundant free time going to the beach, listening to music of the sixties and “doing their own thing”. The economy is in a very bad shape, also due to the ferocious competition of conscious robot “boppers” that, some years before, have taken over the moonbase. Cobb Anderson seems just one more old “pheezer” in sunny central Florida until we find out that he is the one who, by deliberately inserting flaws in their programming, gave boppers the possibility to liberate themselves. Now the boppers are back to save him and they will do it in style, first uploading his personality to a supercomputer and then downloading it to a new robotic body. Poor Cobb will go through a long series of new bodies to end up, of course, in a high tech, bad smelling limpware one.

The transfer of Cobb may well be the first detailed description of an actual mind uploading procedure, and despite the “noir” cyberpunk style it is quite believable. I should mention that Rudy Rucker is also a distinguished mathematician who teaches at the SJSU Department of Mathematics and Computer Science. He wrote a number of popular mathematics books including “Infinity and the Mind”, a masterpiece of science popularisation that, despite having been written in 1982, still contains very valuable insights in mathematical logic (with a very readable explanation of Godel’s incompleteness theorem), artificial intelligence, and the nature of consciousness. I do hope to live until uploading becomes a viable technology, and maybe we can be transported to that time by cryonics, but if these hopes do not come true, we can find some solace in Rudy’s very deep insight that perhaps every “I am” is the same (“Infinity and the Mind”).

Back to the *ware universe and to the extreme, transgressive style of Rucker the novelist. At some point in time the intelligent boppers make a moon girl pregnant with a superhuman “meatbop”. They do it when she is too stoned by the interesting physical effects of the ultrasmart drug “merge” to notice. The superchild will try to use his own hyperactive sexual prowess to take over the Earth by making more and more like himself, but soon after he is shot dead while starting a bopper-friendly religion, the whole bopper race is attacked by a human made virus and dies out. Evolution takes over and quickly leads to the new race of “moldies”: they have flexible and configurable limpware bodies, and their number one priority is to get hold of new limpware to periodically rebuild their very short lived bodies and reproduce. Their number two priority seems to be making humans sexually addicted: beware and please never have sex with a moldie, it is more dangerous than you can believe.

The solar system is invaded by aliens who travel in style as cosmic “personality waves”, and reach the solar system as soon as a moldie inventor comes up with appropriate reception hardware. The most interesting of the many new guest races is one coming from a region of the universe where “two-dimensional time” is experienced by conscious being as a thread encompassing an infinite number of parallel lives (see the Everett “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum physics). The aliens miss very much their richer native environment, so what they really want to do is leave the solar system as soon as possible after having introduced humans (read posthumans, plus moldies) to the ultimate high-tech gadget: a universal nanofacturing device able to produce almost everything out of thin air. Of course there is a catch: they let their four-dimensional god loose in the solar system, free to kidnap locals to play cat and mouse in a hypersphere-shaped 4D trap.

There is a happy end after which, most unfortunately the author does not plan a fifth *ware book. Instead, the four-dimensional twist continues in the new book to appear in June (“Spaceland”), set in today’s Silicon Valley. Joe Cube is a middle manager involved in high tech startups like nearly everyone in the Valley. He gets some help (a high-tech communication device plus assistance in drawing a business plan, acquiring seed money, and dealing with venture capitalists) from a four-dimensional girl visiting from a world above and below ours (or ana/kata, or vinn/vout, the equivalent of up/down and above/below in the fourth dimension). Of course, there is a catch.

The story is a very nice fairy-tale also intended as a higher-dimensional equivalent of the well-known mathematical novel “Flatland” by Edwin Abbott, where a three-dimensional cube intrudes in the lives of two-dimensional beings in a flat universe. The most interesting parts of the book are the frequent attempts to provide visual images of cross-sections of four-dimensional objects (frequently “human” bodies) intersecting our “flat” universe, and even visual images of what a normal human being would see if (s)he were augmented with a four-dimensional “thickness” in the vinn/vout direction and “lifted” out of our world into a four-dimensional space. Visual explanation become difficult to follow when Joe, now the only one who can avoid terminal damage to the fabric of space-time (the catch), meets the demigod Drabk who lives in a infinite-dimensional space to request a patch for the ailing space-time. Once again, Rucker demonstrates that he is the real master of mathematical visualisation.

The human characters in the book are very well portrayed: all Silicon Valley and, in general, modern American clichés are there. Not so for the higher dimensional beings: here Rudy prefers a fairy-tale narrative approach that avoids “realistic” characterisation of individuals, technologies and societies. Too bad in my opinion: this well written, informative and entertaining book is definitely worth reading, but may leave readers craving for more. At least this reader is impatiently waiting for a sequel.

Spaceland page, by Rudy Rucker, includes the very interesting Notes on Spaceland.