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Rudy Rucker: Jim and the Flims

How mild-mannered author Rudy Rucker leaps over tall laws of physics
(and mortality itself) with a single keystroke
Rudy Rucker "The Clone Garden," Acrylic on canvas, April, 2009, by Rudy Rucker. "In working on my novel, Jim and the Flims, I wanted to get an image of another world called Flimsy. And this was the picture I came up with. My original inspiration was van Gogh's painting, The Sower-I started with a man sowing seeds into a field. Two people are greeting him, they just came out of that interdimensional tunnel visible in the house-like structure made of lavender spheres. The sower is casting baby-seeds into the field, and we see human heads-and the head of one green alien growing up."

One might expect the author of a book that opens with an ax-wielding, corpse-smoking necrophiliac to be out back in the woods, gnawing on animal bones after a self-mutilation and methamphetamine binge. Instead, we're greeted by a grandfatherly mild-mannered retired professor in tortoise-shell glasses and sandals who comes off much younger than his 65 years. "Compared to what I write, my life has been surprisingly conventional," Rudy Rucker confesses.

"I've never really gone off the deep end," he says, even though he writes about drug-addled characters such as Skeeves, who sleeps with sarcophagi in a van on the cliffs between Santa Cruz and Davenport. It doesn't bother him that he hasn't lived that life. "If I lived in a van, it would be hard to have an office where I can write."

Rucker ushers us through a living room of oak floors and oriental rugs, past a neatly arranged shelving unit of LP records and CDs (Zappa, Big Star, the Pretenders and the Pixies appear to have been played recently) and an equally organized floor-to-ceiling bookshelf with an entire row of Beat and Beat-influenced literature—Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carver, Burroughs, Bukowski—at eye level. Higher brow stuff —Nabokov, Kafka, Pynchon—are on the top shelves, and the large format art books—heavily weighted towards Picasso, Dali, Hockney, Van Gogh and the Flemish renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel—are stacked horizontally at the bottom.

The penchant for organization and categorization contrasts with Rucker's obvious bias towards artists, writers and musicians who fled strictures and conventions. His sense of making order of the world, though, seems at harmony with a man whose Ph.D. specialty was Mathematical Logic and who spent two decades teaching computer science to engineering students at San Jose State University.

Rudy Rucker

Another paradox: the digital era icon, a pioneer of cyberpunk alongside William Gibson, John Shirley and Lewis Shiner, lives a largely analog existence. An old thermostat hangs from the wall. He wears a sweep hand watch and plays vinyl on a turntable, which he runs through a preamp and his computer's sound card using a free software program to load old songs onto his iPod. "I got through 30 albums before I lost my momentum," he says of the retirement project.

"The scratches are sort of good," he says of the digitized vinyl recordings. "They give it an impasto quality," Rucker muses, using the Italian term for the painting technique to build up layers of paint, a process that he has experimented with in the past few years. He motions towards one of the colorful, cartoony paintings that fill the walls of his writing room, pointing to one done several years ago that was flat on the canvas. Newer ones have relief ridges and texture from the layered paint.

Sitting in an Aeron chair, a 5x7 photograph of him with two granddaughters in a bathtub next to his portrait-oriented computer monitor, Rucker explains that he likes to paint the worlds he writes about.

"I often paint before I write to get some images," he says. "After I write I don't get as motivated. I've seen it. I've lived it. I've been there."

Rucker's 32nd novel, Jim and the Flims (Night Shade Books, 2011), is a departure from its hard core science fiction predecessors. "I wanted to try something a little different," he says.

He'd been writing about a "post-singular" world after the tipping point known as "singularity," at which machines became smarter than humans. There were dragonfly cameras that observed everything. He threw in teleporting as well. "It was like three hours of nonstop speedmetal," Rucker says.

"I wanted to back off and do something that's more like fantasy. You know, like Harry Potter. Fantasy is doing really well," he points out, though he thinks the Potter series could use a few sci-fi touches, like nanobots.

In Jim and the Flims, his protagonist, Jim, punctures the membrane separating Earthly existence from the afterworld. "He wants to find his wife's soul and bring her back to Earth," Rucker says.

Jim winds up in the afterworld, which doesn't much resemble those of classic literature, mythology or religious lore. In this alternate world are no winged angels or hell fires. Instead there are mythical creatures ("flims") like yuels and jivas, rolling green hills and plowed plots with humanoid heads growing like cabbage. Evil flying beets traverse the horizon, and inhabitants live in a large purple, snail-like pod. With eye stalks.

The Sunnyvale-bred central figure in "Jim and the Flims" is a recently-graduated e. coli bioengineer who worked for a Santa Cruz firm trying to convert human waste into electricity, a job he lost when he served genetically modified eel at a company barbecue. His late parents had been "eaten by their jobs," then financially wiped out in a low-grade investment scam.

Without elaborating on the parallels, Rucker suggests that there are some autobiographical qualities to Jim, who's "drawn from my life experiences." His characters are mash-ups of those around him. "I model most of my characters on someone I know — or fragments of people I know, and reassemble them."

How does the sarcastically self-described "kindly old author" with white hair swept back on the sides and combed forward in front implant his persona into the paradigm-shifting, slang-tossing Santa Cruz surfer-stoner dude? "I'm not a 27-year-old surfer," Rucker admits. He doesn't even surf, though he tried to when he moved to California 25 years ago. He found it "harder than I thought it would be," especially the part that involved paddling out to the waves. "You get out there, and you're exhausted."

Later, when he indulges our request to pose with the barely-used surfboard he bought when he moved to California 25 years ago, he says, "This is just totally bogus." He laughs and continues the shoot like a good sport.

Having set his sights on writing "beatnik science fiction" when he moved to the town where surrealists Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady cavorted in the 1950s and 1960s, Rucker seems concerned about being inauthentic as he makes shit up amidst his paintings of nudists with UFOs, flying vegetables and disembodied vaginas.

"Even though I've published 32 books, I get anxiety over whether I've just been faking all this time. I wonder if I'll be able to do it," Rucker muses. "I've got all these rabbits running and all these plot threads. Am I going to be able to bring it all to a nice, grand, harmonious climax?

"You don't now what it's going to be until you get there. You have to trust the muse."

The world outside his meticulously organized writing laboratory is much like the other side of the mortal membrane, where the flims live.

Beyond the railing of the quintessentially Californian wooden wraparound deck that has no doubt shifted with the Santa Cruz Mountains' winter rains and seismic activity, a tangle of native and non-native trees—eucalyptus, pine, bamboo and California oak—rise over the winding mountain asphalt below. The road leads to Main Street in Los Gatos, near Town Hall and the tall entrance columns of the local high school. Sounds from construction activity at his wealthy neighbors' homes can be heard on this hot midsummer afternoon.

Rudy Rucker Surfpunk novelist Rudy Rucker keeps a board at home, even though his few surfing attempts proved unsuccessful. "This is just totally bogus," he commented during this posed shot.

He calls Los Gatos "a very comfortable community," even though it's a bedroom town of "engineers and Realtors," not bohemians and artists, as it once was. "There's not a big subculture here," he understates.

He likes the scruffiness of Santa Cruz's Pacific Avenue, though he also enjoys Los Gatos' main drag, Santa Cruz Avenue, which he says has a similar feel "except that people aren't shoving petitions in your face or asking for money." Like many longtime residents he bemoans Los Gatos' new retail mix, which includes "Restoration Hardware, which sucks, and William Sonoma, which sucks, selling stuff to put on your table, like candlesticks and napkins. There's no bookstore anymore, which is pathetic."

Nonetheless, "as a place to live, I like it."

And he likes the closeness to Santa Cruz, which is only 20 minutes away at the right time of day. Four miles north of Santa Cruz on the Pacific Coast Highway are the cliffs that Rucker likes to paint in plein air landscapes, just across the Brussels sprout fields from the parked vans where his latest novel's characters sleep. Sometimes a giant squid or UFO stalks the unclothed humans in his paintings. The parallel world kicks in around the Santa Cruz's northern city limits, the defining line of the duality, the boundary between order and chaos, truth and fiction, professorial normalcy and freaky chemical mentalbrain stuff, worldly secularity and Egyptian gods, Los Gatos/Silicon Valley and the continent's edge, life and afterlife. And when the line's porous, the paradox, rather than crumbling, becomes even more pronounced.

Jim and the Flims

By Rudy Rucker

Chapter One: Four Mile Beach

Copyright Rudy Rucker, 2011. [email protected]

I'M JIM OSTER. I grew up in Sunnyvale, a knot of freeways near San Jose, California. My father was an electrical engineer, and my mother sold online ads. Dad was what you might call piebald, with different colors in his hair. He stared off into the distance a lot, always thinking about his projects. Mom had warm eyes, and she'd smile and nod when she happened to look my way. But she spent most of her time staring down at her little phone's screen.

During my senior year in high school, I used to play hooky and go surfing in Santa Cruz—it was only a half-hour's drive away. In the morning, I'd stuff my wetsuit into my backpack—instead of carrying books.

My parents didn't notice, and if they had they wouldn't have cared. They'd had their one child, me, and by now they'd turned to other concerns: their jobs and their investments. My grades weren't a big issue, as I'd already been accepted for admission at the University of California.

My favorite surf break was off a rocky point at Four Mile Beach, on Route 1 north of Cruz. My friend Chang would drive us over there. Chang wasn't into studying at all, he was planning to be a pro surfer, and he figured his day job could be dealing pot. He had a vintage blue Haut board with an epic feel. I was more of a short-boarder, working snappy moves up and down the tubes—when I wasn't wiped out and floundering in the foam.

Some the locals at Four Mile had taken to hassling us. A spaced-out raw-boned guy called Skeeves was on my case in particular. He was a little older than the rest of us. All he did was surf, and he lived in his van.

One particular afternoon, I did a drop-in on one of Skeeves's waves, forcing him away from the curl. When we got back to shore, he put his face really close to mine and started yelling curses at me, even throwing in some gibberish-type incantations that he'd learned. Skeeves had this idea that he was hooked into the magic of the pyramids—or some crap like that.

"Dung-beetle!" yelled Skeeves. "Ankh salaam Amenhotep."

"Calm down," I told him. "It's just a wave."

"Ruh nuh port mu hurra," Skeeves intoned, making weird gestures with his hands.

"Dude's having a fit," said Chang, standing at a safe distance. "His brain is slushed."

"It's a magic spell, fool," said Skeeves. "The chant is called 'leaving in the daytime.' I might send you two out of your bodies." He crouched and picked up a dense, sharp rock.

"Let's take a break, Chang," I said, briskly heading down the beach. "We'll get some beer," I called back to Skeeves. "You can have all my waves while I'm gone."

Skeeves's van was parked in the lot near Chang's pickup. Skeeves lived in this van, mostly, and he had tinted glass in the rear windows. He'd painted occult symbols all over the vehicle—ankh crosses with loops on top, scarab beetles, hovering eyes, hieroglyphs, and a long pair of wings flowing back from the front wheel wells. Peering in through the van's dusky rear window, we could make out a long gold box in the back of the van.

"Skeeves got into the Egyptian stuff when he started dealing dope to Julian Crocker in San Francisco," said Chang. "But, wow. Is that a casket?"

"Who's Crocker?"

"He's a screwball descendant of this rich old family. He lives in a mansion with all these wack antiquities. Skeeves is up there all the time. Last week he was putting together a deal to sell Crocker a bunch of ketamine."

I brooded about Skeeves on the short drive to the Quick Mart in Davenport. And when we got back to the Four Mile Beach parking lot, I took a knife out Chang's glove compartment and slashed one of the front tires on Skeeves's van.

Chang and I carried the beer down to the beach and had a mellow hour or two on the waves. I even forgot about slashing Skeeves's tire—until we all went back up to the lot together.

Skeeves got all excited. Chang was laughing so hard that the weird old surfer quickly figured out it was me who'd done the deed.

Skeeves said he was going to kill me—he fetched an axe with a green-painted handle from the van. I was scared. It was hard to tell what Skeeves might do. And it looked as if the axe blade already had blood on it.

Chang and I ran, leading Skeeves in a big circle. We got back to Chang's pickup first, then hopped in and drove away.

It was maybe the next day when we saw in the paper that Julian Crocker had been found dead in his home. The cops thought it might be a drug overdose. Crocker was found lying beside a fireplace filled with ashes. Apparently he'd suffocated from some smoke. And an ancient gold sarcophagus was said to be missing from the Crocker manse. But there were no actual signs of robbery. In any case, Crocker's surviving relatives weren't interested in trying to make a case. And the cops quickly lost interest.

Quite a few of the surf crowd must have suspected that Skeeves was involved—especially with that funky gold casket right in his van. A rumor was circulating among us that Skeeves was obsessed with a female mummy that he'd found in the gold box. Worshipping her or something. Not that any of us was going public with this stuff.

Chang and I had switched to surfing Pleasure Point down near 41st Street in Cruz. There were some psychos there, too, and a few of them made a point of picking on us—especially when they found out that we were valley guys from near San Jose. Chang toughed it out and got in with the brahs—his steady supply of weed was a help. But I couldn't get past the hostility.

And then I was, like, to hell with it—and I went back to skateboarding. I'd never been that good of a surfer anyway.

After high school I went to college at the Santa Cruz campus of the University of California. I decided to go for a bachelor's degree in bioengineering. Everyone said biotech was the coming thing, and the courses appealed to me. I'd always liked videogames, and I dug the idea of viewing the natural world as being a big program that we could mod and hack.

Of course there were people—especially around Cruz—who worried that biotech was going to bring on some filthy germs who'd kill us all. My professors said that wasn't a real problem because, if you looked into it a little, you could see that our whole entire ecology is made of plants, animals, and microorganisms who want to eat everything. All the species had been mutating and evolving for billions of years, each and every one of them striving for world domination. And no piddly-ass organism we were going to cook up in a lab had any chance of taking down the ancient, battle-scarred pros. To hear my profs tell it, home-brewed germs were like high-school grommets facing the gnarly surfers of Four Mile Beach.

Well, maybe they were right, and maybe not. Either way, I figured it would be good to have a rebellious, clear-minded guy like me on the inside of the biotech biz. I'd be ready to blow the whistle on the Earth-rapers, if it ever came down to that. Meanwhile I was hoping to discover some cool things, and to make a good living as well.

My old friend Chang was living down in Cruz by now, too, surfing his ass off. He won a few local contests, and during my junior year at UCSanta Cruz, he got invited to the annual Mavericks big wave contest a few miles up the coast. I went to watch him, that is, to watch the faint line on the horizon where the big waves were. On the TV monitors, we could see Chang carving sick curves into the wobbly mountains of glass. He placed in the top five and he picked up some sponsorship deals.

Chang came by my rented room a month after Mavericks and lent me a board so we could go riding at Four Mile like old times. Sure enough, our man Skeeves was still on the waves, indefatigable as a Terminator robot, still living in his Egyptian-themed van.

By now Chang was in some sense a friend of Skeeves, that is to say, Skeeves's over-tweaked synapses could successfully achieve a pattern-recognition of Chang's face. He walked over to us and Chang broke out a joint. Skeeves seemed to recognize me, but, so far as I could tell, he'd forgotten about the slashed tire.

I figured the joint was like a peace pipe. But after a few tokes, Chang, never one to let things stay calm, started ribbing the eccentric old surfer. "Getting much action?" Chang asked him. "Still hanging with the mummies?"

Even when Skeeves had his shades off, you couldn't really see his eyes, buried as they were in the creases of his weathered lids. He turned his head towards Chang, moving as slowly as a plant tracking the sun.

"I like that girl mummy," allowed Skeeves in a low murmur, his tongue loosened by the pot. "Not the guy who's in the box with her. Julian Crocker and I smoked the third mummy, you know. Amenhotep. He was down under the other two, all crumbly like rotten wood. We burned Amenhotep in Crocker's marble fireplace, the two of us leaning into the fumes, very resinous, very tasty. What a rush. But then Crocker died, the lightweight."

"Mummies?" I said numbly, feeling the layers of reality come peeling off.

"That mummy woman—I'm very tight with her," came Skeeves's raspy whisper. "She's always the same. Every now and then, in my head, she talks to me."

"Can we see them?" asked Chang. "They're in that gold sarcophagus in the back of your van, right? You're legendary, dude."

"I—I don't think Jim here could handle it," said Skeeves thoughtfully. "The spirit of Amenhotep destroys the weak."

"Did you say that you smoked Amenhotep's mummy?" I had to ask. "You and Crocker?"

Skeeves squinted at me for a long time.

"Remember the axe, Jim," he said, finally, and laid his bony finger over his lips.

I knew then that Skeeves hadn't forgotten about the slashed tire at all.

But, now that he'd shared his secret with me—or run me through a bizarre put-on—we were closer than before. From then on, when I crossed Skeeves's path around Cruz, I'd wave, and he'd favor me with a slow nod. Not that I spent that much time thinking about him or about the gunjy mummy-chick who was supposed to be in his Egyptian sarcophagus.