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January 10-17, 2007

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Phaedra

Donkey Kong: Cyberpunk pioneer Rudy Rucker celebrates the Democrats' return to power.

Up Against the Wall, Rudy Rucker!

Los Gatos' cyberpunk novelist on Santa Cruz surf culture, cutting edge math and cockroach love

By Gary Singh


Only Rudy Rucker would come up with the following passage: "Two to the eighty-sixth is the largest power of two that doesn't have any zeros when you write it out in decimal," said the other cockroach, who'd flopped down on his belly to goggle at Paul, still lying on his surfboard. "Lemme ask you this. What's the biggest Mersenne prime you got? I'm only asking for the lizard's sake, mind you. My name's Osckar and I'm a hierophantic logician from--whaddya, whaddya, call it Galaxy Z."

For 20 years now, Rucker has been tapping out fiction and nonfiction from Los Gatos, but his work goes all the way back to the late '70s, when along with a few other mutant futurists he originated the cyberpunk genre of science fiction. And more than a few times now, he's placed Santa Cruz in his books. He cites three reasons for this:

"Cruz makes for a good locale for my stories (a) because it has the gnarly surf--which strikes me as a key metaphor for lots of different things; (b) because the town is kind of funky and in some ways both futuristic and retro--and my futuristic SF is in some ways a retro form like rock & roll; and (c) the colorful mixture of people."

Rucker often takes trips to the beach with his wife and finds Santa Cruz to be a perfect maelstrom of oddities to work with: "There's a heady atmosphere of intellectual freedom, a blend of radical university style, stoner hedonism and a fine surfer disengagement from the bogus issues that Big Media force-feeds its unfortunate devotees."

With Mathematicians in Love (Tor Books; 368 pages; $24.95 cloth), Rucker takes what's essentially a zonked-out romantic comedy and runs it through the usual Ruckeresque loony mill. No one else can combine Santa Cruz surf culture with deep cutting-edge mathematics and parallel universes, and find some way to ridicule the Bush administration--all on the same page.

In the book, two Ph.D. candidates in mathematics are gunning for the same chick and it leads to all sorts of twisted scenarios, including a punk rock gig in downtown San Jose. And there's that ever-growing Rucker exploration of God and the gnosto-cosmic web (as above, so below), except that now it's in the form of a jellyfish. He even goes as far as to throw in the Heirophant Tarot Card, which represents the high priest, the serene, philosophical, papal teacher.

As with many of Rucker's novels, Mathematicians in Love contains eight zillion different things going on all at the same time, and it's a roller-coaster ride just to maintain the connections sometimes. It makes me think of a time back during the dotcom boom when a UNIX sys-admin once told me that there are more occultists working in the software industry than any other profession, one of the reasons being that object-oriented programming requires the same type of abstract thinking. If that's a crude simplification, so be it, but Rucker's novels seem to tread the same waters. Somehow. In Mathematicians in Love, you've got weighty math, helicopters, time warps, cone shells, punk rock, bat wings, cockroaches, Panther Beach, Sanskrit, hyperdimensional tunnels, Tarot cards and number theory. And that's just in one freakin' chapter. It's so California, you just wanna scream, Yeah! Which was always the best thing about Rucker's novels anyway: You'd find profound high-tech Silicon Valley right amid rock & roll, '60s radicalism, counterculture and the fourth dimension.

One just has to ask how he keeps track of it all. "I'm trying for nine zillion things in my next book," he says. "Cartoonists call the technique 'eyeball kicks,' meaning that it's nice to cram your frames with interesting things to look at. The Flemish masters Bosch and Bruegel were into this too. I feel like every aspect of the book might as well be interesting and mind-boggling. Why hold back? More is more."


Rudy Rucker reads on Thursday, Jan. 11, at 7:30pm at the Capitola Book Cafe, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola; 831.362.4415.


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