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Rudy's World

Cyberpunk forefather, futurist and SJSU prof Rudy Rucker puts Silicon Valley on the fictional map

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RUDY RUCKER and I pounded the pavement of nearby Los Perros on a Saturday evening. We hooked up at the Los Perros Coffee Roasting Company, where the "yuppies with their good cars, fit bodies, and standoffish demeanor" like to hang. Decked out in white shorts, a sport shirt and sandals and toting a black backpack, Rucker pointed out "a crowd of people in Spandex ... some of them planning or returning from a jog along the Dammit Trail that leads up along Route 17 to the all but dry Hidalgo Reservoir."

The places he mentioned sounded vaguely familiar, yet strangely displaced. Meeting local author and futurist Rudy Rucker is like sidling into a parallel dimension, where real life segues subtly into fiction.

Serious science fiction fans, of course, will immediately recognize "Los Perros" as "Los Gatos" and the Hidalgo Reservoir as Lexington Reservoir. They are just a few of the real local landmarks Rucker mapped onto a fictional grid in his novel The Hacker and the Ants.

Welcome to the twisted world of Rudy Rucker, author, mathematician, futurist and the man sometimes called the godfather of cyberpunk. When he's not teaching computer science at San Jose State University, hacking in C++ or speaking at conferences in Europe, Rucker taps out science fiction novels from his Los Gatos home, often using the people and places he's collected from 17 years of living in Los Gatos.

Originally published in 1994, The Hacker and the Ants has just been rereleased by Four Walls Eight Windows with updates and changes by Rucker. This edition is called, appropriately enough, The Hacker and the Ants, Version 2.0.

Rucker has pocketed two Philip K. Dick awards for best original science fiction paperback of the year. He takes an absurdist view of everything, especially Silicon Valley. His fan base is international, and his books--both fiction and nonfiction--have been translated into 14 languages.

In a quarter century of writing, Rucker, 57, has expounded on robots, infinity, cyborgs, chaos theory, artificial intelligence, God, Peter Brueghel, dogs, ants, quitting booze, chip fabrication, UFOs, LSD, hardware, software, Santa Cruz, Franz Kafka and the fourth dimension.

And then there's cyberpunk. Everyone who can spell the word has his or her own definition of it. Rucker delivers his own definition: "Literate science fiction that's easy to read, has a lot of information and talks about the new thought forms that are coming out of the computer revolution."

Broadly speaking, the movement was spawned in the early 1980s with Rucker, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and John Shirley and then evolved in the 1990s to incorporate various fringe counterculture elements of the digital revolution.

Since Rucker operates in Silicon Valley--the center of the digital revolution--it makes perfect sense for him to exploit the quirks of the area in his novels. With zonked-out flair, he captures the dotcom culture perfectly with The Hacker and the Ants and Spaceland, his 2002 novel of the fourth dimension, just out in paperback. The books explode with vivid, lightly disguised descriptions of Los Gatos, San Jose and Silicon Valley in general--beautifully satirizing the dotcom state of affairs and thinking.

A soft-spoken man with gray hair and sporting expensive bifocal sunglasses, Rucker is not at all the type of guy you'd expect to write about algae-impregnated plastic aliens in Santa Cruz or robots colonizing the moon. He expresses unexpected perspectives on just about every topic. He admits that he sometimes can't remember what day it is, but he continues to crank out books.

Quietly, over the years, Rucker has become Silicon Valley's de facto twisted bard, bent on satirizing the foibles of high tech's birthplace and converting its geography into a thinly veiled mythology. I asked Rucker if he had set out to put San Jose on the literary map.

"That has a nice sound to it, sure," he agrees. "And I certainly plan to set more novels in and around San Jose. But San Jose and Silicon Valley are too big a job for any one bard. San Jose's already a real city, anyway. It's what it is, not what anyone wants it to be. Life isn't about control."

Amen.

Keeping It Transreal

The Hacker and the Ants is an example of a "transreal" novel, a term Rucker coined. Transrealism is writing about yourself, your life and the people around you, but jamming it all into a fantastic setting. The book's protagonist, Jerzy Rugby, is loosely based on Rucker himself, but with certain things changed around here and there.

"It's important to make clear that I don't really use people I know as characters," Rucker explains, via email. "The transrealist method is to model my characters on real people I've seen. But these are only models, who end up behaving very differently from my acquaintances. It's fiction, words on paper.

"This said, people usually like it if they can recognize some bit of themselves in one of my characters. It's a touch of free immortality. My office mate Jon Pearce [at SJSU] is proud that the character Ben Brie talks like him. ... And John [Walker, Rucker's co-worker at AutoDesk in the late '80s and early '90s] didn't like it that 'his' character dies at the end. So he wrote an alternate ending where his character not only lives, but gets to give Jerzy a lecture about how dumb he is!"

There you have it. Secretly desire immortality? Hang out with Rucker, and maybe he'll put you in one of his books.

The Hacker and the Ants takes place all over downtown San Jose, the East Side, Santa Clara and Los Gatos. Newly divorced Jerzy Rugby, fed up with the high rents in the valley, lives in the Los Gatos hills and helps a Santa Clara startup called GoMotion (based on AutoDesk) create robots that evolve on their own.

Then virtual ants invade his computer and his pet robot, eventually unleashing a virus that wipes out all the televisions in America, causing a firestorm. Jerzy is blamed for the disaster, and he becomes the quintessential Silicon Valley hacker, mislabeled by the media.

Not only does the novel satirize Los Gatos' insane real estate industry and the corporate world in general, it also provides a wonderful glimpse into San Jose's thriving Vietnamese community--as Jerzy tries to date a young girl named Nga Vo who lives on White Road.

To bring Hacker and the Ants into the 21st century with Version 2.0, Rucker changed a few things in the novel, exactly as any good programmer would do. He removed certain anachronisms that would have made the novel more 20th century-ish and clarified certain technical descriptions.

In the introduction to Version 2.0, Rucker says he wanted to make Jerzy more pleasant and emotionally coherent. I ask him if this is because he himself is more pleasant and coherent these days. He says yes.

"I thought it would be funny to change the ending. Like it's just a computer program. Walt Whitman kept changing Leaves of Grass for his whole life. And yeah, I'm mellower, a bit more serene, less bitter and angry, not as much of a punk."

He continues, "I'm leading a cleaner life than I used to; also I've gotten a certain measure of worldly success. I really only changed one thing about the ending, I had Jerzy get back together with his wife, whereas before he was getting divorced, and was chasing after a young girl. But I want my readers to like Jerzy, and I think the idea of him dating a young girl just seems too desperate and gnarly. As I am in fact with my same wife as ever, it seems more realistic to have Jerzy end up with his wife too. Fixing the ending this way is a kind of valentine to her."

Shiny Bubble Economy

When it comes to the rise and fall of the dotcom insanity, Rucker radiates some common sense that's not so common. I ask about the dotcom hysteria, the shiny bubbles of it all, what caused it, how it went bust, who's to blame and what we can learn from all this agony.

"The bubble was basically caused by how easy it is to make a solid-looking webpage," he explains. "Instead of making something, a company could get by with HTML, Java and bullshit. A webpage is almost literally like a bubble. Shiny, pretty, light. But with a few bitmaps and some shading, you can make a webpage look like it's made of metal. Play a recording of a heavy thunk, and you've got the safe at Fort Knox!

"Everyone could go look at the webpages for themselves. That made a big impression. People kind of confused viewing a website with going to inspect an Intel chip fab or an Arco refinery. Show me some animated graphs with a positive slope, and hey, where do I send my money?

"What to learn? I don't know if we really can learn. We're dogs, lemmings, gnats. I'd always remembered that story about the financier in 1929 saying that he knew it was time to get out of the market when a shoeshine boy asked him for stock tips. But when everybody was talking about stock in early 2001, even though I remembered the shoeshine boy, I went ahead I bought into the top of the bubble. Got some Sun right before it set. It was just so hard to resist seeing those numbers going up, with my boring savings account pulling in like 1 percent."

Shifting gears a bit, Rucker adds, "I think the Y2K mania played into the dotcom bubble too. We had this feeling that the world was fundamentally going to change when all those nines rolled over. Things weren't going to be the same. We were free of history. I remember having that same feeling in 1969, not about finance but about society--that we'd somehow come free of all the old rules. Remember Wired magazine's cover story on 'The Long Boom'? And then Wired themselves started marketing a mutual fund? So much hype, so much con. Maybe Metro should start a fund. Be sure to include pho parlors. One of these days, pho is going to be so big."

He doesn't want to finger anybody for the collapse, however. "As for blame, I'm not sure there really has to be blame. Dotcom gave the valley more visibility and ramped up the electronic infrastructure.

"Certainly a lot of us lost some money. Where the heck did that money go? Who got it? Who actually made money off the bubble? That's a question for the journalists to figure out. If I had to blame anyone for California's downturn, I'd certainly want to point a finger at Enron. They took our whole surplus in like three weeks. And, of course, you can't forget 9/11 and all the terrible things spinning out of that."

I also ask him about the future of Silicon Valley. Being a science fiction novelist, Rucker must have something to say about it.

"Silicon Valley has a bright future," he theorizes. "We make interesting stuff that everyone wants. Nobody knows how to get as crazy as Californians. Nobody knows as much about computers as we do--they'll never catch us. In another year or two, everyone's nice new machines are finally going to start wearing out. Downloadable movies are a huge killer app just over the bandwidth horizon. Computer games are huge and growing. Wireless interactive movies/games could be big.

"One important thing about computers is to realize that at some point you can let go of them. The actual world is more interesting than any machine can ever be--nature, face-to-face conversations with real people, enjoying the sensations of your physical body. My feeling is that the real value of computers is in giving you a bunch of metaphors for better appreciating daily life. Turn off the buzz and go outside. It's a nice day. It's always a nice day here. Even when it rains."

Parallel Baedeker

Since not that many science fiction novels are set in Los Gatos, hitting Rucker up for a literary tour seems like a perfect idea. We meet at the Los Perros, er, Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company, where he is drinking iced tea and reading a book on quantum computing. Much of Spaceland--a tale of a clueless dotcommer named Joe Cube who escapes the Y2K hysteria into the fourth dimension--takes place in the coffee roasting company itself, so the tour begins right there.

Rucker points out the exact corner of the cafe where a huge black sphere materializes in Spaceland, signaling the potential end of three-dimensional space. After strolling around the corner of Santa Cruz Avenue--which Rucker calls Santa Ynez in the books, we stopped at the Park Vista Building, which houses a lawyer's office mentioned in both Hacker and the Ants and Spaceland. Right up the street is the Los Gatos branch of Wells Fargo. In Spaceland, Joe Cube comes in from the fourth dimension through the louvers on the south side of the building in order to steal money from the safe deposit boxes.

Then, of course, there's the Black Watch. How could one possibly write a novel set in Los Gatos and not include a scene in the Black Watch? In Hacker and the Ants, Jerzy sits in the "Night Watch" complaining about a Tom Jones video (in Spaceland, Joe Cube and his wife go there on New Year's Eve, Y2K).

Much of The Hacker and the Ants was written nearby in C.B. Hannegan's Irish pub--back when the author was still drinking--so Rucker placed a few scenes in the bar. Tommy, the bartender, whom Rucker mentioned in the book, greets us when we waltz in. He tells Rucker that while reading Spaceland, he had a hard time picturing the fourth-dimension elements.

Cellular City

Our literary migration shifts north to San Jose itself. Rucker enjoys teaching at SJSU after all these years. Regardless of whether or not San Jose will ever get "on the map," he likes the place.

"I've learned to enjoy San Ho just for being what she is," he admits. "I walk the streets near the SJSU campus, and I dig it. Sunny, dusty, dry. An exact balance of Hispanics, Asians and whites walking around. Palm trees. Messy yards, old cars, a certain amount of trash on the sidewalks. Peace. It beats the hell out of being in a mall."

I mention that downtown San Jose is constantly evolving but never actually gets anywhere. It's a place where things are constantly being constructed right next to things that are being torn down. Establishments go out of business right next to new places opening up. It's been that way for 30 years.

"Conway's Game of Life is like that." Rucker observes.

Indeed it is. Invented by Cambridge mathematician John Conway in the late 1960s, Conway's Game of Life is one example of a cellular automaton, an area of Rucker's expertise.

The game, as described on several websites, plays itself out on a grid of square cells that are either "populated" or "unpopulated." Each cell can either live, die or multiply depending on a few mathematical rules. There are three rules for a cell that is populated: (1) Each cell with one or no neighbors dies, as if by loneliness. (2) Each cell with four or more neighbors dies, as if by overpopulation. (3) Each cell with two or three neighbors survives. For a cell that is unpopulated, there is one rule: it becomes populated once it gets three neighbors.

The result is a constantly changing development of patterns throughout the course of the game. I ask Rucker if downtown San Jose's redevelopment strategy was functioning as a cellular automaton.

"It would be fun to imagine zooming out and looking down at San Jose and watching the changes in the grid," he theorizes. "You could assign a color to each block and then have an update rule where a block's contents next year is a function of its neighboring blocks this year. But you'd see that there isn't a local cellular automaton rule that is in fact emulating San Jose's redevelopment. The reason is that higher authorities keep reaching in and poking this or that cell, instead of letting it evolve in organic concert with its neighbors."

In a city always searching for an identity, that sounds like the best scientific analysis of downtown I've ever heard.

"We're in such a rush to have our fair city get it together," he continues. "When I moved here, I'd read the hype, and I bought it, and I thought [downtown] San Jose would soon bloom. And it's nice to go there sometimes. But usually it's so deserted. Certainly it's never going to turn into San Francisco. What's the solution? Convincing a whole lot of people to live downtown seems important. It's kind of hot and flat and loud there, though. Lots and lots of big trees and greenery might help, if we can get the water. Less low-flying planes. A lot more awnings and shaded colonnades. Narrower streets."

If San Jose is searching for an identity, it shouldn't depend on Intel and Hewlett-Packard. The city should keep in touch with its own literary traditions, and if there's one person who can lead a science fiction tour of downtown San Jose, it's Rudy Rucker.

After leaving the SJSU campus, Rucker and I walk east along San Salvador Street, passing Fifth Street and then Sixth, where rows of crumbling apartment complexes dot the quasi-urban landscape.

In Hacker and the Ants, two Vietnamese computer science students named Bety Byte and Vanna live in these apartments with their families and run a cryp operation to break into the State Department's files. Jerzy goes to Betty and Vanna to get a fake passport.

We also check out the corner of Ninth and William, where the Da-Lat Cafe sits. Rucker used this restaurant as a model for a Vietnamese pho place in the book. Other downtown spots that come to life in Rucker's books include A.P. Stump's, the Bank of America building, the SJSU campus, the San Jose Police Station and the courthouse on Hedding Street.

Of course, when I found an instance where Rucker got some of the streets wrong I had to get nitpicky and call him on it. In one scene, Jerzy is in a pay phone in the Fairmont Hotel, calling the pho restaurant near the corner of Tenth Street and Taylor. Then he goes through SJSU, south past the dorms and makes it over to where Super Taqueria is and then finds the Vietnamese restaurant. But this is Tenth and William, not Tenth and Taylor. Aha!

I sent Rucker an email, calling bullshit.

"Well, I'm glad you care enough to notice this," he wrote back. "I wish I'd gotten it right. Usually I look at a map when I write this kind of scene, but as the SJSU campus area is so familiar to me, I omitted this customary step. It would be cool if someday there were like literary walking tours of San Jose and Los Gatos. Dude, I can be our Steinbeck! We'll tear down the Knight Ridder building and put up an aquarium!"

Computing Reality

Silicon Valley has provided a wealth of opportunities for Rucker as a writer--almost as if William Blake had worked in a textile mill. "We just went through a revolution here as big as the Industrial Revolution," he says.

"It's been nice to get in on it and not be frowning at it from the outside. Nice to know it from the inside as a programmer, a teacher, a consumer, as a guy walking around seeing the Silicon Valley types. Nice to ride the wave of change, yet at the same time to feel cozy and at home in the midst of it. I think Y2K Silicon Valley is a culture that will people will always be curious about, like Paris in the '20s or pharaonic Egypt, and I was fortunate to be here to see it happen"

Rucker's next novel, Frek and the Elixir, comes out in 2004, and he's also working on a proposal for a nonfiction book about computers and the mind with a working title of The Lifebox, the Seashell and the Soul: Computation and Reality.

"I'm eager to write this book," he tells me. "I've been here in Silicon Valley for almost 20 years, and it's high time to try and sort out the ways in which computers have changed the way I see the world. Time for William Blake to come out of that textile mill, dust himself off and tell us what he saw.

"I might even be able to use the book in our Introduction to computers course at SJSU. But in any case, I'll keep teaching for a few more years. This term I'll be teaching computer graphics and two sections of our new course on programming computer games."

How does the "godfather of cyberpunk" feel about popularity as he approaches 60? Rucker is bigger in Japan than he is in his own home town, and sometimes he feels like the most famous unknown person in San Jose.

"I never get invited to rich people's houses or anything, no patrons of the arts," he says. "Nobody reads, nobody reads science fiction, and especially nobody reads far-out literary science fiction. It doesn't bother me. I have a peaceful life. I'm in no rush."


Buy one of the other Rudy Rucker books from amazon.com:

'Infinity and the Mind' (1995)

'Saucer Wisdom' (1999)

'Seek!' (1999)

'Gnarl!' (2000)

'White Light' (2001)

'As Above, So Below: A Novel of Peter Bruegel' (2002)

'Spaceland: A Novel of the Fourth Dimension' (2002)

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Plate Tech: One of Rudy Rucker's devilish ants appears on a custom-painted plate in his office.

The Valley According to Rucker

An excerpt from Chapter V of 'The Hacker and the Ants, Version 2.0'

WHILE I was driving 280 across town to East San Jose, I fished out the scrap of paper that Nga's cousin had given me--5578 White Road. I flicked on the electronic map attached to my dash and told it Nga's address.

Intense green lines appeared, showing a diagram of San Jose, with a highlighted path indicating the best route from my satellite-calculated current location to Nga Vo's.

The east side of San Jose was bounded by rounded yellow foothills that undulated hugely toward some mountain peaks that you could see on a smogless day. The hills weren't very good for hiking because they were bone-dry with tough sharp grass that stabbed your ankles. But they were nice to look at from the freeway.

As I drew closer to Nga's the map rescaled itself, always maintaining a magnification that just held the bright wriggle of the remaining route. Right before crucial turns, the map would speak to me in a quiet woman's voice. Carol's voice, actually. Last year I'd fed the device a phonetic map of Carol's voice. I'd thought that was funny, since Carol was terrible at reading maps. Carol had thought it was stupid of me, not to mention being an invasion of her scared privacy, almost as bad as my using Studly to peek at her taking a pee. Whatever. The phonetic map was a good hack, and whether Carol liked it or not, I could still hear the sound of her voice, which was something I missed almost as much as the smell of her body.

Two blocks from the Vos' house, the map showed me something I didn't want to see: a detailed, stippled picture of an ant. A cunning dusting of dither pixels added informative shadings to the image. The scapes of this ant's antennae were tilted toward me, and her mandibles were wide open. Her body rocked back and forth in the sawing motions of stridulation. The map's tiny speaker began stringing fragments of Carol's voice into deep, demented chirps.

The sound was scary, but also fun to listen to, in a sick kind of way. It was as good as the thrash I might hear on like "Ted Bed's Skunk Bunk on the Rhythm Wave of the West, Radio KFJC, 89.7 on your FM dial, broadcasting from Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California," a personal favorite. Ted Bed always sounded like he'd been up all night flying on candyflip in a cyberclub.

Most kids couldn't afford their own cyberdecks, but there were plenty of clubs with wall-sized Abbott wafer screens on three out of the four walls. Users in the club wore stereo-shutter flicker glasses. Cheap and dirty video technology would capture their dancing images and put them up into the big cube of shared cyberspace above the dance floor, and the deck would mix the dancers with daemons, simmies and active tool icons: virtual buttons, dials and sliders the dancers could use to change the synthetic musical sounds. Flying on a and e: everyone inside the same rave deck, everyone inside the controls. It would be interesting if the ants showed up in those clubs. The Attack of the Giant Ants! It's Them!

The ants, the ants, the ants. I had a feeling that it was thanks to the ants I'd been fired from GoMotion. Thanks to the ants I'd seen the Death simmie, that thing that called itself Hex DEF6. Thanks to the ants, Hex DEF6 had gotten the opportunity to threaten to have me and my children tortured and killed. As I reached toward the map to turn it off, the ant image rocked her head and let her pixels turn into a plat--a lot-by-lot map--of Nga's street. I turned the map off anyway. I had arrived.


Copyright © 1994, 2002 by Rudy Rucker; published by Four Walls Eight Windows. The Hacker and the Ants, Version 2.0. By Rudy Rucker, Four Walls Eight Windows; 308 pages; $13.95 paper.


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From the August 7-13, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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