“Consciousness is paradox,” Moto-O was saying now at Waxy’s bar. “But we exist in paradox. I raise my finger and all the world is there.”
“I don’t see how you plan to program this into Phizwhiz, Moto-O,” Vernor responded, sipping a beer.
I do not normally open my reviews with a quote, but in the case of Rudy Rucker’s Spacetime Donuts (1981) I make an exception: if you do not find piss-taking on zen philosophy contrasted by a supercomputer named Phizwhiz funny, then the novel is likely not for you.
Wacky on the surface yet guided by an undeniable intelligence, Rucker’s Spacetime Donuts is hard sf in the same sense that Stanislaw Lem is the hardest sf writer there is. Neither getting caught up in endless minutiae of worldbuilding, both cut straight to the heart of the issues at stake in abstract, theoretical fashion—“the place where science shades into fiction.”
Looking at the relativity of space/time in a screwball utopia/dystopia, Spacetime Donuts tells of Vernor Maxwell, a man who is a bit more ambitious than most in his post-needs society run by the supercomputer Phizwhiz. His knowledge of the system seeming valuable, he’s asked to join a group called the Angels, people who are mentally able to enter Phizwhiz and commune with the ideas and knowledge flowing there, all while under the influence of a bizarre drug called ZZ-74. New possibilities for humanity’s understanding of reality seeming to spring forth, further investigation is quickly shut down when the police stop the Angels project and throw Maxwell in jail. Knowing just the right nutcase, however, allows Maxwell to continue his research. And deep into physics—and perhaps metaphysics—he goes.
Compared to the actual novel, my plot introduction is like bread left on the counter for a week. Rucker writes with an understated sense of humor that is often laugh out loud funny, and keeps the pages turning. Another way of putting this is, Spacetime Donuts is the comedic genius of Sheckley reincarnated in a mind interested in the relationship between science and philosophy. It likewise means that if readers do not find Rucker’s brand of humor funny, their enjoyment of the book is likely to dip in unison (which points back to the introduction of this review).
In the end, Spacetime Donuts possesses an off-the-wall comedic genius that one rarely stumbles across, yet can fall immediately in love with. Something akin to version 2.0 of Edwin Abbot’s Flatland, Rucker examines the reality of physics in an absurdo-picaresque style that perpetually keeps a grin on the (appropriate) reader’s face. The setting and character interplay something of the original Idiocracy, content and purpose nevertheless look to critique micro/macro views to basic physics. I wish more fiction were this fun, but then again, if it were the norm, Rucker would not be the quiet genius he is.