Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review of Software by Rudy Rucker

Cyberpunk has its gods.  Every genre reader knows the names Gibson, Sterling, and Cadigan.  But tinkering in the shadows, and some in plain site though unseen, are a handful of other writers producing highly creative, intelligent material in the medium—or at least somewhere nearby.  One such writer who undoubtedly slips under the radar of most readers is Rudy Rucker.  His Ware tetralogy, starting with Software (1982), is the perfect example of non-mainstream cyberpunk possessing a creativity and intelligence worth the while.  And it’s just damn funny—obliquely so, but for the proper audience it’s more than a proper book.

Dr. Cobb Anderson, the man who set robot sentience free, finds himself in old age and in need of a new heart.  A robotic doppelganger offering salvation, Anderson receives the offer of a lifetime (literally): to go to the moon and there have his mind transferred into a mechanical body—immortality in digital form at the expense of his mortal coil.  Meanwhile, drug addict and burnout Sta-Hi Mooney the 1st (born Stanley Moonley Jr.) likewise finds himself in an unenviable position: in the hands of brain eating serial killers.  Escaping to the moon, he finds himself surprisingly in the company of Anderson.  The lunar colony heavily populated by robots, slowly Anderson’s goal and the fate Mooney sought to escape, collide.

This plot summary seeming unlikely, even comical, indeed Software is not uber-serious hard sf intended to revision physics from some fundamental angle, or any other such playground of the sub-genre.  Much more Robert Sheckley than Hal Clement, Rucker depicts an intentionally absurd scenario in order that the human elements might pop out.  The result naturally dependent on how the scenario is portrayed, Rucker succeeds by going point-counter point with Anderson and Mooney against an intentionally conventional sf backdrop.  One seemingly an intelligent man and the other a low-life constantly under the influence of drugs, the difference in their perspectives on digital “life” allows Rucker to play with the subjectivity of identity, and the limitations of existence (in any form).

But this may be perhaps too serious a view to the novel.  For certain the main enjoyment of Software lies in Rucker’s wit.  Mooney’s antics are often laugh out loud, and the robots on the moon, with their intentionally wacky façade, are presented in no less humorous style.  Well aware of the sandbox he’s playing in, Rucker uses the preceding decades of robot stories to highly comical effect.  Calling them ‘boppers’ (a word so lateral as to be funny in itself), their Golden Age portrayal (Hugo Gernsback’s immensely naïve view springs quickly to mind) is a delight.

Like Paul Di Filippo, Robert Sheckley, James Morrow, and others, Rudy Rucker is for the connoisseur of science fiction.  And Software is no exception.  Deceivingly genre, robots and lunar life dance comically on the surface, all the while Rucker spins the music of cyberpunk-ish commentary on the human condition and its relationship to technology.  Operating outside the mainstream, the novel is for readers looking for something unconventional, a bit gonzo in style, and madcap in wit.

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