REALWARE by Rudy Rucker (BOOK REVIEW)
“’What I want to say is that I hope Siss is telling the truth. And even six or seven of you could be a problem, frankly. If you start changing things, it could ruin our ecology. Your technology might overwhelm our civilisation.’
‘Indeed it will,’ said Peg. ‘But is your way of life so fine? Dare to dream of more than grubbing in the mud. Yoke, we bring you the power to alter matter with a touch of mind. This is a power our god Om bestows upon us – a power she now sees fit to grant to you. You’re lucky. Thanks to Shimmer’s having been decrypted here, Om has noticed you. Your race will live as sorcerers.’”
Realware (2000) is the final volume in Rudy Rucker’s Ware tetralogy, and brings the series to an appropriately bonkers conclusion. Whilst the previous volumes Software (1982), Wetware (1988) and Freeware (1997) are set at roughly ten or twenty year intervals, Realware picks up shortly after the end of Freeware. After aliens were decrypted from cosmic radiation and loaded into the bodies of moldies, artificial organisms made out of imipolex, chipmold fungus and the remnants of bopper software, our heroes were able to destroy all of them except for Shimmer, a being who experiences time in two dimensions, which allows her to experience different quantum realities at once and so evade any timeline where she is destroyed. Shimmer escaped to the Tonga Trench, and has made a deal with the King of Tonga, who has let her use his bandwidth to download and decrypt five of her fellow aliens. Shimmer and her fellow Metamartians want to make a deal with Yoke Starr-Mydol. The Metamartians gift Yoke an alla, a handheld device that allows the user to reorganise matter with their mind. But as the Metamartians benevolently distribute allas to humanity, people are beginning to mysteriously disappear – among them Yoke’s mother Darla and Phil Gottner’s father Kurt. As chaos spreads with the allas, it’s up to Yoke, her new boyfriend Phil, reformed cheeseball Randy Karl Tucker, Babs, daughter of senator Stahn Mooney, and Cobb Anderson, inventor of the bopper whose personality is now uploaded into a moldie, to unravel the mystery before the humans and the moldies destroy themselves.
Realware is another gonzo ride through advanced mathematics, higher dimensions, and playful surrealism. Once again Rucker builds on the previous novels but takes the reader in unexpected directions. There are two main SF strands running through Realware, one being an exploration of beings who live in higher dimensions, the other being a thought experiment about what the world would look like if people could have anything they wanted. This is far from the realm of most cyberpunk, even though the novel features the only sequence in the Wetware tetralogy actually set in cyberspace. The novel draws on Edward A. Abbot’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), a key text for Rucker, which imagines a two-dimensional character called A Square who is visited by the three-dimensional Sphere to explore ideas around higher dimensions. Similarly in Realware, Shimmer’s god Om, a being who inhabits higher dimensions than ours, visits our three-dimensional world, whilst Phil must visit Om’s four-dimensional world to rescue his father. Some of the novel’s most powerfully imaginative sequences are Rucker’s descriptions of how four-dimensional space might appear to humans. Rucker’s rigorous understanding of mathematics combines with his fascination with transcendence to create mind-bending and awe-inspiring sequences.
The allas in Realware form the other part of its main SFnal concern. Much like the ironic genie’s wish of legend, the Metamartian’s gift to humanity turns out to be a double-edged sword. Homelessness, starvation and want are solved overnight, but humanity’s greedy and destructive behaviour quickly spirals out of control, with people using the alla to create weapons or kill. Rucker’s vision of a world in which all of humanity’s needs and wants are catered to anticipates the major concern of his next major series and contribution to the cyberpunk genre, Postsingular (2007). The alla do not quite provide the singularity, but by solving the basic problems of humanity’s need for food and shelter, they cause the economy to fall apart overnight. People no longer need to work to support themselves, so many people spend all their time creating art, and money mostly exists to purchase experiences or custom-made items. Rucker imagines the almost limitless potential of the alla as a tool for making art. The ability to make everything out of molecules and dissipate it back into air when it isn’t being used puts a stop to humanity’s destructive use of Nature as a resource. However satisfying people’s material needs and wants does not solve all of humanity’s problems, and humanity, the moldies and the Metamartians all soon agree that the alla is disastrous for species living in one dimensional time.
However the heart of the novel is far more human and immediately relatable than extradimensional thought experiments. Realware is about Phil trying to deal with the death of his father. Rucker’s own father had died in the decade leading up to the writing of Realware, and Phil’s attempts to reconcile himself with his dead father are informed by Rucker’s own lived experience, in an example of what Rucker calls “transreal” writing, or writing that combines the science fictional with real life experience. Realware is in many ways an exploration of the complexity of the father/son relationship, the deep conflict and the deep love that define the parent/child dynamic. The final Ware book feels like an appropriate place to carry out this exploration. Cobb Anderson, from his first appearance in Software, was based on Rucker’s father, and a recurring theme throughout the four novels is the idea of inheritance, whether its across the complex interactions of the human families who shape the story or the legacy of Cobb to his intellectual offspring the boppers, or the evolutionary line through human to bopper to meatbop to moldie. Realware’s exploration of this theme of family makes it an emotionally powerful ending to the Ware tetralogy, a cyberpunk series that stretches the limits of what the genre can do.