Tom Georgoulias Interview to Rudy Rucker for Frontwheel Drive. Austin, Texas, 6/20/2002

Q: What kinds of gnarly computer research (Cellular Automata, fractals, A-Life, etc.) are you actively doing these days? A: Iím about ready to lay down my programming tools. I pretty much shot my wad creating the Pop game framework for my textbook Software Engineering and Computer Games. I did more programming on that than Iíve ever done. Writing science fiction is a lot more fun. You want a frammistat in SF, then all you have to do is describe it once, and if thereís a problem with it later on, you just go back and change a few words. Quick revision cycles! The ďbuilding a cathedral out of toothpicksĒ aspect of programming does get old. At SJSU Iím teaching more graduate courses now and advising more Masterís degree theses. This means I can try to get students to do the programming work for things Iíd like to see. One interesting project I have right now, is that a student named Wyley Dai is extending my Pop game framework to use four space dimensions. He has a four-dimensional Space Invaders working pretty well, and I hope he can get a four-dimensional Pacman. One of these days I want to get a student to add cellular automata to the Pop framework, so we can have surfing on a CA wave. Iíd like to see chaos in a game context as well. Maybe Iíll give a talk on some of these notions at the Game Developerís Conference in San Jose next spring. Thatís my favorite conference these days. Q: Now that Stephen Wolfram has released his long awaited book, A New Kind of Science, which focuses on complexity and cellular automata, what do you think the net effect of the book is going to be on the CA field? A: It should be a real shot in the arm. I was considering writing a jump-on-the-bandwagon book along the lines of What Wolfram Said. But I found out itís already too late for that. Which is kind of a relief. All I really want to do these days is write science fiction. As for CAs, Iíll just settle for being one of the lesser-known ďstations of the crossĒ for CA popularizersí Sacred Quest. I read Wolframís book through once, quickly, and I like it a lot. Many of the ideas are familiar to me from things he said back in the 1980s. But he pushes them a bit further, and heís really done the legwork in terms of checking out examples. Iím (very slowly) working on a longish, detailed review of the book for the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society , and I hope to use the book as a text in a course I teach at SJSU in Spring, 2003. To rush and say much more now would be premature. John Updike once compared critics to ďpigs at a pastry cart.Ē Hereís this mammoth volume that took a genius ten or twenty years to write, and people want to rush out quick-draw sound bites on it? ďGobble, gobble, tastes like prune!Ē Q: Your computer science textbook Software Engineering and Computer Games is coming out from Addison Wesley this fall. Are video games a good way to teach computer science? A83: IMHO, having students do computer games projects is absolutely the best possible way to teach programming, graphics, software engineering, object oriented programming, etc. I used to be into photography, and I managed to get hold of this very nice camera, a Leica M4. And I was constantly shooting pictures with it. And then I wanted another lens, and I went to a store that carried Leica stuff, and I found out that a lot of people were into collecting Leicas, like keeping them in glass cases. To me, a camera is for taking pictures. And a programming tool like Visual Studio or the JDK is for writing programs. Not for collecting different versions of, or for arguing about, or for comparing to other products. Itís there to use. Writing a game is a nice big problem that makes you program a lot. To take pictures, you need to have something you like taking pictures of. To learn how to write, you need to have something you want to write about. And to learn programming, you need something you want to program about. Itís very easy for a student to get excited about making a game work. A second win with teaching games programming is that the homework is very easy to grade. The game works or it doesnít; itís playable or it isnít. Iíve been teaching my sections of the Software Engineering course at SJSU this way for about ten years. Over the years I built up the Pop framework so that students can build on it to make games pretty easily. Iím proud of the code, itís been used for about a hundred games now. I have some of the better ones up for download. The Pop framework is thoroughly OO, basically you just edit one file to overload a few methods and youíve got your game: Pacman, Asteroids, 3D Defender, Airhockey, Soccer, whatever. I used patterns and UML to try and get the design right. Graphically, I designed it so you can run the game inside a Windows window, instead of taking over the whole screen (which Iíve always considered to be morally wrong!). You can either use Windows graphics or OpenGL; switching between them is a nice example of using the Bridge pattern. Itís all in the book. I donít think Iíll ever write a textbook again, though, itís been an insane amount of effort. I do hope the book sells well. Q: I just finished reading Spaceland, your latest science fiction novel, about a Silicon Valley manager who is invited into the fourth dimension. Not only does the book nail the climate of the dot com boom, the fourth dimension experience is described extremely well and the story is funny to boot. What prompted or influenced you to write Spaceland? A: The book is inspired by Edwin Abbottís 1884 book, Flatland. That book is a tale --- not really a novel --- about a two dimensional character called A Square and about his difficulties in understanding the third dimension. Our situation is similar: weíre three dimensional creatures trying to understand the fourth dimension. The idea is that we can form useful analogies between A Square and ourselves. Four is to three as three is to two. Thanks to Abbott, I ended up writing two non-fiction books about the fourth dimension. And now I thought it would be interesting to make the fourth dimension work in a realistic novel. I call my main character Joe Cube. In Spaceland, I was particularly interested in working out how things would look if I could travel out into the fourth dimension. Nobody's ever pushed that notion very far before. Flatland is set on December 31, 1999. A Sphere from the higher (third) dimension appears, passing through Flatland. So when that day rolled around in reality, I wanted to have something amazing like that happen, I wanted a 4D creature to enter our world. Thatís the Y2K event I was really waiting for, and since it didnít happen in fact, I wrote it into reality. Another thing I wanted to do in Spaceland was to depict my native Silicon Valley, kind of like the way I did in The Hacker and the Ants. So far Spaceland seems to be doing pretty well. Just for fun I went ahead and posted my working notes for it on my page for the book. The Hacker and the Ants will be reissued by Four Walls Eight Windows this winter, by the way, complete with a cover by my daughter Georgiaís New York design company, Q: Was Realware really the final *Ware book, or can we fans begin quietly speculating on the fifth installment? A: Hey, a series is never over till the author dies, and even then it might not be over. Iím as curious as you are about what happens to Cobb Anderson after he leaves Earth in that flying saucer. But, remember, there were nine years between Wetware and Freeware, so Iím not severely due for another *Ware till 2009. And maybe by then the market for a book of that nature will be stronger. And, no, Iím not telling anyone yet what I would call it. Jinx, you know. Make up all the silly Ware names you like, but you wonít get the True Name out of me. Vaporware, Shovelware, Stoneware, Silverware, Underware, Earthenware, Senileware, Noware --- Iíve heard Ďem all. In the near term, I donít plan a sequel partly for reasons having to do with the publishing industry. Harper Collins, owner of Avon, the publisher of the *Ware books, was bought by a megacorporation called News Corporation, which is the creation, I believe, of Rupert Murdoch. If youíre an author, over the years you find yourself being ďbought and soldĒ a countless number of times. A mid-list author like me isnít exactly the juiciest part of any acquisition; Iím more like a piece of chewing-gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe, something you pick up by accident. The News Corporation is bottomline-oriented, and Iím not viewed as a strong enough profit-generator. My books earn out, and then some, but Iím no Stephen King. This means that Avon has been quite resistant to books by me of late; they turned down Saucer Wisdom, Spaceland, and my forthcoming As Above, So Below. All of these were picked up by Tor Books, whom I now consider my primary fiction publisher. Another bad sign from Avon is that they may be letting my *Ware books go out of print. I know Wetware is out of print, for instance. I find this especially galling, as a guy called Craig Nova recently published an SF novel called Wetware that in fact treats my pet themes. (Novaís publisher is owned by the Bertelsmann AG megacorporation, which seems to independent of the News Corporation, so I canít get totally shrill and paranoid here.) In short, my problem with writing another *Ware in the next few years would be that Iím not at all sure Avon would want buy another *Ware just now, and I donít know if Tor would want to publish an ďorphanedĒ series book. And they might both be right. When you drag a series on too long, I think the readership can drop. Sooner or later, a movie of one of the *Ware books may get made. And then it would certainly be easy for me to sell another sequel, assuming Iím still alive. On the film front, Phoenix Pictures had an option on Software for about ten years, but that died. I was annoyed when Phoenix turned around and then released a Schwarzenegger movie, The Sixth Day, using some of my themes, complete with a yuppie mad scientist called Drucker (as in ďDr. RuckerĒ)! But Iíd rather not rant about that. Even as I type this interview, Iím inking a nice option agreement for Freeware with a Seattle outfit called Directed Evolution Networks. A Brooklyn-based director named Mark Mitchell just optioned Master of Space and Time as well. Hope springs eternal in the human breast. Q: Spirituality is on the rise in your later works, while mysticism was more a focus in the earlier stuff. Is this new found relationship with God closely tied with your sobriety, or just another step in the evolution of your religious leanings? A: God, thatís a minefield of questions. Yeah, man, Iím a reformed alkie lay-preacher standing waist deep in a river hollering, ďAsk God for help and youíll get it!Ē Veins standing out in my forehead, eyes popping from my head. Not. Never fear, Iím not going to get all born-again or flakognostic on you. Iím an Episcopalian; my father was an Episcopal priest. Since my twenties Iíve been a mystic as well, someone who believes the Universe is One, the One is Unknowable, and the One is right here. An additional belief that I tacked on when I turned fifty is that you can actually ask the One for help. Thatís a standard teaching of ordinary religion, of course, but Iíd never much tried it before. Itís been my experience that, for whatever reason, asking for help seems to work. I get the help right away, not for things like winning a lottery, but for things like staying sober, being kinder, and feeling less uptight. Maybe there really isnít a God, maybe asking for help just sets off some neurochemical process in my head. Whatever; for me it works. Some of this experience seeps into my books, but itís not something I would want to make central. Iím well aware that, for very many people, any hint of religion is a turn-off. A science fiction novel is supposed to be entertainment, not a textbook or tract. Q: Is there any other projects or novels underway that you want mention before we wrap this up? A: Iíve written a historical novel about the sixteenth-century Flemish painter Peter Bruegel. Itís called As Above, So Below, and itís coming from Tor Books this fall. I think itís a masterpiece. No SF, though, I didnít want to drag this one in the gutter! Bruegel has always fascinated me. His early paintings of Hell are somewhat science-fictional, his later paintings of peasants are wonderfully real. He often includes something vulgar, such as someone taking a dump. None of his works ever hung in churches. His landscapes show a profound sense of the cosmic divinity inherent in the world. His technical mastery is fabulous. Heís deep and funny. Heís one of my main men. His life isnít very well documented, so I got to make up a lot. I used reverse transrealism to deduce his life from his paintings. Iíd like to write like Bruegel paints. Currently Iím working on a longish SF novel with working title Frek and the Elixir. Itíll take me maybe another year to finish writing it. Itís an epic, light-hearted SF novel of biotechnology, suitable for young and old. I imagine flap copy something like the following: ďThe year is 3003 and the tweaked plants and animals are quite wonderful --- but thereís only a few dozen species left. Nature herself has been McDonalds-ized. Itís up to Frek Huggins, a lad from dull, sleepy Middleville, to venture out into the galaxy to fetch an elixir to restore Earthís biosphere. At least thatís what a friendly alien cuttlefish tells him the elixir will do. But can you really trust aliens?Ē For that matter, can you trust me?