Konrad Walewski Interview to Rudy Rucker for Ubik, a Polish science-fiction magazine. Warsaw, 5/23/2003

Q: You have developed successful careers both as a scientist and as a fiction writer. Do you find these activities to be fundamentally different, or do they share underlying affinities? A: Recently Iíve been looking back on my life and trying to draw some conclusions about my various activities. And I find Iím not inclined to force everything onto a monistic one-size-fits-all Procrustean bed. (The Greek bandit Procrustes was said to have a stone bed of a certain fixed length, and if you were too long for it, heíd chop off your feet or your head, and if you were too short heíd stretch you on the rack.) My thinking these days is more along the lines of William James in A Pluralistic Universe. Here James argues for pluralism rather than monism ó that the world is fundamentally Many things rather than being a single overarching One. In other words, yes, I think doing science is quite essentially different from writing fiction. In science you wear blinders and work with one very limited set of ideas; in fiction you try and expand your heart and mind so as to fit everything in. Q: What has drawn you to writing SF, what was it about that genre that appealed to you? A: Sense of wonder, goofs and eyeball kicks, transformation of mundane reality. Very early I picked up the trick of regarding my everyday reality as science-fictional. Iíd like to be amused by the daily news, by the things I see in stores, and by the fashions on the streets. Life is only tragic if you get manipulated into taking it seriously. Q: Which areas of contemporary mathematics and computer science do you find most stimulating both as a scientist and a SF writer? A: I think thereís some good material in Stephen Wolframís book A New Kind of Science. I just developed a website about this stuff, you can link to it from my home page www.rudyrucker.com. Certainly there still isnít enough SF about chaos and fractals. Recently Iíve been putting a lot of energy into developing a course on programming computer games, see my textbook and downloadable C++ framework at www.rudyrucker.com/computergames/ I think computer games are the most interesting area of CS nowadays. Everything comes together here: artificial intelligence, graphics, simulation, 3D modeling, virtual reality, art, sound. Iím working with some of my Masterís degree students to develop games using chaos, fractals, cellular automata, artificial life and other such glorious CS gnarl of the 1990s. As for writing an SF novel about a computer game ó I almost feel like this as been done badly so many times that itís untouchable as a topic. Like painting a sunset. Yet I really did like the recent computer game novel Lucky Wander Boy. I guess I could maybe do a game novel some day. My friend Marc Laidlaw is working on one called God Mode. Iíd like to maybe combine my game novel with something about the Howard Stern show, which strikes me as wonderfully science fictional. Bug Jack Barron come to life. Q: While reading your Infinity and the Mind one could have an impression that modern mathematics is no longer merely an analytical tool but it gravitates towards philosophy... A: Yes, when I was writing that book, I used to imagine that Set Theory could serve as an exact theology. Back then I thought everything was mathematics, in particular I though that everything was an infinite set. But now Iím in my pluralistic non-Procrustean phase, and I feel like thereís very little connection between abstract mathematics and the funky true God that you might find glowing in the chakra just above your prayerful scalp. Q: Youíve had an opportunity to meet Kurt GŲdel... A: The great logician. Those meetings were a big deal for me, in the early 1970s. I was lucky. Pretty much everything I remember is in Infinity and the Mind. Philosophers always ask me about meeting GŲdel. In the Fall of 2003, I was in Brussels for a semester, and when I gave a talk on ďThe Philosophy of Computer Science,Ē I was billed as ďthe last man to speak with Kurt GŲdel.Ē Q: Your Ware novels deal with such issues as artificial lifeforms or intelligent machines. Do you think that contemporary science is getting any closer to producing them, or combining human tissue with a microchip, nanobot or any other artificial component, and do you think that cyborgization of humans is a likely evolutionary step? A: Having recently taught the Artificial Intelligence course in the CS department here at San Jose State University, I currently feel that human-like machines are really quite far away. Present day AI is a random grab-bag of tricks, none of which is able to scale up well to a wide range of large and realistic problems. We have essentially no theory about how the human mind works, not even any tentative ideas for how such a theory would look Cyborgian computer enhancements of humans, on the other hand, seem not so difficult. I donít think its inconceivable that in a century you could slap a patch on your neck which would act something like a web browser which overlays its display onto the contents of your retina. Indeed, I often mention such a device in my SF; I call it an ďuvvy.Ē Q: Unlike the New Wave writers of the 1960ís and 70ís, who were very pessimistic about the effects of science and technology, in your novels and stories technology and science are rather neutral (neither good nor particularly evil), they are something natural, yet difficult to control like, for instance, in The Hacker and the Ants... How do you perceive science and technology nowadays, and do you think that we may lose control over them one day in the future? A: I like how you put that, Konrad. ďDifficult to control.Ē A dry understatement. Thatís the essence of complex systems. Itís not so much that they resist being controlled as that itís so difficult to predict the effects of turning a given dial or flipping a certain bit. This property of complex systems is what Stephen Wolfram calls ďirreducibility.Ē He feels, probably correctly, that pretty much any system that isnít obviously simple is going to be irreducible in the sense that thereís no superduper shortcut way of predicting what itíll do when you turn this little knob here. All you can do is turn the knob and watch what happens. And then if I donít like what I see and quickly turn the knob back, itís already too late, as the system has evolved into a new state, and is likely to go on and do something even more surprising even though I turned the knob back. Almost everything interesting is complex and unpredictable: nature, society, other people, machines. We never did have control over any of it. Q: Your characters are frequently scientists. To what degree do you draw inspiration from your own career as a scientist when you model your protagonists? A: Iím not a very typical scientist. I wouldnít say that Iíve made much of a mark in science. Iím more of a teacher and maybe a philosopher of science. And Iíve had some fun tinkering with computer programs, making gnarly things for people to look at and think about. As for modeling protagonists, I do often draw on myself or on people I know. Thatís an aspect of what I call my ďtransrealistĒ approach. To describe immediate reality in a science fictional way. I think Stanislaw Lem did that too. Heís one of my favorite SF writers by the way. Thereís a tradition of great minds from Poland; Iím thinking now of such mathematicians as Banach, Tarski, Mostowski, and above all, Stanislaw Ulam, inventor of the hydrogen bomb, measurable cardinals, and cellular automata. Any chance of me getting a visiting academic position there? Q: On the other hand, many of your characters are very human, often weak, or even losers, having to face all sorts of crises. They remind me of Philip K. Dickís anti-heroes. Has Dick had any influence on your work? A: When I first discovered Phil Dickís work, I was really happy. He often has this very relaxed, unstuffy way about him. Just folks. And I like that his ďfolksĒ arenít good patriotic honest workers, no, theyíre neurotics. On the other hand, if I read too much Dick, I get sick of how desperately unhappy his characters are. Heíll set up some really interesting world, and then have chapter after chapter of a guy arguing with his wife about nothing. Itís realistic, but itís not necessarily what I want from an SF book. I want humor, sense of wonder, eyeball kicks, reality warps, conceptual breaks. Dick can do all of those, but I think sometimes his own demons took over and youíre just getting page after page of purging. Dick is esteemed, I think, for his sensibility as much as for his particular works, as so few of them are fully successful. Q: You have written some stories in collaboration with such writers as Bruce Sterling, Paul Di Filippo, Marc Laidlaw or, more recently, with your own son. What specific advantages does working with another writer have, and have you ever been tempted to write a novel in collaboration with another writer, just like Sterling and Gibson did? A: I lack self-esteem when it comes to short stories. Iíve had so many of my short stories rejected over the years. If I write one, thereís no assurance whatsoever that I can sell it, and even if I do sell it, the payment is jack. In terms of my artistic career, writing stories is a pointless activity. I tend to collaborate on them because (a) somebody wants to do it and they goad me into writing a story together, or (b) I think it would be fun to work together with someone as it can be like a long and entertaining conversation, or (c) I figure that if I link my name to someone else there maybe some hope of selling the story. I think the story ďJenna and MeĒ that I wrote with my son is really cool, but none of the print magazines would dare publish it, as it mocks George Bush. You can read it for free online at www.infinitematrix.net/stories/shorts/jenna_and_me.html. This said, I am right now writing a story alone, itís called ďThe Men in the Back Room at the Country Club.Ē As for writing a novel in collaboration, no, I donít think I would do that. Iím able to sell all of my novels without much trouble. Spending that much time collaborating with someone would be too much hassle, it would make it more work. Q: Your novel As Above, So Below is a fictionalized version of the life of the Flemish painter Peter Bruegel the Elder. What made a mathematician and a science fiction writer to write a historical book? A: [Reprised from A87 and A100.] 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 shit. 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 think I write like Bruegel paints. I think As Above So Below came out well, in fact I think itís a masterpiece. I'd dreamed that As Above, So Below would be a cross-over best-seller, and that I would write a follow-up novel about Hieronymus Bosch, but in fact my bookís had very few reviews, so Iím not so optimistic on that front anymore. Q: Whatís your latest project? A: I just finished writing a long childrenís novel called Frek and the Elixir, and Iíve sold it to Tor Books for publication in Spring, 2003. Hereís some draft for flap copy that I wrote about it for my book website www.rudyrucker.com/frek/. Forgive the hype, but I really would like to see this book do well. Frek and the Elixir is a profound, playful SF epic. The central theme is human individuality vs. the homogeneity of monoculture. Itís 3003 and the biotech tweaked plants and animals are quite wonderful ó but there are only a few dozen of the old species left. Nature has been denatured by the profiteers of NuBioCom. Itís up to Frek Huggins, a lad from dull, sleepy Middleville, to venture out into the galaxy to fetch an elixir to restore Earthís lost species. At least thatís what a friendly alien cuttlefish tells him the elixir will do. But can you really trust aliens? Frek finds himself in the midst of a galactic struggle for humanityís freedom, accompanied by his talking dog Wow, the downhome mutant Gibby, and an asteroid-raised girl named Renata. The final liberation depends on freeing Frekís long-lost father from an all-seeing alien known as the Magic Pig. Frek and the Elixir is an archetypal saga reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter books, and Phillip Pullmanís His Dark Materials series ó enlivened by my (ahem) trademark originality and wit. In order to give Frek and the Elixir a truly mythic feel, I modeled the book on the ďmonomythĒ template described in Joseph Campbellís classic The Hero with A Thousand Faces (as George Lucas is said to have done for Star Wars.) Frek and the Elixir was designed from the ground up to match the monomyth so as to give the book the greatest possible resonance. Campbellís archetypal myth includes seventeen stages. By combining two pairs of stages, I ended up with fifteen chapters. Hereís a little table presenting the my chapter numbers and titles with the corresponding Cambellian stages. Chap Title Monomyth Stage(s) ---------------------------------------------------------------------- 1 Middleville, 3003 The Call 2 The Thing Under Frek's Bed Refusal of the Call 3 In the Grulloo Woods The Helper 4 Stun City The Threshold 5 Professor Bumby The Belly of the Whale 6 Yunch! The Road of Trials 7 Renata The Goddess 8 Unipusk The Temptress 9 The Spaceport Bar Atonement with the Father 10 Orpoly Apotheosis 11 The Exaplex The Boon 12 All Hell Breaks Loose Refusal of the Return, and The Flight 13 The Revolution Rescue from Without, and The Return Threshold 14 The Shuggoths Master of Two Worlds 15 The Toons Freedom to Live ---------------------------------------------------------------------