Gary Singh Interview to Rudy Rucker for Metro, a free weekly newspaper. San Jose, 7/20/2003

Q: You've said that working in Silicon Valley has been a great opportunity for you as a writer, as if William Blake had worked in a textile mill. Explain. A: We just went through a revolution here as big as the Industrial Revolution. It's been nice to get in on it and not be frowning at it from the outside. Nice to know it from the inside as a programmer, a teacher, a consumer, as a guy walking around seeing the Silicon Valley types. Nice to ride the wave of change, yet at the same time to feel cozy and at home in the midst of it. I think Y2K Silicon Valley is a culture that will people will always be curious about, like Paris in the Twenties or Pharaonic Egypt, and I was fortunate to be here to see it happen. Q: In the new updated version of The Hacker and the Ants, you said that you made the main character of Jerzy Rugby a "more pleasant person and gave him a more coherent emotional life." Why? Are you getting more PC in your old age, or is it just that you, yourself, are more pleasant and coherent these days? You also completely changed the ending. A: I thought it would be funny to change the ending. Like itís just a computer program. Walt Whitman kept changing Leaves of Grass for his whole life. And yeah, I'm mellower, a bit more serene, less bitter and angry, not as much of a punk. I'm leading a cleaner life than I used to, also I've gotten a certain measure of worldly success. I really only changed one thing about the ending, I had Jerzy get back together with his wife, whereas before he was getting divorced, and was chasing after a young girl. But I want my readers to like Jerzy, and I think the idea of him dating a young girl just seems too desperate and gnarly. And I am in fact with my same wife Sylvia of 36 years, and it seems more realistic to have Jerzy end up with his wife too. Maybe fixing the ending this way is a kind of valentine to her. Q. There's one scene where Jerzy is in a pay phone in the Fairmont Hotel, calling a Vietnamese restaurant near the corner of Tenth Street and Taylor. Then he goes through San Jose State, south past the dorms (which are no longer there), and makes it over to where Super Taqueria is and then finds the Vietnamese restaurant. But this is Tenth & William, not Tenth & Taylor. What gives? Have you ever gotten a local street or place wrong and had someone call you on it? Or, since this is all so transreal ó it's fiction, of course ó does it even matter if the streets are right? A: Well, I'm glad you care enough to notice this. I wish Iíd gotten it right. Usually I look at a map when I write this kind of scene, but as the SJSU campus area is so familiar to me, I omitted this customary step. It would be cool if someday there were like literary walking tours of San Jose and Los Gatos. Dude, I can be like Steinbeck for Monterey! We'll tear down the Knight Ridder building and put up an aquarium! Sell inflatable Rudy Rucker dolls! Q. Why ants? Why not cockroaches? There's all this fuss about the fact that cockroaches can last longer than anything else--that they can supposedly survive radiation and/or gamma rays, etc. What do you think would happen if cockroaches started using computers? A: Ants are cute, cockroaches arenít. Also I happen to know a lot more about ants, I read these E. O. Wilson books about them. The fact that ants are so highly social is a big thing, too, and I'm not sure if cockroaches have the same kind of intricate colony thing going on. And, hey, the ants are in fact ďusingĒ the computers in The Hacker and the Ants, that's what the book's about! Q. In Hacker and the Ants, Bety Byte and Vanna live in one of the shoddy apartment complexes on San Salvador Street, right across from San Jose State University. You've said that the city will no doubt tear down those apartments one of these days, which brings us to the next question. Downtown San Jose is a place where things are constantly being constructed right next to things that are being torn down. Places are going out of business right next to new ones opening up. It's been that way for the last 30 years. The neighborhood is constantly changing, but never actually goes anywhere. Would you say that San Jose's redevelopment strategy for Downtown is functioning like cellular automaton? A: It would be fun to imagine zooming out and looking down at San Jose and watching the changes in the grid. You could assign a color to each block and then have an update rule where a block's contents next year is a function of its neighboring blocks this year. But you'd see that there isn't a local CA rule that is in fact emulating San Jose's redevelopment. The reason is that higher authorities keep reaching in and poking this or that cell. Instead of letting it evolve in organic concert with its neighbors. We're in such a rush to have our fair city get it together. When I moved here, I read the hype, and I bought it, and I thought San Jose would soon bloom. And it's nice to go there sometimes. But usually it's so deserted. Certainly it's never going to turn into San Francisco. What's the solution? Convincing a whole lot of people to live downtown seems important. It's kind of hot and flat and loud there, though. Lots and lots of big trees and greenery might help, if we can get the water. Less lowflying planes. A lot more awnings and shaded colonnades. Narrower streets. I think turning the Cargill salt ponds back into wetlands will make a difference, make the air that much sweeter. Q: San Jose seems to be a place forever searching for an identity. Now that the dot-com hysteria is finally over, who or what do you think can possibly put San Jose on the map? A: Well, I think all we've got is the capital of Silicon Valley thing. But that's kind of diffuse. Donít forget we used to be a big Hells Angels town. And now weíve got a fair number of ethnic gangs. I've learned to enjoy our San Ho just for being what she is. I walk the streets near the SJSU campus and I dig it. Sunny, dusty, dry. An exact balance of Hispanics, Asians, and whites walking around. Palm trees. Messy yards, old cars, a certain amount of trash on the sidewalks. A few homeless people and nuts. Peace. It beats the hell out of being in a mall. I enjoy the sleepy, frayed quality. It feels free. Q: I recently spoke with Caroll Spinney, the guy who's played Big Bird for the last 34 years. Wherever he goes in public--without the costume--no one knows who he is. He claims to be the most famous unknown person in the world. Do you ever feel like the most famous unknown person in San Jose? A: Yes, I think that sometimes. I never get invited to rich people's houses or anything, no patrons of the arts. Nobody reads, nobody reads science fiction, and especially nobody read far-out literary science fiction. It doesn't bother me. I have a peaceful life. I'm in no rush. America has a tradition of unknown great men. Q. D.H. Lawrence infuriated several acquaintances in his hometown of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, England by unfavorably mentioning them in his books. Have you ever pissed off anyone around here by using him or her as a character? A: It's important to make clear that I don't really use people I know as characters. The transrealist method is to model my characters on real people I've seen. But these are only models, who end up behaving very differently from my acquaintances. It's fiction, words on paper. This said, people usually like it if they can recognize some bit of themselves in one of my characters. It's a touch of free immortality. My officemate Jon Pearce is proud that the character Ben Brie talks like him. The character Roger Coolidge in The Hacker and the Ants was inspired by my former boss at Autodesk, John Walker. And John didn't like it that "his" character dies at the end. So he wrote an alternate ending where his character not only lives, but gets to give Jerzy a lecture about how dumb he is! Q. Lastly, what's on tap next for Rudy Rucker? Your novel Frek and the Elixir is coming out next year. What's after that? Do you want to concentrate more on writing or programming or teaching or all of the above? A: I'm trying to sell a proposal for a nonfiction book about computers and the mind. I keep changing the working title. Today itís The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: Computation and Reality. Iím eager to write this book. I've been here in Silicon Valley for almost twenty years and its high time to try and sort out the ways in which computers have changed the way I see the world. Time for William Blake to come out of that textile mill, dust himself off, and tell us what he saw. I might even be able to use the book in our Introduction to Computers course at SJSU. But in any case, Iíll keep teaching for a few more years. This Fall, 2003, term Iíll be teaching computer graphics and two sections of our new course on programming computer games. Q: Itís been said that any real city should have a local bard who fictionalizes the place in several novels, and that sometimes a city isnít a great city until that happens. Do you want to do for Silicon Valley what Tennessee Williams did for New Orleans, what Paul Bowles did for Tangier, or what Naguib Mahfouz did for Cairo? A: That has a nice sound to it, sure. And I certainly plan to set more novels in and around San Jose. But San Jose and Silicon Valley are too big a job for any one bard. San Joseís already a real city, anyway. Itís what it is, not what anyone wants it to be. Life isnít about control. Q: The whole, gosh-darned dot-com bubble. Itís on everyoneís minds these days. At least around here. How did it all start? How did the bust happen? Who do you blame it on? What can we learn from it all? A: The bubble was basically caused by how easy it is to make a solid -looking web page. Instead of making something, a company could get by with HTML, Java and bullshit. A web page is almost literally like a bubble. Shiny, pretty, light. But with a few bitmaps and some shading, you can make a web page look like its made of metal. Play a recording of a heavy thunk, and youíve got the safe at Fort Knox! Everyone could go look at the web pages for themselves. That made a big impression. People kind of confused viewing a website with going to inspect an Intel chip fab or an Arco refinery. Show me some animated graphs with a positive slope and, hey, where do I send my money? What to learn? I donít know if we really can learn. Weíre dogs, lemmings, gnats. Iíd always remembered that story about the financier in 1929 saying that he knew it was time to get out of the market when a shoeshine boy asked him for stock tips. But when everybody was talking about stock in early 2001, even though I remembered the shoeshine boy, I went ahead I bought into the top of the bubble. Got some Sun right before it set. It was just so hard to resist seeing those numbers going up, with my boring savings account pulling in like one percent. I think the Y2K mania played into the dot-com bubble too. We had this feeling that the world was fundamentally going to change when all those nines rolled over. Thinks werenít going to be the same. We were free of history. I remember having that same feeling in 1969, not about finance, but about society. That weíd somehow come free of all the old rules. Remember Wired magazineís cover story on ďThe Long BoomĒ? And then Wired themselves started marketing a mutual fund? So much hype, so much con. Maybe Metro should start a fund. Be sure to include pho parlors. One of these days pho is going to be so big. As for blame, Iím not sure there really has to be blame. Dot com gave the Valley more visibility, and ramped up the electronic infrastructure. Certainly a lot of us lost some money. Where the heck did that money go? Who got it? Who actually made money off the bubble? Thatís a question for the journalists to figure out. If I had to blame anyone for Californiaís downturn, Iíd certainly want to point a finger at Enron. They took our whole surplus in like three weeks. And of course you canít forget 9-11 and all the terrible things spinning out of that. Q: What is the future wave of Silicon Valley, now that the hysteria has subsided and the traffic has dwindled somewhat? Will there be more people walking around with Ruckeresque notions of the world? A: Silicon Valley has a bright future. We make interesting stuff that everyone wants. Nobody knows how to get as crazy as Californians. Nobody knows as much about computers as we do, theyíll never catch us. In another year or two, everyoneís nice new machines are finally going to start wearing out. Downloadable movies are a huge killer app just over the bandwidth horizon. Computer games are huge, and growing. Wireless interactive movies/games could be big. As for Ruckeresque notions, my next project is to write that nonfiction book to explain exactly what these are. And thereís a couple of movie options for my books that could spread the word far and wide. But you never know with movie options. Sometimes it takes a really long time to finally hit. One important thing about computers is to realize that at some point you can let go of them. The actual world is more interesting than any machine can ever be. Nature, face-to-face conversations with real people, enjoying the sensations of your physical body. My feeling is that the real value of computers is in giving you a bunch of metaphors for better appreciating daily life. Turn off the buzz and go outside. Itís a nice day. Itís always a nice day here. Even when it rains.