Gnarl! is k3wl stuff

Stories by one of cyberpunk's founding fathers.

RUDY RUCKER'S MOTTO is "seek ye the gnarl." His fascinating 1999 collection of nonfiction essays, called Seek!, was so much brain-busting fun it got me looking forward to Gnarl!, his companion fiction collection. Ergo, gnarly Seek! caused me to seek Gnarl!. Dude.

OK, that didn't quite work. Writing is a tricky business, which is why Rucker—a professor of computer science at San Jose State as well as one of the founding authors of cyberpunk—is such an unusual character. His background is mathematics (with a special fondness for the elegant convolutions of fractal figures, hence the motto and the titles), and though his peer group includes c-punk stalwarts such as Bruce Sterling and Marc Laidlaw, he has a great deal in common with that well-known and over-invoked fantasist-mathematician Lewis Carroll. Gnarl!, a collection of three dozen of Rucker's better short stories from the past quarter-century, showcases some of the opportunities he's taken to cowrite ("jam," as he puts it) with his living peer group, but many of the best items strongly invoke that other guy.

Gnarl!

by Rudy Rucker (Four Walls Eight Windows, $20)

Of his c-punk cohorts, Rucker's always struck me as the one least fascinated by mere technology and most enthralled with sloppy, wayward humanity; you sense that despite their technological imperfections, he likes people. His characters are at least as apt to spout inarticulate hippie ravings as desperately k3wl cyber-jargon. (Put another way, Rucker characters ingest as many dumb drugs as smart drugs. Plenty of both to go 'round, though.) Occasionally the stories leave both tracks and go entirely into a classic SF/fantasy mode, such as the sweet "Easy as Pie," a retelling of the golden goose fairy tale you wouldn't hesitate to read to your average 6-year-old—try that with Snow Crash—or the Harlan Ellison-like "Soft Death." (Rucker invokes The Ellison in other ways, too: Many of Rucker's female characters have all the depth of two-dimensional space, a problem he acknowledges with some embarrassment.)

ON THE OTHER HAND, this is genre fiction, where characterization takes a back seat to plot and concept. If you want minutely delineated personality studies, you're barking up the wrong review. If you want to twist your mind around how an abstract numbers-theory concept might manifest itself in Pythagoras' moment-of-death hallucinations, ponder the gender-bending possibilities of sex in zero gravity, or make merry at the expense of industry figures like Bill Gates, Ross Perot, and Esther Dyson (the latter two pseudonymous in "Big Jelly," but not Gates for some reason), Rucker will take you for a lively ride. Of special interest are his experiments in unusual forms, some of which bore loopy fruit in seminal cyberculture magazines such as the late Mondo 2000.

Short stories aren't a lucrative pursuit even when you're a founding father of cyberpunk; Rucker's scientific pursuits and his novel-length works keep him busy these days, and this anthology is probably the last collection of shorter fiction we'll get from him. Moreover, no interesting writer is consistently excellent. Though the author has revised several of these pieces, not everything holds up, and though the author suggests that the stories get better as the book goes along, I'm not sure that that's so. (I could go the whole rest of my life without reading another Rucker-Laidlaw surf story, especially if it takes valuable pages away from his fun, shorter numbers-come-to-life pieces such as "The Man Who Was a Cosmic String.") But what short-story collection doesn't misfire in spots? Allow for the occasional misstep and let yourself be entertained by the techno-humanity of Rudy Rucker; he's already amused by yours.

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