Evolution and Escapism

Laura Lee

"So science is the struggle over the nature of our lives."

In Rudy Rucker's Software and Wetware, human evolution transcends species boundaries with a merging of human brain software and mechanical, robotic hardware. Though perceived by some of the characters as the next "logical step in our evolution,(Software, 49)" the fushion of human minds and robot bodies proves to be certainly disorienting and nearly pointless. One gets a sense that the newly-evolved human beings/boppers are stuck in limbo; having cheated death, they are somehow trapped in a paradox of having non-systematic, intuitive minds and emotions and highly-monitored, systematic bodies. The strange disjuncture between mind and body becomes much more differentiated in this form, as if the body does not respond intuitively to a mind that is exiled from it. It is interesting to see how Rucker portrays these human/bopper interfaces, how more and more death becomes a necessary element for prolonging one's life. In evolutionary terms, Rucker seems to suggest that certain forms of evolution -- namely human to bopper/human interfaces, require some necessary elimination of the human personality.

In Donna Haraway's Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, she addresses the issue of evolution as a possible escape from our own nature as human beings: "...when social control breaks down, we must expect to see pathological destruction. The lesson is that we must face our nature in order to control it.(p. 35)" In Rucker's novels, evolution appears to offer an escape from our own human nature through the destruction and replacement of human hardware -- escape from a physical existence that is subject to human physiological limits and aging. In the beginning of Software, Cobb Anderson is in a vulnerable, degenerated state of old age and bad health, with nothing to look forward to but a life of old age and retirement. As seventy-year old hippy who is tired of himself, he asks, "Why is everybody so interested in staying alive?" (p. 3) and drinks consistently enough to drown out his boredom. At the same time, however, he understands perhaps why people are so interested in "staying alive" because, "The fact of the matter was that he was terrified of death" (p. 3). In a world where death means the loss of self, the denaturing of individuality, the end of life can become the ultimate fear. Cobb's fear of death triggers his desire to accept the terms of his physical transformation to a human/bopper interface. When his bopper copy Cobb Anderson 2 promises Cobb immortality by giving him all-new body parts that will last forever, Cobb is won over. The prospect of having a renewed physical existence while preserving his thoughts, memories, emotions -- human software, that is -- denotes immortality without having to face the facts of natural human degeneracy and death. Yet we see from this evolutionary process that the transition from flesh to robotic hardware is problemmatic; the human mind, when reduced to software, becomes a reductive piece of an unknown whole. The new robot body houses this human software in a manner that does not preserve the former self but shadows it, even mocks it. Insomuch as the "software" does not change when transferred from old to new hardware, the issue that Haraway points out of "facing human nature" become residual elements of the human/bopper's lives, after their transformation from human-to-machine hardware.

Human to Robot Evolution

The first example of a failed human/bopper interface is Misty-girl in Software. Misty-girl, a bopper with the software mind of a young woman named Misty Nivlac, is a confused mixture of human being and machine. When talking to Sta-Hi, she looks and acts human, has emotions and tries to convince him that she is an exact copy of Ms. Misty Nivlac from Virginia. Sta-Hi is not fully convinced that she is human, and more importantly, neither is she, as she attempts to justify herself as a bopper that retains her human nature in total:

"'You wanted to know who I am. I gave you one answer. A robot-remote. A servo-unit opereted by a program stored in a bopper spaceship. But... I'm still Misty-girl, too. The soul is the software, you know. The software is what counts, the habits and the memories. The brain and the body are just meat, seeds for the organ-tanks.' She smiled uncertainly, took a pull at his beer, set it down...(p. 66)"

Misty-girl's uncertainty comes from the ambiguity that arises in Rucker's novels concerning the preservation of human identity in a newly-mechanized and robotic form. When the human mind is preserved in the software, there is always the question of whether the hardware truly has the capacity to contain the entire scope and depth of the human consciousness, that which may exist beyond memories, patterns, and personalities. There appears to be a missing gap for all of the unaccountable, non-systematic, blurred aspects of the human consciousness that "software" may fail to record, or preserve. There arises the issue of whether or not the "meat" of the brain and body are at all significant in the preservation of a fundamental human consciousness, whether the physical state of an individual actually houses or embodies a notion of humanness or spiritual essence that dies with the death of the flesh. But clearly, Rucker is not telling us either way if this is or is not true, he merely points to the question. If these human/boppers are capable of emotions, empathy, even love -- does that qualify them as human? Or does humanness lie somewhere within the physical body, which is no longer existent? These questions remain at large throughout the novel, as Rucker constantly plays with the idea of the human/bopper interface, transmutation, and evolution. It becomes interesting then to note how Cobb Anderson perceives his the desire in prolonging life as a question of sacrificing the physical self, which he considers an act of suicide. When Cobb Anderson says before he commits himself to become a human/bopper interface, "I'm committing suicide to keep from getting killed,(p. 83)" he recognizes the fact that some aspect of his life as a human being will be coming to an end, and die. The desire of prolonging life, by a form of pathological evolution, suggests that certain perceptions of self will change or die in order to do so, that a new identity will form that loses its altogether human character. It is interesting to see how the dysfunctionality of the new interface tends to confuse, disorient, and makes the characters fundamentally unable to adapt to their new selves.

Strange things happen to Cobb Anderson when he dies and is reborn with an all-new, bopper body. In chapter nineteen of Software, Cobb studies himself for the first time after his software operation. His new body comes structured with a whole new set of instincts, that seem to control him instinctively. After drinking a great amount of sherry, we see how Cobb reacts now in his new robot body:

"Without even consciously controlling what he did, Cobb knelt down on the sand and clawed at the vertical scar on his chest. He was too full. Finally he pushed the right spot and the little door in his chest popped open. He tried no to breath as the rotten fish and lukewarm sherry plopped down into the sand in front of him... He stood up, still moving automatically, and went inside to rinse the food cavity out with water. And it wasn't until he was wiping it out with paper towels that he thought to notice anything strange about what he was doing.(p. 111)"

Cobb has been programmed to a whole new set of instincts which he performs automatically. Falsely expecting his new body to react as a human body--- expecting himself to become buzzed, flushed, overdrunk--- he becomes shocked at his new body's automatic toxicity monitoring system to the point where he views his body as a separate entity from himself. We see this strange notion occur throughout the latter half of Software, as new robot bodies react as self-regulating systems, acting independently from the software that is installed within, in this case, Cobb Anderson's software. It is this awareness that the body that was manufactured for Cobb by the Big Boppers is so beyond his control that makes Cobb angry:

"It was still sinking in. A robot, or a person, has two parts: hardware and software. The hardware is the actual physical material involved, and the software is the pattern in which the material is arranged. Your brain is hardware, but the information in the brain is software... The mind... memories, habits, opinions, skills... is all software. The boppers extracted Cobb's software and put it in control of this robot body... For some reason this made Cobb angry....(p. 112)"

Cobb's frustration lies in the fact that he no longer identifies with his body. His old hardware, which is now biologically dead, was the only naturally-consistent medium where his body and mind worked together. Now, as his mind is segregated as "software," and his new body as "hardware," the two parts work almost indifferently from one another. Nothing comes naturally to him anymore. Cobb has to consult his inner computer whenever he wants to react to something, be it sex, drunkenness, etc. to act appropriately in the situation. The severe disjuncture between Cobb's mind and body becomes almost ridiculous, in his almost-sex scene with Annie:

"I want to have sex." "I'm glad," Annie said. "So do I." "SEX routine now activated," the voice said. "OUT," Cobb said. "It's out?" Annie asked. "I thought you wanted to." Cobb felt his pants tightening in front. "I do, I do.(p. 134)"

No longer a functionable being, Cobb has to consult his inner voice even to become sexually stimulated. Life becomes ridiculous. The human/bopper being appears jaded, nearly grotesque, and downright lonely, an exiled self. Always needing to consult an inner voice, paranoid of being controlled by outsiders, he has lost his sense of physical presence. This brand of immortality does not seem at all appealing. The whole definition of oneself shifts, dismantles, as the software shifts between bodies; nothing seems quite right, quite holistic enough to be real. Therefore, these human/boppers are in limbo, so long as they cling to the desire to be human in the way they were before their transformation. Still clinging to some their former egos, Rucker's human/bopper characters are in fact living human dreams in unwelcoming, robot bodies.

We later find out that Cobb is controlled by the outsider bopper Mr. Frostee, who has Cobb's original software in stored in his van. For a long time, Cobb has no idea where his brain really is--- within the hardware of his new body, or stored in a computer somewhere else. Anxiety arises when Cobb realizes that he might just be a copy of his real self, which is monitored and controlled by the boppers. "Immortality my ass," Cobb curses, as he denounces his new self. Although his memories, his habits, skills, etc. have been preserved, they have lost their meaning in this new robot body. He is exiled from this new body, which is foreign, unfamiliar. In Donna Haraway's description of Sherwood Washburn and Nancy Tanner's argument about evolutionary functionalism, it is interesting to see how Rucker portrays these newly-evolved human/boppers failure to adapt to their new existences:

"They [Washburn and Tanner] see adaption as a concept relating to the interpretation of functional complexes, of ways of life in which behavior and structure mutually inform each other.(Haraway, 24)"

In the above statement, Washburn and Tanner suggest that the ability to adapt in society arises from a functional balance between behavior and structure, "mutually informing each other." In Cobb's new robot body, his ability to adapt will result from the functionality between his hardware and software, a functionality that is inherently unnatural to him. His feelings of exile from his physical self is coupled by the anxiety of being controlled by outsiders. His natural behaviors and physical structure have lost their ability to mutually inform each other.

In regards to evolution, Rucker's play with the human/bopper interface seems to suggest that evolution itself, when as drastic as it is in Cobb and Misty-girl's case, is an impossible attempt to cling to old conceptions of self and human identity. The incredibly dislocating effects of changing hardware all at once results in the production of dysfunctional beings that exist in limbo between their former and new selves. This is not evolution in the traditional sense. There is no gradual, Darwinian replacement theory at work here. But is interesting to try to figure out what Rucker's stance really is on all this -- does he denounce human evolution? Is he saying something about human desire to escape from the flesh and repercussions of doing so? Whether or not we understand Rucker's true feelings about the subject, we see through the study of these characters, how individuals react to change above all things, how change can be perceived as negative, dislocating, and ultimately destructive to an individual's identity or notions of self. But we all know that change can be good. The funny thing is, insomuch as our perception of positive societal changes relies on the remembrance of things past, our happiness relies ultimately on the positive effects of amnesia.

[To other discussions of Rudy Rucker's - Ware trilogy (Software, Wetware, and Freeware) by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]