High Concept/Low Content Cyberpunk

Daniel Parke ntropy@brown.edu

I'm disappointed.

I don't know how fair it is for me to be disappointed with Rucker, but just the same, I can't help but think: "Wow, Mr. Rucker... you got some cool ideas... you sure do... but, what about all this crap you in-between them?"

I thought that the software/hardware division he set up was interesting, but after reading so many other cyberpunk novels with far more depth, mystery, and... ______ ... well, the -ware trilogy seemed lacking. I fear I'm developing a kind of theoretical conceit, and that really does frighten me, but I can't shake the feeling that Software and the rest were only half-baked.

Partly it's the non-sequitur-like leaps from novel to novel (which isn't too disconcerting) but my distress is really more about the off-hand appearances of racist, sexist, homophobic language through out. I don't really see what useful purpose it serves. Rucker goes to the considerable trouble of writing a novel about very fascinating human (and non-human) possibilities, but why must the world he sets it in and the characters he stages it with be such caricatures?

It all makes me think of the relatively recent film industry buzz-word, "High Concept". This what it is to have an "idea" for a movie. Not a plot, not characters, just an idea that gets plot, characters, etc. hung on to it. It's like the next evolutionary step in the formula film. As long as the concept is novel (not necessarily original) this is usually deemed "good enough".

Rucker's -ware books are similar in that each has an interesting concept, something that can really be thought about, developed, considered-- debated. Indeed this is, apparently, one of the reasons Rucker writes, to work out ideas.

"His science fiction is often an outlet for his academic works --he considers his novels to be thought experiment[s] to better think through certain questions in mathematics."
[! Rudy Rucker Bio, The Cyberbibliography]

The unfortunate thing is that all the more disturbing off-hand elements distract from his ideas. It's almost as though Rucker was in such a hurry to show us some cool stuff that he took the easy way out with characters and plot. "Ok... so everything that humans are is in the brain. So lets get robots who want to decode that information and put it into machines. Lets have robots who are evolving and who reproduce..." And then he throws in capitalism as an afterthought, gender as a matter-! of-course.

I can sympathize, maybe Rucker was so taken with his other ideas that he was over focused. Still, I think that things like male and female boppers was short-sightedness on Rucker's part. I will not wax theoretical here except to say that Rucker still works within a strict taxonomy of human experience. It is odd that he can take such intriguing flights (trips?) of fancy and not think to consider what else may be different given such circumstances.

This is where I reflect, romantically perhaps, on William Gibson's tantalizing enigmas. Gibson taunts us with hints at what the matrix really is, what lives in cyberspace, but does not define it. This appeals to me far more than Rucker's overly-determined-materialistic-to-a-fault world where all the answers are there.

Neal Stephenson does caricatures, but he does them better. There's a reason for it, for when there is offensive material, it has an origin somewhere within in the novel and a purpose in the story. The racism, the sexism, the homophobia generally come from a source in Software, Sta-Hi, but I don't see a reason for it. What purpose does it serve? How does it develop the character or the plot? How, as my fiction professor puts it, inform the reader? It provides lots of opportunities for making (what I feel to be) negative identifications, and for no good reason.

Nobody is perfect, and I can read Rudy Rucker both for (perverse?) enjoyment and conceptual pondering, but the experience is not as complete as it could have been. I appreciate Gibson's tacit acknowledgement in his novels that he can not claim to know the full extent of even his own created future, that some of it remains a mystery even to its creator. As John Crews wrote...

I am interested in the ways in which authors like Rucker (or students in our class) construct new information technologies as coherent, predictable, manageable in order to offset anxiety about the unpredictable nature and effect of technology.

And particularly the quote he chose to sight from George P. Landow...

"Technology, in the lexicon of many humanists, generally means only that technology of which I am frightened
[Hypertext 2.0, 26]

Gibson, who, at least at the beginning of his career, was a technological illiterate, acknowledges his fear of what technology and the future may bring. His ideas are conceptual, less concrete. Rucker's ideas are the opposite. He half-describes processes that decode the little gray cells into immortal code, and then goes off on his poorly described technology. It would be better if he did not describe the process at all rather than giving a weak one.

High concept, low content-- more specifically low-quality, poorly considered content --seems the most frequently cited weak point of science fiction. This problem recognized, however, there are still balanced novels, that can stand the test of literature as well as science fiction. And even those that do not completely succeed can still offer rewarding aspects, it is just particularly disappointing when the ideas are very provoking, and the content is especially detracting.

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