Rudy Rucker [Part Two]: Game Theory

June 22nd, 2002 | Category: Interviews

Rudy RuckerMy friend and colleague Tom Georgoulias let me run this interview in my book, Follow for Now.

When I last spoke with Rudy Rucker, his nonfiction collection Seek! and science-fiction novel Saucer Wisdom were just finding their way into bookstores. Since that time, Rucker has been hacking on a video game programming toolkit called the Pop Framework and keeping a low profile on the science-fiction scene. After bouncing a few emails with him, it was obvious that we needed to do another interview and shed some light on his latest projects. Rucker’s going to need four slots on the bookshelves this year to hold his latest works: the computer science textbook Software Engineering and Computer Games (Addison-Wesley), a new science-fiction novel Spaceland (Tor Books), a historical novel As Above So Below (Forge Books), and a reissue of The Hacker and The Ants (Four Walls Eight Windows) are all being released in 2002. Here’s what Rucker had to say about computer-science research, video-game programming, and what it would take to make a good Freeware movie.

Tom Georgoulias: What kinds of gnarly computer research (cellular automata, fractals, A-Life, etc.) are you actively doing these days?

Rudy Rucker: For the last few years, I’ve been putting most of my energy into computer-game programming . These days, this is the most exciting field. It combines a lot of things I like: virtual-reality graphics, artificial-life algorithms, artificial intelligence, computer art, street-wise attitude, simulated physics, obsession with writing code that runs fast.

Personally, I’m about ready to lay down my programming tools, though. I pretty much shot my wad creating the Pop game framework for my textbook Software Engineering and Computer Games. I did more programming on that than I’ve ever done. Writing science fiction is a lot more fun. You want a “frammistat” in SF, then all you have to do is describe it once, and if there’s a problem with it later on, you just go back and change a few words. Quick revision cycles! The “building a cathedral out of toothpicks” aspect of programming does get old. At SJSU I’m teaching more graduate courses now and advising more master’s degree theses. This means I can try to get students to do the programming work for things I’d like to see. One interesting project I have right now is that a student is extending my Pop game framework to use four space dimensions. He has a four-dimensional Space Invaders working pretty well, and I hope he can get a four-dimensional Pac-Man. One of these days I want to get a student, or someone else, to add cellular automata to the Pop framework, so we can have surfing on a CA wave. I’d like to see more chaos in games as well.

TG: Now that Stephen Wolfram has released his long awaited book A New Kind of Science (Wolfram Media, 2002), which focuses on complexity and cellular automata, what do you think the net effect of the book is going to be on the CA field?

RR: It should be a real shot in the arm. I was considering writing a jump-on-the-bandwagon book along the lines of “What Wolfram Said,” but I found out it’s already too late for that, which is kind of a relief. All I really want to do these days is write science fiction. As for CAs, I’ll just settle for being one of the lesser-known “stations of the cross” for CA popularizers’ Sacred Quest.

I read Wolfram’s book through once, quickly, and I like it a lot. Many of the ideas are familiar to me from things he said back in the 1980s. But he pushes them a bit further, and he’s really done the legwork in terms of checking out examples. I’m (very slowly) working on a longish, detailed review of the book for the American Mathematical Monthly, and I hope to use the book as a text in a course I teach at SJSU in spring 2003.

To rush and say much more now would be premature. John Updike once compared critics to “pigs at a pastry cart.” Here’s this mammoth volume that took a genius ten or twenty years to write, and people want to rush out quick-draw sound bites on it? “Gobble, gobble, tastes like prune!”

TG: Since your desire is to focus on writing science fiction, what’s your take on (pardon my lameness in using this phrase) “the state of science fiction”?

RR: A science-fiction writer isn’t necessarily the best person to ask about the field of SF. I tend to focus on my own little garden; I don’t read a large number of other SF writers. It goes almost without saying that I love what Bill Gibson does in his books. Terry Bisson is a lesser-known writer whom I really enjoy. Paul DiFilippo writes wonderful stories. I wish Marc Laidlaw would start writing again. He’s been swallowed up by the computer game industry; he works at Valve near Seattle, figuring out story lines for games like Half-Life. Though one could also say that he’s simply switched to a new medium. But really I don’t think there’s any medium as rich as the SF novel.

In a novel you can do whatever you like and you don’t have special effects budget issues. You can use beautiful language. You, as the author, get to create a novel on your own without dealing with producers. People can reread a novel, flip forward and back, dip in. It’s a great medium.

I have a vague sense that it’s about time for a new cohort of exciting SF writers. You could say we had the Golden Age guys in the ’40s, the New Wave in the ’60s, Cyberpunk in the ’80s, so there ought to be something interesting in the ’00s. But I’m not out there reading the magazines and the first novels, so I’m not the right guy to ask. Just at random, one first novel I did recently happen to read and like is Cory Doctorow, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, due from Tor Books this fall. He does this next-generation thing of pretty much taking for granted certain far-out, science-fictional notions that I still think of as a big deal. For instance, his characters are online all the time via implants, which still strikes me as a kind of shockingly evil possible development. Why evil? How would you like to have Muzak, spam, telemarketing calls, political ads, polling, and surveillance going on in your head 24/7?

TG: Your computer science textbook Software Engineering and Computer Games is coming out from Addison-Wesley this fall. Are video games a good way to teach computer science?

RR: IMHO, having students do computer games projects is absolutely the best possible way to teach programming, graphics, software engineering, object-oriented programming, etc. I used to be into photography, and I managed to get hold of this very nice camera, a Leica M4. And I was constantly shooting pictures with it. And then I wanted another lens, and I went to a store that carried Leica stuff, and I found out that a lot of people were into collecting Leicas, like keeping them in glass cases. To me, a camera is for taking pictures. And a programming tool like Visual Studio or the JDK is for writing programs. Not for collecting different versions of, or for arguing about, or for comparing to other products. It’s there to use. Writing a game is a nice big problem that makes you program a lot.

To take pictures, you need to have something you like taking pictures of. To learn how to write, you need to have something you want to write about. And to learn programming, you need something you want to program about.

It’s very easy for a student to get excited about making a game work. A second win with teaching games programming is that the homework is very easy to grade. The game works or it doesn’t; it’s playable or it isn’t. I’ve been teaching my sections of the Software Engineering course at SJSU this way for about ten years. Over the years I built up the Pop Framework so that students can build on it to make games pretty easily. I’m proud of the code. It’s been used for about a hundred games now. I have some of the better ones up for download.

The Pop Framework is thoroughly OO, basically you just edit one file to overload a few methods and you’ve got your game: Pac-Man, Asteroids, 3D Defender, Air Hockey, Soccer, whatever. I used patterns and UML to try and get the design right. Graphically, I designed it so you can run the game inside a Windows window, instead of taking over the whole screen (which I’ve always considered to be morally wrong!). You can either use Windows graphics or OpenGL; switching between them is a nice example of using the Bridge pattern. It’s all in the book. I don’t think I’ll ever write a textbook again, though; it’s been an insane amount of effort. I do hope the book sells well.

TG: I just finished reading Spaceland, your latest science fiction novel, about a Silicon Valley manager who is invited into the fourth dimension. Not only does the book nail the climate of the dot-com boom, the fourth-dimension experience is described extremely well and the story is funny to boot. What prompted or influenced you to write Spaceland?

RR: The book is inspired by Edwin Abbott’s 1884 book, Flatland. That book is a tale — not really a novel — about a two-dimensional character called A Square and about his difficulties in understanding the third dimension. Our situation is similar: we’re three-dimensional creatures trying to understand the fourth dimension. The idea is that we can form useful analogies between A Square and ourselves. Four is to three as three is to two. Thanks to Abbott, I ended up writing two nonfiction books about the fourth dimension. And now I thought it would be interesting to make the fourth dimension work in a realistic novel. I call my main character Joe Cube. In Spaceland, I was particularly interested in working out how things would look if I could travel out into the fourth dimension. Nobody’s ever pushed that notion very far before.

Flatland is set on December 31, 1999. A sphere from the higher (third) dimension appears, passing through Flatland. So when that day rolled around in reality, I wanted to have something amazing like that happen — I wanted a 4D creature to enter our world. That’s the Y2K event I was really waiting for, and since it didn’t happen in fact, I wrote it into reality.

Another thing I wanted to do in Spaceland was to depict my native Silicon Valley, kind of like the way I did in The Hacker and the Ants. So far, Spaceland seems to be doing pretty well. Just for fun I went ahead and posted my working notes for it on my page for the book.

The Hacker and the Ants will be reissued by Four Walls Eight Windows this winter, by the way, complete with a cover by my daughter Georgia’s New York design company, Pink Design, Inc.

TG: Was Realware really the final *Ware book, or can we fans begin quietly speculating on the fifth installment?

RR: Hey, a series is never over till the author dies, and even then it might not be over. I’m as curious as you are about what happens to Cobb Anderson after he leaves Earth in that flying saucer.

But remember, there were nine years between Wetware and Freeware, so I’m not severely due for another *Ware till 2009. And maybe by then the market for a book of that nature will be stronger.

And, no, I’m not telling anyone yet what I would call it. Jinx, you know. Make up all the silly *Ware names you like, but you won’t get the true name out of me. Vaporware, Shovelware, Stoneware, Silverware, Underware, Earthenware, Senileware, Noware — I’ve heard ’em all.

In the near term, I don’t plan a sequel partly for reasons having to do with the publishing industry. Harper Collins, owner of Avon, the publisher of the *Ware books, was bought by a megacorporation called News Corporation, which is the creation of Rupert Murdoch. If you’re an author, over the years you find yourself being “bought and sold” a countless number of times. A mid-list author like me isn’t exactly the juiciest part of any acquisition; I’m more like a piece of chewing gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe, something you pick up by accident. The News Corporation is bottom-line oriented, and I’m not viewed as a strong enough profit generator. My books earn out, and then some, but I’m no Stephen King.

This means that Avon has been quite resistant to books by me of late; they turned down Saucer Wisdom, Spaceland, and my forthcoming As Above, So Below. All of these were picked up by Tor Books, whom I now consider my primary fiction publisher.

Another bad sign from Avon is that they may be letting my *Ware books go out of print. I know Wetware is out of print, for instance. I find this especially galling, as a guy called Craig Nova recently published an SF novel called Wetware that, in fact, treats my pet themes. (Nova’s publisher is owned by the Bertelsmann AG megacorporation, which seems to independent of the News Corporation, so I can’t get totally shrill and paranoid here.)

In short, my problem with writing another *Ware in the next few years would be that I’m not at all sure Avon would want buy another *Ware just now, and I don’t know if Tor would want to publish an “orphaned” series book. And they might both be right. When you drag a series on too long, I think the readership can drop.

Sooner or later, a movie of one of the *Ware books may get made. And then it would certainly be easy for me to sell another sequel, assuming I’m still alive.

On the film front, Phoenix Pictures had an option on Software for about ten years, but that died. I was annoyed when Phoenix turned around and then released a Schwarzenegger movie, The Sixth Day, using some of my themes, complete with a yuppie mad scientist called Drucker (as in “Dr. Rucker”)! But I’d rather not rant about that here. Even as I type this interview, I’m inking a nice option agreement for Freeware with a Seattle outfit called Directed Evolution Networks.

A Brooklyn-based director named Mark Mitchell just optioned Master of Space and Time (St. Martins Press, 1984) as well.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

TG: What are you hoping for in a *Ware movie? What do you want to see? And are you concerned about the way some of the story will be portrayed on the big screen? The moldies, drug effects, and moon city Einstein will no doubt produce some intense visuals, especially with the breakneck pace of Freeware‘s plot.

RR: I’d like it to be hip and cool, as big as Bladerunner or The Matrix. The game they always play in Hollywood after dinner is to sit around doing fantasy casting. It would be nice to have Johnny Depp for Randy Karl Tucker and Matt Dillon for Stahn Mooney. Maybe Heather Locklear for Wendy Mooney.

One special effect I’d love to see them use would be to put live cellular automata onto the skins of the moldies. It wouldn’t be that hard to do; I’m half tempted to write a demo myself. You’d run the CA in two buffers as usual, and every update you’d delete your robot’s current texture object and give it a new texture object based on the bitmap in the CA buffer. Or you could do a low-tech version and simply use a computer projector to beam real-time CAs onto the skins of some guys in white rubber suits.

I would hate to see it get too violent; I thought that was the one weak thing about Bladerunner, that it’s so vicious and bloody toward the end. When, in fact, Phil Dick‘s original book, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, was based on notions of empathy, kindness, and humanity. Mostly all they know how to do in Hollywood is kill things and blow things up.

I saw Software go through ten increasingly bad scripts, none of which I was allowed to write. By the end, the story wasn’t even logical. I think a minimal, basic requirement of any SF movie should be that it’s logical, that it’s consistent, that it makes sense. Why is this so hard for producers to do? Don’t they care? Can’t they think? Do they think nobody notices? If they’re spending twenty or a hundred million dollars on the movie, can’t they pay a professional science-fiction writer a few bucks to go over the script and get rid of the holes? Why isn’t that considered worth doing? Who knows.

There were some big holes in The Matrix, for instance, though I did really enjoy the film. The hole that got me was the notion that they were using those people in the toilet things for batteries. Like it’s not too hard to see that the energy of keeping a person alive in a glass bidet is going to be a lot more than some millivolt trickle you get out of their nervous system. An SF writer could fix that easily. It’s not raw electricity you’re getting out of the people, man: It’s psionic energy that you put into a quark resonator to convert into electricity. But you don’t just pull wattage out of a person like C-cell battery, come on!

But in the end, if they make any kind of movie at all from one of my books or stories I’ll be happy. I’ll get money, and more people will read my books. Whatever they do in a movie, the books are what it’s all about. The movie doesn’t change what’s in the books.

TG: Are there any other projects or novels underway that you want mention before we wrap this up?

RR: I’ve written a historical novel about the sixteenth-century Flemish painter Peter Bruegel. It’s called As Above, So Below, and it’s coming from Tor Books this fall. I think it’s a masterpiece. No SF, though; I didn’t want to drag this one in the gutter! 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 dump. 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. He’s deep and funny. He’s one of my main men. His life isn’t very well documented, so I got to make up a lot. I used reverse transrealism to deduce his life from his paintings. I’d like to write like Bruegel paints.

Currently I’m working on a longish SF novel with working title Frek and the Elixir. It’ll take me maybe another year to finish writing it. It’s an epic, light-hearted SF novel of biotechnology, suitable for young and old. I imagine flap copy something like the following:

The year is 3003 and the tweaked plants and animals are quite wonderful — but there’s only a few dozen species left. Nature herself has been McDonald’s-ized. It’s up to Frek Huggins, a lad from dull, sleepy Middleville, to venture out into the galaxy to fetch an elixir to restore Earth’s biosphere. At least that’s what a friendly alien cuttlefish tells him the elixir will do. But can you really trust aliens?

For that matter, can you trust me?

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