Occasionally, I pick up a book without knowing a thing about it — because it looks interesting, because I’ve heard about the author, or because it’s a handsome edition. After my Id-devastating experience with Semiotext(e) SF, I was eager for anything by Rudy Rucker, the only one of the book’s editors I’d never heard of, so I grabbed a used copy of Realware from my local bookseller. Rucker was some kind of important early cyberpunk — that’s about all I knew going into it.
Anyway, I read Realware in its entirely before I realized that it was the fourth book in a tetralogy and that all the things I thought were purposely oblique and esoteric were actually carried on from the other books. Characters I thought were popping in and out of the narrative like fragments of Latin in a T.S. Eliot poem were simply friends and descendants of other Ware tetralogists. The first two novels in the series won Philip K. Dick awards and are generally highly-commended; Realware seems like it’s for die-hards, a rompy catch-up with the world of Ware.
I almost want to read the entire tetralogy backwards, so that I end up at the beginning meeting the characters who spawned the grandchildren that run around the last book. This is a pretty sci-fi way to read sci-fi; skipping to the distant future of an environment and encountering events that even the author didn’t anticipate when they were setting out. Time travel! Imagine reading Chapterhouse: Dune before Dune! Not to mention that the deeper into a series, the more an author assumes a level of prior knowledge about the premise; it reaches a point where a book can actually become unintelligible to outsiders. Sometimes reading a Dune sequel is like trying to decode the Book of Kells over a weekend, or guess Braille. Without the previous tomes for context, it’s like being handed just the hieroglyphic part of the Rosetta stone: “this is a really good story if you know what it’s about.”
This issue is specific to genre fiction. Realist novels don’t often have sequels; there’s no Great Gatsby 2. Writing a book series is a trade-off: you sacrifice accessibility and mainstream literary “legitimacy” for the freedom to develop a multi-tiered, complex universe populated with its own culture and an independent timeline. You exchange the world for a world of your own design. You trade the moment for the Long Now; a good science fiction book series is a sprawling, sometimes decade-spanning narrative that evolves and changes as the author ages (and sometimes even dies). Still, by nature, it’s an adventure in egotism, an exercise in exclusivity.
But that’s interesting, right? Especially when it comes to Rucker. In 1983, he wrote a pithy little piece about genre, “The Transrealist Manifesto,” in which he argues that although reading is linear, writing is not. He compares writing a novel to drawing a maze:
A good maze forces the tracer past all the goals in a coherent way. When you draw a maze, you start out with a certain path, but leave a lot a gaps where other paths can hook back in. In writing a coherent Transrealist novel, you include a number of unexplained happenings throughout the text. Things that you don’t know the reason for. Later you bend strands of the ramifying narrative back to hook into these nodes. If no node is available for a given strand-loop, you go back and write a node in (cf. erasing a piece of wall in the maze).
Realware is actually a great example of this facet of “Transrealism:” strands of ramifying narrative seem to hook long distances backwards into earlier story lines. Characters flippantly refer to events that transpired long before the actual book takes place, for example. Genealogy plays a major role; there are a lot of asides like, “oh, your grandfather was the computer scientist who invented those moon robots!” Pieces of the maze-walls give way here and there to glimpses into the geneses of characters and earlier narrative — all evidently from the earlier novels.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if this idea could be implemented to the extreme? A real Transrealist series would actually entail modifying original books in the series to suit new changes and developments in the later sequels. Of course, this would be impossible with a traditional book series of individual novels published years apart — the result would be some Borgesian nightmare of re-printed editions and annotations. And yet it could work now, electronically, as a digital book that “refreshes” over time; perhaps a single ever-changing novel could replace the series, as a concept, entirely. Rucker writes that “The Transrealist artist cannot predict the finished form of his or her work,” that a book should be written with no clear idea of its outcome; as in life, the future is unknown until you broach it.
Once the future is written, then the maze can be rearranged, lines erased and pencilled in, to make room for the lateral — and nonlinear — growth of a fictional world. Until then, we can read books backwards.
The entire Ware Tetralogy is available as a Creative-Commons distributed PDF on Rudy Rucker’s website. Read it here if you have the eyes for it.
Ridiculously interesting Rudy Rucker interview with Stephan Wolfram.
Rucker’s science fiction webzine, FLURB.
Rudy Rucker’s “Transrealist Manifesto”