Flavin's Corner
8-13-99

Epiphanies

"We think it means something.  We think it is important."
'Claude LaCombe' (François Traffaut) in Spielberg's 1977 film,
Close Encounters of The Third Kind.

 
Devil's Tower, c.1998 L. Susanka.

     A new book by Rudy Rucker is always an excuse to party, whether it's
non-fiction or sci-fi, and his latest, Saucer Wisdom (Forge, 1999), is a great
reason to celebrate!  The rub, however, is that the book is being marketed as
non-fiction, noted cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling characterizes the work as
"science/fiction" (also citing a self-definition by Rucker as "transrealism") in
the introduction, there's instructive blackboard-ish drawings by Rudy, an index
at the back of the book, but ...the story is classic Rucker sci-fi.  There's aliens,
some sex, lots of science, and everything a reader has come to expect from the
fiction of Prof. Rudolf von Bitter Rucker.  Yet the author and publisher would
have us believe Saucer Wisdom is all true.  There's something going on here...
I think it is important.

     The narrative of Saucer Wisdom concerns an abductee, by the name of
Frank Shook, who purportedly knows how to contact aliens, is able to travel
into the future and report back on all the wonderful inventions and
breakthroughs ahead.  The abductee introduces himself to Rudy, mentions
"three-dimensional time," and after some further discussions and meetings, they
work out a book deal.  It's claimed that Saucer Wisdom, the alleged
collaborative effort of the supposed abductee and Rudy, is still widely read far
into the future.  Well, sure, the book was a fun and fascinating read, but I kind
of doubt works in English will be enjoyed or studied a thousand years from
now, except by antiquarians and scholars.

     With a verisimilitude of describing actual events, Rucker tells of attending a
wild party in 1994 with the staff of the computer magazine Mondo 2000.
[Note:  actually, this may be true, as Rucker has and continues to work with
the magazine.]  At one point, he writes: "These days I was trying not to get
wasted at parties anymore.  I was unable to predict which times I'd be
successful, but tonight King Alcohol and Queen Jane were letting me off easy.
Tonight I was going to be okay."  Such subtlety!  I've been buying Rudy's
books for 15 years, have read several interviews with him, and had never
before discerned a substance abuse problem.  It got me thinking...

     Directly after the scene with the staff of Mondo 2000, Rudy writes of a
break-in at his home and the theft of his computer.  It was too familiar.  Many
epiphanies are joyous, others are horrible in their intensity, and some are mere
variations of Archimedes' "Eureka!"  I believe I now understand one layer of
Saucer Wisdom and that it has to do with Phil Dick.

     Philip K Dick died in 1982, several weeks into the making of Ridley Scott's
film, Blade Runner (based on Dick's 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of
Electric Sheep).  Dick had serious financial problems in the 1950's and 1960's,
began to earn a descent wage in the 1970's, but just as he was on the verge of
pecuniary success, he was felled by a massive stroke.  Just before his passing,
Dick completed The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, now regarded as the
third installment in the so-called "VALIS trilogy."  The book, hardly containing
any sci-fi elements at all, earned Dick a fraction of what he'd been offered to
rewrite Do Androids Dream.... for an audience possessing the average
intelligence of a 12 year old.  He forsook the big cash and wrote what he
wanted. [Note: click here to read a 4-27-99 The Wall Street Journal article
about Phil.]

 Valis by P. K. Dick, Bantam, 1981.

     Released in 1981, the novel Valis concerns events which are said to have
occurred in Dick's life in 1974, though the narrative is way fantastic and
unmistakably science fiction.  Still, we have since learned that some of the
events did indeed take place, and a few of the characters are quite real.  In a
tiny nutshell, Valis tells of a period in the life of a struggling sci-fi writer, Phil
Dick, as well as a couple of his buddies (now known to be authors Tim Powers
and K. W. Jeter), and an enigmatic character named "Horselover Fat," who is
later revealed as a schizophrenic alter-ego of Phil's ("Philip" in Greek is
"horselover," and phonetically, "Dick" in German is "fat," hence Philip Dick
equals Horselover Fat).

     Valis is an essential read for anyone interested in the sci-fi genre, I'll resist
further encapsulating the grand developments of the novel, but it needs
pointing out that "Valis" is an acronym for "Vast Active Living Intelligence
System," at first depicted as a Russian satellite, later deemed alien, and towards
the end of the novel, perhaps God.  "Valis" shoots a beam of pink light, which
contains information, and Phil is suddenly able to correctly diagnose an ailment
involving his young son.  Another major and claimed "real" event in Valis
concerned a mysterious "break-in."  Sometimes we have to break in to break
out...

     Phil, in his writings, was often concerned with religion, and in this period of
his life he did a Carlos Castenada, stepped outside, and became a mystic.
Unfortunately, the cost was way high, as many now regard the quasi-fictional
"pink beam of information" from Valis as Dick's interpretation of a minor
stroke, and a precursor to the big one which would take him in 1982.  Brilliant
writing, passionate, witty, and challenging.  But, sadly, you can smell dreaded
death approaching when you read Valis.

     So, in my opinion, here's where Rudy's Saucer Wisdom and Phil's Valis
come together and separate:  both works are presented in a low-key,
autobiographical style (think Miller, Nin, and Bukowski, but add "'Deep
Thoughts' by Jack Handy" and some Stephen J. Hawking musings on the origin
of the universe ), concern emotional and physical troubles in the lives of the
respective authors, but one author continues extreme behavior and dies early,
and the other (I hope and pray) lives to write and write and write...

     Writers are supposed to be imaginative, but also excel in describing and
putting into easy-to-understand terms those "average" things around us.  I
believe Phil wrote, to the best of his ability, about an experience which deeply
troubled him, but I don't think he understood the dire and eminently deadly
consequences.  Rudy seems to have sensed something, written about it, and
appears to ...want to live.  The irony (and I suspect it's purposeful and not
'ironic' at all) is that Prof. Rucker has received the annual Philip K. Dick Award
on a few occasions.  I think (and this is what I truly believe is important) that
some stumble and fatally fall, while others trip and are able to turn a mistake
into a wonderful dance.  We all live, we all die, but some live longer than
others.

     If I'm correct, and only time will tell, we'll have plenty of new Rudy Rucker
material to enjoy in the future.  Frankly, I'm proud of the guy...  Now, go buy
his books!

For Prof. Rucker's home-page, with nifty bits and mega-bytes of cool stuff,
click  here.

getting back in the bath-tub,
Rick

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