Nested Scrolls. The Autobiography of Rudolph von Bitter Rucker by Rudy Rucker

New York: Tor Books, 2011; $25.99 (hc); [vi], 327 pages

reviewed by Henry Wessells

First published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 23, no.12, August 2011.


Memoir and autobiography invariably contain narrative trajectories that can sometimes be mistaken for the paths and contours of the novel. Although the life it springs from is experienced by the author, a memoir is a constructed work of literature. The narrative continuities that the reader sees unfolding in prospect are patterns imposed in retrospect rather than anything objectively organic or inevitable. All memoirists are inherently potential unreliable narrators, and whether we credit their tales or not will depend upon their choices in shaping the material (what to omit as well as what to include), and upon the voice. I’ll come back to the voice.

Authors, like fractal patterns, demonstrate recurring similarities at macro- and micro-levels: the closer the focus, the more complex and intrinsically themselves they appear. As Michael Swanwick observed, Avram Davidson’s first story for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, “My Boy Friend’s Name is Jello” (1954), embodies in a few short pages the concerns of his fiction during the next forty years. In his preface to Mad Professor. The Uncollected Stories (2007), Rudy Rucker alludes to “power chords in the context of fantastical literature” and goes on to observe that “a gnarly process is complex and unpredictable without being random”. His autobiography, Nested Scrolls, is the elaboration of these notions over time and through the stages of human life. The title refers to a different mathematical phenomenon, “called Belousov-Zhabotinsky scrolls […] The scrolls have a pleasing way of nesting within each other; think of little whirlpools on the rim of a bigger one” (250).

Rudy Rucker was born in 1946 and was raised in the Louisville area. His mother was German and he spent a substantial period of time in Germany as a child. Despite the wild example of his older brother Embry, he survived his high school years, during which he discovered Edwin Abbott’s Flatland and the writings of William Burroughs. “I didn’t see how to fit all my new literary influences together until god old Mom happened to give me a paperback copy of Untouched by Human Hands, a collection of science fiction tales by Robert Sheckley. […] Not only was Sheckley’s work masterful in terms of plot and form, but it also had a jokey edge that — to my mind — set it above the more straightforward work of the other science fiction writers. There was something about Sheckley’s style that gave me a sense that I could do it myself. He wrote like I though. Starting in 1962, I knew in my heart of hearts that my greatest ambition was to become a bea