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 beatnik science fiction writer” (83).

In the fall of 1963 he went off to study at Swarthmore College, and went from being an outcast to find a circle of friends, including Gregory Gibson, “who loved drinking and writing as much as I did”. They partied, talked literature, and tried to collaborate on a novel, and have remained lifelong friends. In the spring of his freshman year he met a fellow student named Sylvia, and married her in 1967, squeaking into Rutgers graduate school for mathematics and thus avoiding the draft. The early 1960s was a time of discovery for Rucker, learning about Bob Dylan, “Loner poetry songs, wow! And Dylan was the same age as Embry! Incredible. Our generation was taking over” (94).

Just before I started reading Nested Scrolls, I read Robert Irwin’s recent Memoirs of a Dervish (Profile Books, 2011), which begins with these disarming sentences, “It was in my first year at Oxford that I decided that I wanted to become a Muslim saint. I wish I could remember more.” The book is his account of the 1960s in England and in a Sufi order in Algeria, and it is a chronicle of longings, love, strange friendships, excess, and the acquisition of a lifelong habit of learning — what an amazing world the 1960s must have been! It is curious how Irwin’s experiences at Oxford closely parallel Rucker’s, and indeed these might be universal to the western tradition of higher education: the powerful energy of being with fellow seekers.

In America, it was also the time of the escalation of the war in Vietnam. I want to quote two passages, the first as it is revelatory of Rucker’s character. “I had a self-destructive adventure-seeking, prove-my-manhood streak that made me want to join the combat. But at a more rational level I knew full well that — not to mince words — I didn’t want to die for nothing in a phony war launched by ruling-class oppressors who despised me, my friends, and everything we stood for” (104). And the second is a useful reminder to us who have been living in a decade of wartime:

At the same time the war in Vietnam was casting its bitter pall. Those who didn’t live through those times tend not to understand how strongly the males of my generation were radicalized against the United States government. It grated on me that our so-called leaders wanted to send us off to die, and that they called us cowards if we wouldn’t go. It broke my heart to see less-fortunate guys my age being slaughtered. My hair was shoulder length by now, and occasionally strangers would scream curses at me from cars (109).

As fascinating as the 1960s remain, and as fun and insightful as Rucker’s account of those years is, this period is but one phase in a broader narrative. It is, after all, for an account of the writer’s discovery of his skills and the path to the creation of art that we read writers’ autobiographies. Rucker wanted to be a science fiction writer and moved in that direction by writing down his thoughts and making early ventures into fiction. “In the coming years, I’d get the hang of this style by writing letters to my friends during summer vacations and after college. In typing out those letters, I’d slowly learn to write like I talk — in my opinion that’s a key part of having a pleasing literary style” (86). While an initial collaboration led nowhere, “I’d found that using myself and my friends as characters in a science fiction novel appealed to me very much. Much later I’d begin calling this technique transrealism” (107-8).

While at Rutgers, Rucker took LSD that his friend Greg Gibson brought him. “My mind blew like an over-amped light bulb. There was no evading the ego-death. I was immersed in white light. […] I never really recovered from that experience — and I mean this in a good way” (121-2). And he had the opportunity to meet with the mathematician Gödel, one of his intellectual heroes, and other fellows of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. After obtaining his Ph.D., he and his family moved to upstate New York, the first in a series of academic postings. He began shaping his lecture notes into a book on geometry, wrote poetry, and eventually in 1976 began to write the novel that became Spacetime Donuts. It took years for the novel to find its way into print, for the magazine that contracted to publish it failed after two instalments (it was eventually published in 1981). His friend Greg Gibson told him, “ ‘The cool thing to do would be to write a science fiction novel, but write it about your life’ ” (162) He wrote a second novel, White Light, that he sold to a British editor and then to Ace Books in the U.S. “I felt like a plant pushing out from the soil into the sun and air” (163)

Nested Scrolls is not simply an alternation of partying and solitary writing sessions. Rucker writes engagingly of his travels and links scenes and experiences to aspects of his novels. And the account of the editorial meeting for his “oddest” book, Saucer Wisdom, is mind-boggling: Rucker and his friend Greg “cooked up the idea that he would present himself as actually being Frank Shook, the saucer nut. Greg has a piercing glare, and was then wearing a full beard, with his hair very long. He looked like a homeless Viet vet. At the pitch meeting, with four editors present, Greg made a few tense, distracted remarks, and then stalked out, muttering . . . ” (277). Eventually Rucker alerted his editors that it had been a gag.

He is an astute observer of artistic pretense, even at parties: “He felt that we should think of the Web as an arabesque labyrinth. The Mondo editors were always big on understanding technology as metaphors — instead of actually learning anything hard” (256). There are charms throughout, such as Rucker’s friendship with Robert Sheckley, or this passage about the woods near Geneseo. “One time I found three brass links of a heavy chain in a stream, and brought it home. The three-link chain’s mass and luster made it seem like a power object. That night I dreamed that the frogs who lived in that stream were begging me to return their treasure, so I brought it back. It seemed best to be on good terms with the resident spirits of the place” (145). He writes simply about the joys of being a parent and just as directly about the struggles and obstacles he has faced.

A quick aside (disclosure time): I’ve known Rudy Rucker for some years, occasionally meeting him or exchanging correspondence about Old Bill (William Burroughs); in fact, you’d have to be a total stranger to science fiction not to know Rudy Rucker. Rucker’s forthcoming novel of Alan Turing and William Burroughs will mess with the fabric of reality but not, it appears, sufficiently to include a meeting with Chubby Checker (“Let’s Do the Twist”), who lives downstream from the former Burroughs Corp. factory in Paoli, Pennsylvania. He’s a friendly person and a ready correspondent. And given that the world of antiquarian bookselling is even more completely interconnected than the world of science fiction, it will come as no surprise that I know his Swarthmore friend Gregory Gibson (aka Frank Shook). The point is that Rucker’s observations of himself and his writing process are pretty accurate: he really does write as he speaks.

In Mad Professor he wrote, “I tend to tell my life story as if eveything were funny, even though it’s not.” If the autobiography drags a bit in the childhood passages, the narrative elements set in play in these chapters recur in later sections with Ruckerian verve (as distinct from Nabokovian manipulation). Nested Scrolls is funny, surprisingly touching, and the photos of the 1980s cyberpunks are a scream, especially that of Young Billy (William Gibson). And just when the family stuff and passage to recovery might get treacly, here is Rucker bringing it down to earth at a family reunion, “we’ll once again be rolling on the ground in a heap with our three clever piglets, all of us squealing”. Even this is a carefully crafted image with pig resonances from earlier in the book (and subtler echoes from Rucker’s fiction).

Nested Scrolls is a gnarly iteration and a rewarding journey. I treasure this sentence describing his office in Lynchburg: “Or maybe I’d just lie on my wood floor, pondering the beautifully three-dimensional shape of the room, thinking about the spacetime trails everything was leaving as we move forward in time” (128).

Henry Wessells lives and reads in Montclair, New Jersey.

Originally published in The New York Review of Science Fiction 23, no. 12, August 2011. Copyright © 2011 by Henry Wessells. All rights reserved.