Appearing in our March/April issue [on sale now!], Rudy Rucker’s “Mary Mary” explores the logistics—economic and otherwise—of “lifeboxes,” databases on which AIs of real humans can be based. Below, Rudy elaborates on the concept of the lifebox, fills us in on his novel-in-progress, Teep, and shares the nitty-gritty details of his writing process.
Asimov’s Editor: Is it getting harder to look into the future?
RR: I think I’m finding it easier. When I was younger, there was a certain default space-opera future that SF was supposed to be about. And then cyberpunk was about breaking out of that. I never had any interest in the Space Navy! Misfits doing crazy things, that’s what I like.
For me, most of the time, space-travel feels used up. Unless you were to do the space travel in a car instead of in a spaceship—like I did in my recent novel Million Mile Road Trip. That was something I liked about 1950s stories by Robert Sheckley. You just had a space-hopper in your driveway.
Setting space aside, there’s so much that’s untouched. Biotech has endless possibilities, and there’s ubiquitous physical computation, and the “hylozoic” notion that everything is alive.
And I keep wanting to write about that totally new thing that we know someone is going to discover in the next hundred years, and I keep not quite getting there, but by dint of making the effort to think that hard, I’m finding new stuff. Not actual “true scientific theories,” but fun ideas like new kinds of wind-up toys. The store is big.
How to find ideas? Nowadays it’s almost enough just to keep a loose eye on Twitter, and see the wonders trundling past—like a holiday parade that never ends. Grab hold of anything you see—and tweak it a little bit, and make it your own. Connect it in some way to your actual personal life—that’s the move I call transrealism. And go a little meta—that’s a trickier tactic I’m always trying to master—flip your idea up a level, and into something having to do with states of consciousness, or with the nature of language, or with the meaning of dreams. Go further out. There’s still so much. We’re just getting started.
AE: How does your writing process work?
RR: I write a few pages on my computer, print them out, mark them up with a pen, type in the changes and write a little more—then repeat.
When it’s going well, I do the computer work in a trance, seeing the scenes as if I’m awake in a dream, getting deeply into the minds of my characters and into the rhythms of their speech. When I’m in this zone, I’m not at all thinking about my day-to-day problems. I like that a lot—forgetting myself. That’s one of the reasons I like to write.
Having typed for a few hours, I print what I have, two-sided on a few pages of paper, fold the sheaf in four, put it in my pocket, go somewhere like a café or, in these plague times, to the woods or to a bench in a park. I get out the sheaf and start marking it up with a pen.
After I do the marking up, then I find my laptop, and sit on a couch with my marked-up sheaf, typing in the changes. Or maybe I sit or stand at my desk—I have a motorized Geek Desk with adjustable height. In the process of typing in the corrections, rather than precisely copying the notes, I might revise a passage extemporaneously, sometimes adding new stuff, and sometimes jumping to other spots in the manuscript to make things match.
A good thing about this work cycle is that if I save a marked-up print-out for the next day, then the process of typing in the corrections in the morning might get me going on the actual writing again. As any writer knows, a big part of the process is avoiding writing. What did we do before email and the internet? I seem to recall taking walks. Anyway, anything that nudges me back into the manuscript is of use.
When things are going really, really well—which is at most ten or twenty days a year—I don’t bother with the print-outs and the mark-up. I just open up the file on my computer and begin revising and adding new things—as fast as I can, jumping around almost at random, writing in different spots as the spirit moves me, like a sped-up stop-action construction worker—because I have so many things that I want to say, and so many scenes I want to see happen. On these days, I’m like a Donald Duck who’s found a treasure chest in a cave, and he’s dragged the chest out to the beach, and he’s letting the gems stream through his fingers. Wak!
That’s another of the reasons I write. To get a few days like that.
All of this takes awhile, but there’s not a huge rush. When I finish a novel, I’ll just have to spend a blank, uneasy year writing occasional stories and waiting to start another novel. If there is another. Usually, before I start another novel, I have to get to a psychological point where I truly, deeply, believe I’ll never write again. I give up, and I accept that I never really was a writer at all. I was faking it for all those years. And now it’s over. And then, and only then, the Muse stops by. And she’s like, “So you admit you can’t do it alone? About time. Let’s get started.”
I just open up the file on my computer and begin revising and adding new things—as fast as I can, jumping around almost at random, writing in different spots as the spirit moves me, like a sped-up stop-action construction worker—because I have so many things that I want to say, and so many scenes I want to see happen. On these days, I’m like a Donald Duck who’s found a treasure chest in a cave, and he’s dragged the chest out to the beach, and he’s letting the gems stream through his fingers. Wak!
AE: How did you come to write “Mary Mary”?
RR: I was looking around for ideas for a novel, and there wasn’t one big idea, at least not right away. So I spent a year or two writing stories on themes that might relate to each other. And in the back of my mind I was thinking that eventually I could collage at least some of the stories into what’s called a “fix-up novel.”
In the end, the three stories that fit together well were “Juicy Ghost,” “The Mean Carrot,” and “Mary Mary.” The first two appeared in the free underground e-zine Big Echo, and “Mary Mary” is in Asimov’s. Besides the three stories, I wrote five more story-sized chapters to produce my novel Teep, which is almost done as I write these notes at the end of January 2021.
Two of the main ideas I write about in Teep are telepathy (thus the title) and digital immortality. I’ve been writing fiction about digital immortality for forty years, starting with my novel Software, which appeared in 1980. Seems like I tend to keep thinking about the same things forever. Digging deeper and deeper.
I seriously see the technology for telepathy being commercially possible in the not-too-distant future. It’s not really all that much further out than cell phones with video calls.
My take on digital immortality has to do with a thing I call a lifebox. See my nonfiction book The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. The idea, which is fairly familiar by now, is that you might be able to emulate a person if you have a really large database on what they’ve written, done, and said. And if it’s SF, then we add some AI to the lifebox so it’s an intelligent mind. Cory Doctorow also wrote quite a bit about the lifebox idea in Walkaway, and others have written about it too.
Oddly enough, Microsoft took it upon themselves to patent the idea last week. Kind of disorienting for me.
In “Mary Mary” I delve further into the lifebox thing. How do you pay to have your lifebox stored? What if the company who houses your lifebox likes to rent your lifebox out as a gigworker? How about growing a clone to be run by your lifebox? How do you interface a human being with an online lifebox? Read my story and see!
AE: Any more info about Teep?
RR: I’ve been working on Teep over the last two years, and all along, in my mind, I was dealing with the possibility that Donald Trump might win a second term. In Teep, to push it over the edge, a very similar type of President was about to be inaugurated for a third term—and something happens to him.
And to make the synchronicity weirder, recently I’d been working on a final chapter of the book that unexpectedly mirrors the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.
I think the political resonances may make Teep more fun to read. Bill Gibson went through a variant of my experience when he wrote Agency, expecting Hillary Clinton to win in 2016, and then she didn’t—and he needed to change his thinking about his novel in certain ways. Fortunately for me, there’s a reasonable match between real world events and what I planned in Teep. So maybe you’ve got me to thank! 🙂