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Freeware
Rudy Rucker
Avon Books, 288 pages

Freeware
Rudy Rucker
Born in Louisville, KY, Rudy Rucker went to private schools in Louisville then to Swarthmore College, majoring in Mathematics and to Rutgers University for his Master's and Ph.D. in Mathematics. His first SF novel was Spacetime Donuts some of which was published in a magazine called Unearth. Next came White Light and Software, both published by Ace. Software has been optioned to Phoenix Pictures.

Rudy Rucker's Home Page
ISFDB Bibliography
Freeware Site
Software Site
Wetware Site
Sample Chapter
Rucker Bibliography
Bopper Software
Perplexing Poultry
Tessellation Equations
John Horton Conway
Hilbert Space
Flickercladding
Cellab Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by John O'Neill

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Freeware follows Rudy Rucker's earlier novels Software (1982) and Wetware (1988), with which it shares a fairly roomy near-future timeline and a number of interesting characters. Yes, this ostensibly makes Freeware the third novel in a trilogy, but for those of you who frown on that kind of thing in selecting your light weekend reading, fret not. Freeware is snugly independent of its predecessors, and although there are references to earlier events the novel manages to stand on its own quite nicely. The net effect for those who (like me) haven't read the first two books is a sense of a rich background story that never really trips up the narrative. No mean feat, but Rucker pulls it off.

Of course, we latecomers have apparently missed some momentous events. Which means we'll occasionally trip over lines like this description of ex-Senator Stahn Mooney:

"His head hurt very deeply; he could feel the pain deep inside his brain from the healed wounds where he'd gotten a tank-grown preprogrammed flesh-and-blood right hemisphere to replace the Happy Cloak that had replaced the robot rat that had replaced his original right brain -- his skull was a xoxxin' roach motel."
If you can survive a throw-away line like that, you've got what it takes to quarry your way through Freeware.

Which brings me fairly early to the heart of this book. Your Medulus Maximus, the oft-neglected cerebral muscle responsible for Suspension of Disbelief, is in for a sweat-inducing workout starting squarely on page 3. Rucker is going to play with you. He plays fair, but to get started will require a leap of faith. If you're up to it you'll find that the rewards are more than worth the effort: Freeware is thought provoking, highly original, and at times extremely funny.

The action gets underway with a meeting between young Monique, an artificial lifeform known as a moldie, and acknowledged sex perv Randy Karl Tucker, a resourceful young man with an apprenticeship in moldie manufacture, some very unsavory friends, and a bag full of high-tech hardware. Monique is working as a maid in a small California hotel run by Terri and Tre Dietz, and she's met lots of different people in her year-and-a-half existence, but never anyone like Randy. Randy is a "cheeseball", someone who enjoys the unique experience of sex with moldies. When the rendezvous between the two goes bad, it kicks into motion a chain of events that soon impacts ex-Senator and hero Stahn Mooney, the brilliant and reclusive inventor Willy Taze, and eventually the entire colony of rogue moldies on the Moon. As events unfold we peek behind the curtain at the hidden science of imipolex, the mysterious and expensive wonderstuff that moldies are made of, and eventually come to see how Perplexing Poultry, the artistic software hack created by the ingenious Tre, has triggered a breakthrough that will impact all humankind (not to mention moldiekind).

I've heard it argued that the purest form of SF is one which takes a single idea and then runs to Hell and back with it. I don't know if I buy that completely, but if it's true then Freeware is the real stuff, 180 Proof and as smooth as silk. The single concept at the heart of the novel, from which all manner of technological marvels and mind-flummoxing plot twists arise, is the highly structured polymer imipolex. Imipolex is 10th generation Silly Putty, and if you've ever dreamed of making a car or model rocket out of Silly Putty, this book is seriously your ticket.

On its own imipolex is amazing stuff, with a dazzling litany of uses. When augmented with sophisticated software called DIMs (for Designer Imipolex) it can become smart tires, talkative toys, and -- most frequently, it seems -- a gagging array of talented sex toys. But it's when doped with chipmold, the strange organic multi-processor first encountered in Wetware, that imipolex truly becomes magical. The amazing imipolex-3 is the very flesh and blood of moldies. And this kind of dynamic ligature leaves moldies rather capable in the Mighty Morphin department, as we're told in our first description of Monique:

Monique was shaped more or less like a chessman with arms, like a pawn or a queen or a knight. The exact appearance of her humanoid head and arms was something she could tweak... In [her] alternate "pelican" mode, Monique became a set of great flapping wings attached to a tapered big-eyed body... Monique's tissues had at least three other basic attractor modes as well: the spread-out "puddle" shape she used for soaking up sun, the seagoing "shark" shape, and the rarely used "rocket" shape that moldies could use to fly back and forth between the Earth and the Moon.
Ooooh-kay. Since roughly half the characters in the books are moldies, all this takes a little getting used to, especially since the moldies are continually coming up with creative new shapes and capabilities. Your Medulus Maximus may cramp up at this point.

But before I give the impression that this is a novel (and concept) out of control, let me back up a bit. I said Rucker plays fair, and he does. The character mix, stuzzadelic background story and wavin' premise are laid out squarely for you by the end of Chapter One. No tricks, no gimmicks; it's a helluva thing to get your arms around, yes, but you get to take its measure up front. Rucker constructs his entire Rube Goldberg-inspired stage before your eyes and then asks, politely but firmly, that you trust in its sturdiness. There are points, in fact, where he's jumping up and down on the beams, daring you. I'm here to tell you that, not only are the rewards all they're promised to be and more, the required leap of faith isn't nearly as big as it looks.

For his part, Rucker fulfills his end of the bargain startling well. Chapter by chapter, his characters and the world they inhabit are made real. Locus has called Rucker the "Master of the crazy scenario," and perhaps that's the most concise way to put it. The more outlandish the premise, the more energy he expends to make it plausible. And he doesn't skimp on detail either, especially when it comes to imipolex -- do your homework on Tessellation equations and Hilbert Space (see sidebar), and you'll find Rucker's footing firm. No hand-waving here, either on imipolex, machine intelligence, or the inventive array of perversions introduced by sentient and semi-sentient Silly Putty. And just as you're getting comfortable accepting Rucker's entire outlandish stage as solid hard SF in the grand old tradition, he begins to pull back the curtain to reveal the real surprises.

I do have a few criticisms; or more accurately, parts of the narrative that never completely stopped spinning. For one thing, the drugs. Good Golly, the drugs. There's a mind-wrenching number of them, too many to keep straight, and the eagerness with which most of the main characters -- students and parents, Senators and scientists, human and moldie -- snort, smoke, and otherwise snarf 'em down made me positively queasy. Don't look for any overt message about the inherent safety and wholesome nature of mind-altering substances, though; many of the characters pay for their indulgences, some in surprising ways.

And then there's poor Randy Karl Tucker, the main character and narrative support for the first third of the book, albeit mostly in flashback. He vanishes at the end of Chapter One and never appears again. Or that mathematician's love of romantic math-related adjectives: "The streetlights made gleaming Lissajous patterns on the dragonfly." Keep a differential equations text handy to decode some of the more elusive metaphors. And I'm not sure, but I think there's a rare perversion or fetish that Rucker may have neglected to include. Maybe there weren't enough characters...

Ah, but they're all quibbles. This is the first book in years where I've fallen naturally into the rhythm of the near-future dialogue. People probably won't speak this way in fifty years but damnit, they should. SF has its share of solid theorists, and even a handful of true visionaries. But Rucker is our poet.

Copyright © 1997 by John O'Neill

John O'Neill is the Founder and Managing Editor of the SF Site. He is a recovering biblioholic.


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