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Rudy Rucker
Avon Books, 288 pages

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A review by John O'Neill

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.


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