Rudy Rucker pushed the boundaries of how much weirdness you could fit into one science-fiction novel, with last year's Postsingular. But the sequel, Hylozoic, goes much further into the realms of the twisted, the disturbing and the post-everything. Warning: spoilers!
It's fitting that Hylozoic came out this summer, while so many people are taking part in the "infiinte summer" event, trying to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest in one summer. Infinite Jest, of course, is one of the best books about addiction, and the different ways in which addictions can warp your life, ever written. Hylozoic picks up that theme of addiction and compulsive behavior, and carries it in a typically transrealistic, surreal direction.
Hylozoic isn't entirely about addiction, of course — you'd be hard pressed to pin down one thing the book is "about" — but addiction does seem to be a major running theme. The book follows newlyweds JayJay and Thuy, who were major characters in the first book, as they struggle with different types of addictions and compulsions. In the first book, JayJay was addicted to the "BigPig," a sort of worldwide artificial mind that gains processing power from all the people connected to it. As one mind inside the Big Pig, you get to help solve huge world-shattering math and physics problems, and the loss of individuality and selfhood becomes a kind of joyous release. But at the end of the first book, JayJay and Thuy succeeded in opening up a kind of higher dimension called the "Lazy Eight," and as a result everything in the world is sentient in some fashion, and there's a kind of world-mind called Gaia, which is like an evolved version of the Big Pig.
So now JayJay is struggling against an addiction to connecting with Gaia, and it's a serious problem — people who spend too much time connected to Gaia tend to vanish utterly. His addiction winds up leading to him turning into the puppet of evil alien birds who want to invade Earth and turn it into alien condominiums, while enslaving humans and siphoning off all the "gnarl" (the randomness, sort of) from everything. JayJay becomes the helpless slave of the alien invaders. And then, later, once he escapes to a higher dimension where it's still the 15th century, he has other addiction issues involving wine and some kind of hallucinogenic mold in the bread.
Oh, and here's a video where Rudy Rucker explains what "gnarl" is:
Thuy, meanwhile, falls afoul of a second group of aliens with questionable motives, who visit Earth. The Hrull are sort of flying manta rays, and they need to harness the mental energy of humans and other intelligent mammals to propell their bodies through deep space. To do this, they give their mammalian workers a weird addictive gel that induces euphoria and sexual compulsiveness — and makes them utterly dependent on the Hrull. Thuy fights to avoid becoming addicted to this Hrull gel, (and she has a scene, involving this gel, halfway through the book which may squick a lot of readers, and could actually make it difficult to finish the book because it's so upsetting.)
As in the first book, everyone is able to see everyone else at all times, so there's no privacy. Added to which, Thuy and JayJay are part of the "cast" of a weird reality TV show, Founders, including all the people who helped usher in the Singularity. Advertisements sort of pop up around them and bob around, depending on how many people are watching them.
The other major theme of Hylozoic seems to be an extension of Postsingular's main idea: that the alternative to a kind of benign, all-embracing singularity is a singularity where most people end up being vassals and tools of the man. This time around, instead of nano-machines trying to eat everything on Earth and port all the humans to a virtual world, it's aliens who have been attracted by our new expanded consciousness and want to use it for their own ends. (And there are echoes of Postsingular, in that the bird aliens wind up gaining the support of president Dick Too Dibbs, who nearly gave away the store to the nanomachines last time. The bird aliens, the Peng, also win over a lot of right-wing Christian groups through subterfuge, in a somewhat cartoony sequence.)
As with all of Rucker's recent work, there's nothing naturalistic about Hylozoic, and yet it does feature little odd touches like a family barbecue or friends getting a burrito together. His characters talk in an unfiltered yet disjointed way, saying exactly what's on their minds with no editing, and in odd cadences. It's like they're speaking to us from their subconscious at times. Add to that the fact that two major characters in the book are a pitchfork named Groovy and his lover/opposite, a harp named Lovva, and it all starts to feel a bit like an acid-induced R. Crumb cartoon. Groovy the pitchfork is able to roam around causing mischief because he's been "Aktualized" — he's actually an alien from another world and/or dimension, and he's just chosen to appear in the form of a pitchfork. Oh, and did I mention that Thuy and JayJay hang out with Hieronymous Bosch when they travel to the 15th century dimension? They do.
The whole thing gets more and more demented, until it almost feels like you need a post-singularity brain to understand all of the eigth-dimensional drama and weirdness. But just when you think Rucker's layered on too much weirdness and nonsense for one book, it reveals itself, once again, to be the story of JayJay and Thuy's marriage, and of their battle to stay married in the face of alien birds, addictive manta-ray gel, and a personality-eating world mind. It's a fitting sequel to Postsingular, and anyone who enjoyed the earlier book will definitely find the follow-up just as fascinating and jarring. Oh, and Rucker will be reading (hopefully from this book) at Writers With Drinks, the reading series I organize and host, this Saturday in San Francisco. That's at the Make Out Room, 3225 22nd. street, from 7:30 to 9:30 on Saturday.