by Rudy Rucker
Cover Artist: Images: Peter Pinnock/Getty Images (manta ray); blackred/istockphoto and Andy Lin/istockphoto (pattern)
Review by Benjamin Wald
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765320742
Date: 26 May 2009 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Rudy Rucker's new novel Hylozoic has all the elements of a zany, mind-expanding SF adventure; the plot features evil bird-like alien invaders who behave like real-estate developers, a godlike being in the shape of a tuning fork, and inter-dimensional jaunts featuring a 12-foot tall alternate world version of Hieronymus Bosch to cite just a few plot points among many. However, somehow all of these elements failed to click for me. Instead of zany, the plot struck me as just busy, and the characters never seemed real enough for me to care over-much for the danger they were in.
I must admit to two things right off the bat. Firstly, this is the first Rudy Rucker novel I have ever read. Secondly, Hylozoic is a sequel to Postsingular, which I have not read. Thus, Iím not sure if my disappointment with this book is due to some more general dislike of Ruckerís style, or if it was just this particular book which left me cold, and it could be that the characters become more compelling if followed through their earlier adventures. Reader's who loved the first book may need to take this review with a grain of salt.
Despite being the second in the series, this book does a reasonable job of filing in the new reader, particularly if the reader is acquainted with the idea of a "singularity", or moment of vast technological change which radically restructures the world. It also helps to have a previous SF encounter with string theory and quantum computers, but it isn't essential. The premise is certainly audacious enough to tweak the interest of even the most jaded SF reader. All of the matter of earth has been turned into self-aware quantum computers. Thus, every atom is sentient and can telepathically communicate. Larger structures, such as trees, rocks, and streams possess gestalt consciousness which are smarter than their constitutive parts, all the way up to Gaia, the gestalt consciousness of the entire planet. It resembles a modern physics version of Leibnitzís theory of monads, with quantum computers thrown in for spice.
Ordinary humans have gained the power to telepathically communicate around the globe, teleport themselves and other physical objects with their minds, and commune with the Gaian earth-mind for answers to problems or just to experience a drug-like high. The plot is far too complex and convoluted for me to summarize here, but the overall story deals with an alien invasion of bird-like realtors, who are reprogramming the quantum computers of Earth's atoms for their nefarious ends. A group of friends, the same people responsible for the awakening to sentience of all of Earthís matter in Postsingular, spend most of the book trying to prevent this invasion, at least when they are not distracted by one of the numerous subplots. I found the whole thing a little too much "one damn thing after another" with no time to adjust to each new plot twist before a dozen more where introduced. And after all that, the ending is a literal deus ex machina.
One of the unfortunate side effects of Rucker's innovative setting is that all the conventional activities which make up most plots are all too easy for his post-human characters. Telepathy means that his characters are never out of contact with each other or separated, telekinesis provides the solution to almost any physical problem, and teleportation makes travel so easy that despite the fact that the action ranges over several geographic locals and even another dimension one is still left with the strange feeling that the characters have never actually gone anywhere. After all, their starting point is always just a teleport away. This means that most of the action in the book is taken up with talking over plans and considering courses of action, or else getting sidetracked by various complications. Once the characters figure out what to do, the accomplishment of their task is almost effortless. It seems like the characters need to be constantly indecisive just to push the plot along. In fact, in order for one of the characters to be kidnapped he needs to conveniently forget his ability to teleport or use telekinesis, and instead trips and falls. Considering the ease with which the characters manipulate their environment for the rest of the novel, scenes like this are jarring.
Compounding this problem are the characters in this novel. I could never really find them convincing. I admit it's a difficult task. I don't know how it would be possible to write convincingly about people with such different abilities from ours. How would it affect their interactions with themselves, one another, or their world? According to Rucker, not very much. The characters have barbecues, go surfing, and hang out. Even when aliens are invading left right and center they still have time for awkward adolescent moments and marital problems. The shear normalcy of it all is rather hard to believe, as is the calmness with which they react to some pretty horrifying threats. Their motivations are also a bit thin. At one point, one of the characters cheats on her husband with an adolescent boy. This event causes a few nasty remarks from her husband, a sentence or two of soul searching, and is then forgotten. Neither the act itself, nor her forgiveness for it, seem to be motivated by anything but the needs of the plot; the inner psychological motives remain opaque if not entirely absent.
Despite the impressively imaginative setting, this novel failed to engage me. Unrealistic characters combine with an overly complicated plot to leave me unsatisfied. I recognize how hard it is to write convincingly about the singularity, but Hylozoic doesn't meet the challenge.