Rudy Rucker’s Software Does Cyberpunk Both Right and Wrong
A robot, or a person, has two parts: hardware and software. The hardware is the actual physical material involved, and the software is the pattern in which the material is arranged. Your brain is hardware, but the information in the brain is software.
As one of the formative novels of cyberpunk, Rudy Rucker’s Software takes a somewhat surprisingly nuanced approach to technology. Another surprise is the way this novel equates freedom with psychotropic drugs, more reminiscent of a mid-60’s hedonistic hippie mindset than a punk aesthetic. This, for me, ends up being the most interesting aspect of this novel, and also the worst.
After fifty years her responses to the music were all but extinguished.
Software Strives to Provide Infinite Time
Cobb Anderson, now old and dying, created sentient robots that can evolve. These robots, called boppers, have formed an anarchistic society on the moon after freeing themselves from their enslavement to humanity. The big boppers are convinced that the inevitable, perfected state of living for both human and machine alike is to form into one being, one consciousness. As a result, a civil war has broken out on the moon between the big boppers and those little boppers who don’t agree with this plan.
As time grows short, the original big bopper, Ralph Numbers, decides to offer Cobb immortality by taping his brain, destroying his body and mind in order to place his “software” into a remote robot body. Rucker instills some technophobia here, as the boppers instigating this removal of autonomy also plan to tape humans, but the boppers themselves feel almost human in their varied personalities.
We boppers use human organs to seed our tissue farms. We use brain-tapes for simulators in some of our robot-remotes. Like me. And we just like brains anyhow, even the ones we don’t actually use. A human mind is a beautiful thing.
When Cobb finally does end up in a remote body, he has as much autonomy as he ostensibly did in human society. He just wasn’t aware of it. He’s free only within confines and immediately becomes a target for Mooney, a detective who suspects robots are being sent to earth from the moon but has no actual proof.
It doesn’t have to go into the program, Sta-Hi. It is everywhere. It is just existence itself. All consciousness is One. The One is God. God is pure existence unmodified.” Cobb’s voice was intense, evangelical. “A person is just hardware plus software plus existence.
Software Shows Machines Becoming More and Less Human
Software really shines in its diversion from the standard cyberpunk exploration of self. Typically, other books would use either cybernetics or cyberspace for this exploration of personhood. This is the first time I’ve read a first wave cyberpunk book that directly explores selfhood by permanently transferring the consciousness of someone else into a different body entirely.
Also, the idea that the influx of baby boomers crippled the American economy under a tsunami wave of retirement payments is novel to me. In Software, the US government gave the older generation, called pheezers, the entire state of Florida. This allotment resulted in a bunch of old hippies living a strange retirement lifestyle for the rest of their days .
It is sad that you choose not to understand what you yourself have created.
Ironically, the anarchistic society of the big boppers has managed to fetishize the human mind which created them. In unlocking the ability to read and record the data within the brain, big boppers have come to believe they are able to replicate something they don’t truly understand. This parallels Cobb’s own decisions and revelations in the book, except that he realizes that some things are unknowable. That’s how he learns the key to the boppers’ development is to unlock their potential to evolve and grow on their own. The boppers’ ability to replicate something and therefore commodify it have resulted in their dehumanizing the very thing they claim to be beautiful: the human mind.
Cobb Anderson’s brain had been dissected, but the software that made up his mind had been preserved. The idea of “self” is, after all, just another idea, a symbol in the software.
Cobb feels like his same self after being taped, even as a manufactured robot and despite the uncanny experiences that follow. He’s not able to get drunk or have sex without a subroutine that simulates it. He isn’t nourished by food, merely holding it within his body like refuse. Cobb can’t grapple with emulating his selfhood, believing his thoughts and memories are his own and so he must be the same. Though his thoughts and memories are present, they are also compromised by the manufacturers of his body. The big boppers are able to turn him on and off, yet say they cannot modify his free will. It’s all or nothing, but what is the value of free will in this context?
Software’s Story Has Peaks And Valleys, But It Sticks The Landing
We don’t want you to feel . . . ” “Like a remote?” “Right. You’re designed for full autonomy, Cobb. If you can help us, so much the better. But there’s no way we would have edited out your free will . . . even if we knew how. You’re still entirely your own man.
At the end of Software, there is no actual freedom to be obtained. Cobb’s immortality becomes a hollow existence shared with the other bopper entity in his machine body. Just as humans must contend with societal structures and norms dictating their navigation through life, so must Cobb feel the hand of this artificial life on an override switch that could displace his consciousness at any moment. In the end, his perception of freedom leads to him furthering only the goals of the bopper. The only gain is a perpetual state of enslavement, forever.
It was hard to read the emotion in Mr. Frostee’s even voice. Was revenge the motive? Or was it just a collector’s lust for ownership?
The pheezer generation’s freedom is not framed in a desirable light either. They have Florida and get food distributed to them, but no one seems to be truly happy with this outcome. Mostly, they are aimless. The pheezers resemble children more so than adults. They are devoid of responsibility and seem to have no goals or drive in their twilight years.
Another character, Sta-Hi (stay-high), has no ambition or dreams at all. Although he’s younger than the pheezers, his idea of life does not extend beyond staying in a perpetual chemical bliss. While this “no win” depiction of life is normal for cyberpunk, the made-up futuristic colloquial terms used by his generation sound as stupid as the life Sta-Hi leads. Whether or not this is intentional was not clear to me because the narrative continually reiterates these things in both positive and negative lights. I assume this ambiguity is a move to frame drugs in a neutral light, ostensibly to comment on humanity rather than the technology itself. These large swaths of the narrative were always annoying to me, almost like being the only sober person at a party where everyone else has been drinking.
Had Software been centered on the philosophical aspects and done away with Cobb’s counterpart Sta-Hi, this would have been a much more enjoyable book for me, even if certain sections are used in the narrative structure to display the facile nature of both existences the characters lead. The latter half of the novel, containing almost all the philosophy, is the meat of the book for me. It revealed how little of the first half I actually enjoyed.
However, Software was an overall positive reading experience, with the ending being a strong one.
It’s like waves, Cobb. Waves on the beach. Sometimes a wave comes up very far, past the tide line. A wave like that can carve out a new channel. The big boppers were a new channel. A higher form of life. But now we’re sliding back . . . back into the sea, the sea of possibility. It doesn’t matter. It’s right, what you told the kids. Possible existence is as good as real existence.”
Portions of the article above previously appeared on the website, Consuming Cyberpunk. They appear here with permission of their original author.