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Frek and the Elixir, Rudy Rucker, Tor, 2004, 476 pp.
Once again, Rudy Rucker proves that he has an amazing grasp of what makes science fiction work. Frek and the Elixir features unique and fully-realized characters, a whole range of cutting-edge scientific speculation, and a compelling plot that keeps the pages turning. At nearly 500 pages, Frek and the Elixir is almost as long as Rucker's Moldies and Meatbops trilogy (which has since expanded to five volumes), and he crams a comparable amount of stuff into this one book. The plot of Frek and the Elixir resembles that of one of Rucker's previous books, Spaceland -- an ordinary person gets involved in the struggles of higher-dimensional beings -- but where Spaceland took as its basis the famous Victorian novel Flatland by Edwin A. Abbot (see my review of both at The Cultural Gutter), Frek and the Elixir is working definitively new territory.
This book starts with the title character, Frek, a young boy, living on Earth about 700 years in the future. In this particular future, people are living in the aftermath of the Great Collapse; Earth's biosphere was destroyed, and the only lifeforms left are the ones created by NuBioCom, a company which now ruthlessly controls everything through its Govs. Living in a society that is controlled biologically and politically down to the last item by one company is every bit the nightmare it sounds like. So Frek is always sad to think about his dad, who was persecuted by Gov and left Earth for the asteroids. And when an alien shows up on Earth promising to help Frek find the elixir that will restore Earth's biome, it sounds like a wonderful deal.
The book is divided into three parts; the first third is called “The Departure” and it takes that long for Frek to get off Earth. Rucker sets the scene for us, with Frek's home life (his mother and two sisters) and what it's like to live with the very strange organisms supplied by NuBioCom (see an excerpt from the book later in this review). He also meets a number of Gov agents, a grulloo named Gibby, and some other lifeforms that will pop up later in the plot. After an explosive encounter with Gov at Gov's puffball (a giant organism that functions as its local headquarters), Frek is off to explore the galaxy. If the first part introduced us to Frek and his world, the second part, “The Elixir,” promises that he will find what he has been looking for.
But the munificence of the aliens turns out to be a naive notion on Frek's part. What could the true motives of aliens be? What would various groups of aliens be fighting over? What would we lowly humans possess that would be worth such intervention and conflict as soon happens? Rucker's answer is part of the true genius of the book, and as if the nightmare back on Earth wasn't bad enough, the situation only gets worse. The Orpolese, who originally contact Frek, are struggling desperately against the Unipuskers, who have kidnapped Frek's dad (as well as his dad's new girlfriend Yessica and Yessica's daughter Renata). And these are not the only aliens on the trail of something very lucrative: the sole broadcast rights to all of humanity. Humanity is already being branecasted (the term for broadcasting across higher branes or dimensions), but the aliens are frantically trying to gain sole branecast rights. Frek and Renata, who become friends, are getting wary of this struggle, and Frek in particular wants to stop branecasting from Earth altogether. Can they prevail against such determined resistance? Rucker throws in yet another twist to the story, in the fabulous third part of the book, “Earth's Fate.”
Most of this plot is told through the point of view of Frek, and Rucker submerges everything about the story into Frek's naïveté, in the beginning, and later into Frek's determination to fight back against branecasting. When I looked back at the book, I could see how the template of the character essentially breaks down into that old science fiction cliché, the young boy who grows up and becomes all powerful (à la Dune and many others), but Rucker cleverly disguises the overly familiar character arc. For one thing, Frek is constantly in peril and confusion, and he really does seem like a young boy out of his depth. Later on, his position as all powerful is precarious and based on an arbitrary premise of branecasting contracts (which, in all fairness, is never contradicted, so it can be chalked up to alien thought patterns). Best of all, Frek couldn't have done what he did at the end on his own. Rucker spends enough time on the secondary characters that this is believable and cheerworthy. The friendship that develops between Frek and Renata can cause a few cringes, but is a large part of the sweet-natured ending.
Rucker throws more speculative ideas into this book than seems quite possible. NuBioCom's creations would be enough to fuel most science fiction books, but that's only the first part. All of the different alien species are interesting and varied, as are the different branes that Frek visits in the course of his quest. Rucker chucks out all the FTL formulas that afflict science fiction stories; no warp drive here, but rather what's called yunching. The yunch is too good to spoil, so I won't describe it. Rucker also does some strange things with dark energy, autonomous cartoons, alien sex habits, universal surveillance, the consequences of a bored alien audience, and just about any kind of biological engineering that could be imagined. The narrative tone sometimes drops into infodump mode (see quotation below), so the reader is not dropped in Frek's world lacking any referents whatsoever. Thankfully, Rucker does all this great science fiction stuff through character and plot, which makes the book all the more admirable. Here is a taste of how the book works its magic, with the opening section of the first chapter:
Frek, the ordinary boy with a messy room, and his world, bioengineered in its entirety, are already established in these two short paragraphs.
Frek and the Elixir is perhaps Rucker's best book, containing as it does such a wealth of material in a compelling story. In some ways, Rucker is a literary descendant of Philip K. Dick, and this book felt to me like the masterpiece of trashy culture, ordinary people, and wacked-out ideas that Dick never quite wrote. I don't think Dick would have been quite so careful in the use of cutting-edge scientific speculation as Rucker is here, so the comparison is not entirely direct. In any case, Frek and the Elixir is highly recommended.
Last modified: July 8, 2004
Copyright © 2004 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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