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Moldies and Meatbops, Rudy Rucker, Doubleday, 1997, 552 pp.
Note: Moldies and Meatbops is a collection of three novels by Rucker. Software was originally published in 1982, Wetware in 1988, and Freeware in 1997.
Moldies and Meatbops is a sprawling and impressive epic, the kind of dizzying science fiction that appears too seldom in the field. Rucker has recently written a fourth novel in the series, Realware, and seldom has a series exhibited such imagination and remained so fresh and interesting across nearly 20 years. Rucker's secret seems to be that he started with many valid and insightful ideas in Software (as I'll explain in a minute), and that he used the future as an expanding canvas for each subsequent book. His writing style also contributes in its own way to the success of the series. Rucker has a keen sense of the essential trashiness of things to come in the same way that Philip K. Dick did -- there are no keen-eyed and heroic scientist figures striding brightly into a kitchen-appliance-white future here. Even though Rucker's characters are often crucial to world altering events, they mostly come across like Dick's little people. And the cast of characters is large, the web of relationships complex, especially in the longer third book, Freeware. In fact, Moldies and Meatbops exhibits such complexity that it might not be the best starting place for Rucker neophytes. Rucker's recent book, Saucer Wisdom, a joyous postmodern bonbon of the type that shows up occasionally in science fiction, has all of Rucker's trademark speculation, in a story dreamlike in its clarity. Moldies and Meatbops is an ambitious project, demanding of the reader, and while it's easy going from page to page, the story stretches to a large scale that needs a good deal of attention.
Software is a short novel, taking up only 145 pages of this omnibus volume. A man named Cobb Anderson is retired and living in Florida in the year 2020. Cobb was responsible for creating self-aware robots, known as boppers, on the moon, which was considered a great achievement until the bopper known as Ralph Numbers led an independence movement in 2001. As the book begins, the boppers make an offer of immortality to Cobb. All he needs to do is meet his contact, a younger man named Sta-Hi Mooney, and take a flight to the moon. Meanwhile, trouble is brewing between the big boppers, those who control large buildings like museums and hotels, and the mobile little boppers -- the big boppers want to swallow up all the little boppers and as many fleshers as possible -- and Cobb and Sta-Hi arrive in the midst of this turmoil. Sta-Hi survives but Cobb does not, at least in his human body. In fact, Cobb wakes up in a bopper body back in Florida, his software now loaded onto some circuits kept supercooled in a Mr. Frostee ice cream truck controlled by another bopper. Some comic business follows, with bopper remotes mistaken for people, and Cobb accustoming himself to his DRUNKENNESS subroutine. Too bad that Cobb's lot is now thrown in with the big boppers, as they try to transform fleshers (by scooping out their brains and reading the information), even going so far as to promote a cult that would draw humans in. But the big boppers are losing the war, and soon Cobb has lost two remote bodies and is trapped on the Mr. Frostee truck. Sta-Hi, whose father was killed in the explosion of one of Cobb's remotes, rams the truck, which loses its cooling capabilities. So ends Software, and Cobb's last question -- "'Am I on tape somewhere else?' Cobb asked. 'Is there a copy on the Moon?'" (143) -- goes unanswered.
Wetware is also a somewhat short novel, around 160 pages. It takes place a few years later, between December 2030 and March 2031. Sta-Hi, now known by his real name Stahn, is living on the moon, which has been under human control again since 2022. Stahn gets involved with a drug called merge, which will temporarily melt a human body. Agents of the boppers on the moon are using merge for their own purposes. Occasionally Rucker's chapter titles are ultra-informative, as in this early chapter heading, for chapter 4: "In Which Manchile, the First Robot-Built Human, Is Planted in the Womb of Della Taze by Ken Doll, Part of Whose Right Brain Is a Robot Rat." Della Taze and her cousin Willy Taze are grandchildren of Cobb Anderson, and Della moves back to Earth to give birth to her baby. Manchile is the first meatbop, and he grows quickly, and tries to spread his offspring as widely as possible. A large part of the plot of Wetware has to do with tracking down the descendants of Manchile, made more difficult by Willy's bopper sympathies. Meanwhile, the light, flexible, semi-intelligent plastic-like substance known as flicker-cladding or imipolex is used by boppers in many applications. But some human scientists discover a way of infecting boppers and destroying them; this chipmold interacts with the flicker-cladding in a manner that becomes important to the third book, Freeware. Wetware ends with an impasse just like Software did. Software showed an attempt to create remote (robotic) bodies for intelligences stored on circuits; this attempt failed. Wetware shows an attempt to create meatbops, human bodies with brains designed by boppers and able to reproduce; this attempt also fails. At the end of Wetware, the chipmold destroys all boppers, and large parts of human society crash to a halt.
So what next? Freeware takes place largely in the year 2053, with flashbacks all the way back to 2031. It's also a longer book, at about 250 pages. The book progresses for quite a while, detailing the lives of a new life form known as moldies, before we find out what happened after 2031. In chapter 6 of Freeware, we discover that Willy used imipolex, already given strange properties by the chipmold infection, to create moldies. As the book tells us in its opening sentence: "Monique was a moldie: an artificial life form made of a soft plastic that was mottled and veined with gene-tweaked molds and algae" (318). Willy also created DIMs, which could mimic any device imaginable, from imipolex. Freeware concerns itself with the struggle between those who enjoy the quality of life possible with cooperation between moldies and humans and others, like the Heritagists, who would rather that the moldies didn't exist. Monique works for a hotel, run by Tre and Terri. Monique gets mixed up with one of the guests, Randy, who abducts her. As I said, the book has some flashbacks in it, and a large part of that has to do with Randy's past; as a youngster, working in an imipolex factory in India, and later as a Heritagist agent. Stahn Mooney is also involved with the struggle, as he is now a Senator on Earth and doing what he can for the moldie cause. He is also kept informed by moldies on the moon of their ongoing project known as the Gurdle Decryption. Freeware seems to be moving along quite well with the plot as described, until the moldies finish the Gurdle Decryption, and the book takes a sudden left turn as entities from beyond start taking control of the moldies.
As is obvious, Moldies and Meatbops is quite a saga. I've left off mentioning a number of the secondary characters that make the cast so immense; Rucker provides a genealogical chart at the close of the volume, and it's quite necessary. I liked the sense of developments springing from one another, and the continuity of people and ideas across the three books. Of course one of Rucker's great achievements with Moldies and Meatbops is to show just how surprising steps in technological innovation really are. I hesitate to say "technological," because another achievement of this trilogy is to show how the future will be affected by the confluence between information (and all of the increasingly powerful ways of storing and manipulating it) and biology (and an increasing understanding of it). Once a change is made, the ripple effect is enormous; as has been pointed out by Kurzweil and others, change is happening at an exponentially increasing exponential rate. Looking at progress from a linear point of view reveals a bewildering state of changes appearing from nowhere. Looking at the future with Rucker's ideas in mind could potentially prepare us for anything!
Last modified: October 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 by James Schellenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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