A Look at Rudy Rucker’s White Light

I must confess, I had never heard of White Light before I picked it up. Being the intelligent and discerning consumer I am, I bought it because it had a shiny cover and only cost 50p. I’m pretty sure you can’t even get a Freddo for 50p anymore. I browsed the introduction on the way home and was informed that it should be considered part of the context of cyberpunk, even if it isn’t necessarily cyberpunk itself. I like William Gibson a lot, so this interested me enough to immediately make a start on the novel, something I don’t often do when I pick up a used book, unless it’s something I’ve been looking for for aaaaaaages.

And pretty much all of a sudden, I’d finished it, and was sat there thinking that I’d normally have to pay a lot more than 50p to trip that hard.

White Light certainly is akin to cyberpunk, even if a lot of the novel takes place in lucid dreams as opposed to cyberspace, and in a lot of ways cyberspace is a collective lucid dream anyway. We are taken from a quiet college town in upstate New York to infinite dreamscapes filled with impossible mathematical constructs, decaying cities, and a hallucinatory miasma. If cyberpunk is what happened when the kids who grew up reading Kerouac and doing LSD started thinking about computers, then this fits pretty nicely in this context (a context that should also include Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a text that is an obvious jumping off point for White Light).

The novel moves with the frenetic pace of the Velvet Underground song of the same name. You might expect that a preoccupation with heavy mathematical concepts would slow the novel down, but that’s not the case at all. Being as concerned with landscapes and dreamworlds as the novel is, Rucker works these concepts in to the fabric of the plot and the logic of the story, creating an effect much like the same (or similar) concepts applied to painting. The quest narrative never gets bogged down by philosophical exegesis and Rucker always does a good job of making sure you can at least try and imagine the things he is describing. He does it well enough that you don’t get slowed down by looking things up.

But you can if you want. You do not need a postgrad education in math or philosophy to understand anything in White Light. I have a C in GCSE mathematics and got by just fine. Rucker even explains things well enough (without doing it explicitly) that I got curious and spent an hour in a Wikipedia hole that started at the article on set theory. I even understood some of it. In fact, I suspect that this novel might even be of help if you are starting out learning concepts like Hilbert’s hotel, and need help visualising it.

The psychedelic, mathy parts are great and I’m definitely interested in reading some of Rucker’s nonfiction work on the same subjects. This side of the novel is definitely its strongest aspect. The more human dramatic aspect is a fair enough beginning point, but the sorrows of Felix Rayman ring a little hollow when you consider how much of an asshole he is to his wife. Rayman wanting to escape dreamland and see his wife again is ostensibly the driving force of the story, but one gets the feeling that the author, like his autobiographical protagonist, is probably more interested in exploring infinity than human relationships. It’s a perfectly functional frame, and I don’t think anyone will come to this novel expecting Henry James, but it is a weakness that is even acknowledged by the author in the afterword, so it bears mentioning.

White Light wasn’t the deepest SF novel I’ve picked up recently, but it’s been one of the more fun ones. I might have had more to chew on if I was in any way a serviceable mathematician, but White Light was still enjoyable the way a stoned conversation with a friend about shapeshifting lizards is enjoyable. If you like Drug Novels (maybe Dick, but less depressing), or enjoyed Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, give it a go.

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