Freeware (1997) by Rudy Rucker

Don't miss out on other works in the series:
Software (1982) Book Review
Wetware (1988) Book Review
Realware (2000) Book Review
Available works by Rudy Rucker


Freeware is the third book in Rudy Rucker’s Ware tetralogy (1982-2000). Spaced out over 25 years (2020-2054), the series follows the lives of a number of west-coast, counter-cultural families, their haphazard and often accidental relationship with rapid technological change defining the narrative dynamic. Based on the idea that life and ultimately consciousness can be expressed by information, it envisions different patterns of consciousness, allowing the character Cobb Anderson who feature in all of the novels to leave his body behind and live ’life’ in different material formats: cybernetic organism, digital storage unit, computational bio-plastic, and four-dimensional space – always insisting that he is a human.

The Chipmold plague unleashed by the human resistors in Wetware (1988) rid of the Moon of boppers, but as it also gave rise to a new bio-plastic material called Imipolex, capable of running sentient machine intelligence, the boppers merely metastasised into a new lifeform called moldies. Made of computational soft plastic, mottled and veined with gene-tweaked moulds and algae, moldies are malodorous and can shapeshift at will, but otherwise display all the characteristics of previous bopper life. At this point in the narrative the plague has already run its course on Earth, which infected all computer systems and ground society to a halt. And it was only when someone came up with the idea to use Imipolex to fix the problem that computers came back online. The Imipolex-based computer fix (Designer Imipolex (DIM)) inadvertently gave rise to a whole new limpware industry, which in turn redefined the human-moldie relationship.

While moldies now live alongside humans on Earth, their rights secured in a citizen’s act, the uneasy human-bopper relationship of the previous novels is perpetuated in only a slightly different format. Moldies are typically looked down upon, performing menial tasks for humans. A new anti-moldie faction called Heritagists has sprung up, and the story kicks off when when Cobb Anderson’s grandson, Heritagist associate Randy Karl Tucker – with a fetish for moldies – uses a new DIM device called a superleech to remote control a moldie. The moldies give as good as they get though, and it is not unusual for a moldie to insert a thinking cap into human brains, bleeding them dry and using the money to buy Imipolex which they need to survive and breed.

Just as the Chipmold plague unintentionally paved the way for the moldie lifeform, so the development of a number of seemingly innocent limpware products has profound and unforeseen consequences for humanity. It is as if Rucker is saying that mankind is predisposed for stumbling along a path of progress blindfolded. He is suggesting that life, in all its complexity, is beyond human comprehension let alone control: what might start off innocently can quite easily end in disaster. Rucker’s low regard for mankind recalls Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980), which envisions a regressed post-apocalyptic society unknowingly on the cusp of developing gunpowder, caught in a vicious, eternally recurring cycle of repeating past mistakes.

Where Hoban is the tragicomic, Rucker is the absurdist. The invention of Imipolex begets a series of consumer industries and consumer products, ranging from internal surgery devices to interactive sex toys. It also gives rise to a new product line of pet toys called Silly Potters: small Imipolex based creatures that are sentient but not nearly as intelligent as moldies. Combined with a four-dimensional VR philtre called Perplexing Poultry, which can be connected to a uvvy device, a kind of communication and VR device worn by most people, the talking Silly Potters all of a sudden start to decode and channel the digital personality waves of alien intelligence from all over the universe, including the alien Quuz who wants to gobble up all the moldies, the Earth and Moon. So quite apart from setting the scene for the last instalment of the Ware tetralogy, Freeware, along similar lines to Greg Egan’s Permutation City (1994) and Diaspora (1997), introduces consciousness in its purest digital form, adding an additional layer to the conscious lifeforms explored in the series.