Realware (2000) by Rudy Rucker

Don't miss out on other works in the series:
Software (1982) Book Review
Wetware (1988) Book Review
Freeware (1997) Book Review
Available works by Rudy Rucker


Realware is the final 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.

Aliens had only just announced themselves when the previous novel Wetware (1997) ended, some threatening to destroy everything, others chatty and friendly. Realware kicks off when Kurt Gottner mysteriously disappears, sucked up by a holographic wowo projection device – a derivative of the  Perplexing Poultry philtre presented in Wetware (1997). Others have disappeared as well and the theory is that alien creatures from the fourth dimension (or hyberspace) are responsible. Kurt’s son Phil decides to investigate and the story centres on Phil’s budding relationship with Yoke Starr and their contact with the four-dimensional alien known as Shimmer. It is not the warmongering of the hostile aliens who threaten to upend life in the Solar System that defines the narrative dynamic though – that is quickly dealt with by Shimmer – but the well-meaning gifts that Shimmer and her six compatriots come bearing.

Rucker’s first-contact story is not one that hones in on world government machinations. It takes place at ground level, mediated by the same counter-cultural mis-fits that can be found in the previous novels. Nor is it a story of two sides failing to understand one another. Shimmer and the few humans she is contact with understand one another from the word go – in fact they get along swimmingly. Humans in general are wary of the aliens, the moldies even more so as they believe their computational architecture is more susceptible to alien invasion, but first contact never escalates into open warfare. The truth is that Shimmer’s kind are so advanced that humanity pose no threat to them. Able to manipulate matter at will, they have no interest in mankind’s technology or natural resources. They are so beyond humanity that they really have no meaningful answers to give humans who want to know what they are. Humanity dub them Metamartians. As four-dimensional beings – a construct that rests on quantum mechanic’s many-worlds interpretation – the Metamartians literally live in endless parallel worlds simultaneously. As a result they are not burdened with existential dread, and one of the first questions they pose to the humans is: you must be very afraid of death?

Living a nomadic existence, travelling across the Universe, the Metamartians are curious though and keen to understand human psychology. In return they gift realware to the humans, first to Yoke so she can try it out, and then to the whole of humanity. The realware comes in the form of a small device called an alla, literally a cornucopia machine that gives its user direct control over matter: whatever you think of is instantaneously created, provided that it already exists in a web catalogue compiled by the Metamartians. When the first humans try it out, they are not particularly inventive, merely using it for convenience or artistic pursuits, although that quickly turns into a self-defeating endeavour. But humanity on the whole is not ready for the alla. It does put an end to scarcity, but soon bombs start to explode everywhere as it does not put and end to hatred. As more and more people live in fear, people who forget to switch off the device when going to sleep might inadvertently set off bombs while dreaming. Realware thus communicates a very similar message to Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-1989): man is inherently competitive and violent and destined for self-destruction.