Software (1982) by Rudy Rucker

Don't miss out on other works in the series:
Wetware (1988) Book Review
Freeware (1997) Book Review
Realware (2000) Book Review
Available works by Rudy Rucker


Software is the first book in Rudy Rucker’s Ware tetralogy (1982-2000), set in a world where robots have cast off the yoke of Asimov’s three laws and live and act as individual agents. The series – spaced out over 25 years (2020-2054) – 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 of 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. It won the PKD Award (1983).

Alcoholic and aging retiree, Cobb Anderson lives in poverty in a walled-off enclave in Florida for retired baby boomers. As a former pioneer in robotics, Cobb was tried for treason for enabling the emancipation of the robots known as boppers, his generation generally held responsible for the destruction of society’s social structures. The boppers still hold Cobb in high regard and want to return the favour upon learning that he is struggling to find the money for a new heart. They offer to upload his mind to cybernetic body, but as he arrives in the boppers stronghold on the Moon not everything is as it seems and he soon learns that giant boppers are in the process of harvesting not only human brains, merging them into one, but also the brains of the small boppers.

Software is both humorous and deliriously absurd, not a far cry from PKD’s style: both humans and boppers get up to some very weird things. One example is Ralph Numbers, a robot revolt instigator and one of Cobb's original robots first to achieve free will, who is making a living selling his memories to curious boppers. The commoditisation of experiences and the obvious absurdist potential it lends to the story was also pursued by Pat Cadigan in Mindplayers (1987), specifically in the character of Jerry Wirerammer who resorts to bootlegging his personality and constantly rebooting himself in an attempt to undercut his agent.

Machine consciousness in Rucker’s world is premised on two design principles not dissimilar to today’s AI development labs: self-learning and self-replication. The result in Software is a Darwinian logic of survival of the fittest, a source of much tension between the boppers. They constantly feed off one another, exchanging programming information, and while some grow very big embodying whole buildings, others are threatened with obsolescence. On the moon, city bloc sized GAX for example is swallowing up individual working robots, incorporating their skill sets into his own gargantuan body, reducing them to remote-controlled slaves. The theme of anarchic organisation threatened by totalitarian subjugation – ultimately a meditation on checks and balances in the design of AI – was later picked up by Dan Simmons in Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997), AI’s initial parasitic and competitive programming premises leading to unforeseen, potentially catastrophic consequences.

In Software the healthy anarchy is threatened  by the big boppers’ strive to subjugate robot consciousness, a hostile takeover and a machine singularity in the making. Machine intelligence on the verge of spinning out of control became a core premise of postmodern space opera, from David Zindell’s Neverness Universe (1988-1998) to Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos (1989-1997) and Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space series (2000-2003). As Rucker suggests, and this is central to today’s public discourse on the potential threats of AI: once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to put it back in again. The singularity never manifests itself in Software though, but the claustrophobic, invasive feeling of living in a society alongside omnipresent machine intelligence comes close. The main hotel on the Moon is a bopper called DEX, and Sta-Hi, one of the main human characters in the novel who stays in the hotel, verbalises the paranoia of having everything he does monitored by a bopper.

The blurring of the lines between human and machine is as much a source for confusion and existential angst for people as it is for machines. On his way to the Moon Cobb has an unsettling encounter with a stewardess, a a cybernetic organism remote-controlled by BEX, who he at first mistakes for a human. It is his own predicament though – the question of a posthuman existence – that feeds Cobb’s frantic soul searching and questioning of what can be termed real or not.