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Rudy #5. Gnarly Power Chords

Literature at large has its own tropes or standard scenarios: the unwed mother, the cruel father, the buried treasure, the midnight phone call, the stranger in town and so forth.

When I speak of power chords in the context of SF, I'm talking about certain classic tropes that have the visceral punch of heavy musical riffs: blaster guns, spaceships, time machines, aliens, telepathy, flying saucers, warped space, faster-than-light travel, immersive virtual reality, clones, robots, teleportation, alien-controlled pod people, endless shrinking, the shattering of planet Earth, intelligent goo, antigravity, starships, ecodisaster, pleasure-center zappers, alternate universes, nanomachines, mind viruses, higher dimensions, a cosmic computation that generates our reality, and, of course, the attack of the giant ants.

["Welcome to Mars" by Rudy Rucker. More info on my paintings page.]

When I use an SF power chord, I try to do something fresh with it, perhaps placing it into an unfamiliar context, perhaps describing it more intensely than usual, or perhaps using it for some new kind of thought experiment.

And if the material takes on a life of its own, it leads to what I call the gnarly zone. In short, a gnarly process is complex and unpredictable without being random. If a story hews to some very familiar pattern, it feels stale. But if absolutely anything can happen, a story becomes as unengaging as someone else's dream. A gnarly tale is lies in between. It's not predictable, but it's not random. Gnarl is midway between logic and madness.

Note that fictional gnarl isn't really hard to achieve. It's just a matter of relaxing. If you set your tale free, it becomes a simulated world in which the characters and tropes and social situations bounce off each other like eddies in a turbulent wake, like gliders in a cellular automaton graphic, like vines twisting around each other in a jungle. It's alive, and it's gnarly.

When I write, I like to be surprised. I like to see power chords doing new things. Charlie Stross's Saturn's Children of 2008 was a good example of making the old chords do new things. In a way, it's a Heinlein space novel with Asimov robots as the characters. But it's fresh and new, as it's a take-off on that mode, carried out very wittily and consciously, so that, for me, the book felt like a nut-filled holiday cake stuffed with funny twists and jokes and references.

There's a joke about the robots believing that the "Creators" (the now extinct humans) lived with Tyrannosaur dinosaurs during the "antediluvian" times--they're getting their historical info from fundamentalist tracts they've unearthed.

The statue of the Maltese falcon appears, described as a "model of an extinct airborne replicator that preyed on other similar avioforms." And the robots are puzzled about public bathrooms: "I keep moving, looking for an unoccupied shrine--one of those curious rooms of repose that our Creators installed in all public places."

There's some beautiful prose in there, too. "Jupiter is a gibbous streaky horror...while the sun, a shrunken glaring button..." And the robot heroine carries around her ancestors' personalities in a "graveyard" box of chips.

Renewing the old tropes is good--it's maybe a little like a contemporary musician making a cover version of a classic song. But it's also good when you come up with a brand new power chord of your own. Although some might question if if this is possible.

As I mentioned, one of the ideas I'm into these days is hylozoism--the vintage philosophical notion that every object is alive and conscious. Re. hylozoism, I might paraphrase a remark that Stephen Wolfram made to me about the reception of his early work on cellular automata and the computational nature of the physical world. "Half the people says it's trivial. And the others say it's wrong. I think that's a good place to be."

Flowing out of hylozoism is the possibility that you can do telepathy with the objects around you--and tweak their physics. Kind of a step beyond telekinesis. You move into a direct matter control trope and then have some fun with that wacky matter stuff.

And to get that working, you need your Big Aha. Instead of that stroboscopic cuttlefish I was talking about, maybe you grow a ruff-like shelf-mushroom on the back of your neck, and cultivate a whorled coating of lichen on your shaved head.

Big fun.



On the subject of the line between logic and madness, of gnarl, I note that music itself treads the delicate line between predictability and chaos. A drum machine is too regular, a toddler randomly thrashing away is too irregular.

What we seem to want from music is unpredictability within a predictable framework, and I suspect that's true of a lot of art. William Burroughs (possibly as a reaction to being the scion of the data processing Burroughs Corp.) was famous because of the cut-up technique of writing, but it's not a style that's really caught on, and I don't think it could be.


Extrapolating from the premise.

Wikipedia entry for 2020: Mini-singularity

History: The first mini-singularity was traced back to an event in 2020 where a terrorist group released modified bacterial meningitis phages that had the side effect of linking effected brains to previously unknown quantum fields.

Effects on society: Billions died from starvation as they were unable to eat lifeforms. Construction ground to a halt as crews were unable to clear forest or rock for development. Millions fled to communes offering modified Buddhist concepts purporting to offer access to the 'one universal mind'.

Duration and mitigation: (2020 to 2026) Though various methods of dampening the quantum brain fields were attempted (alcohol had some limited mitigation), in 2026 success occurred when a plant was discovered in the Amazon rainforest that dampened access to the fields. Drunken armies from all nations converged in the Amazon for pitched battles to secure access to the plant. By the end of 2026 the active ingredient had been synthesized and mass distribution begun.

Drug efficacy and limitations: The drug now known as 'Sanitize' is successful in blocking brain access to about 98% of the quantum fields. However, with around 12% of the remaining worlds population either seeing limited benefits from the drug or suffering full immunity the world has seen a new branch of humanity arise as desperate measures have been taken to breed immune humans (see: quantum brain-field genetic susceptibilities)

Subsequent societal changes: With a minimum of 2% of the quantum link field still permeating brains society has developed along the lines of:
(1) widespread alcoholism
(2) communes and reservations where those that test out 10% or greater quantum saturation are sent.
(3) American Indian shaman's and Buddhist monks in high demand even off the reservations to teach coping techniques for thanking your food

Current developments The recent advance in breeding 'pure' humans immune to quantum fields has had limited success due to the current onslaught of our 'quantum machine singularity' (see: quantum bio-electronics). Even the 2% are falling victim to the intense fields of our quantum electronics, with their consciousness flickering away from site to site. The few 'pure' humans created are completely unable to cope in the quantum connected world.


Awesome comment, Markham. I have thought of this problem from time to time. Like, if you have hylozoic teep powers to you feel guilty when you burn a lump of coal?

A way out could be that things like lumps of coal and harvested plants and dead animals don't CARE what happens to them. Our human concern with survival has to do with the fact that, given that the race still exists, we obvously have strong drives to live long enough to reproduce, raise children, etc.

The "race" of stones doesn't need to worry about this kind of thing. And once a plant or an animal is dead, there's no pressing reason not to be eaten.

This all gets even weirder when you start thinking about the minds of atoms...


But suppose that the things do care, not as sapient beings, but still with some level of consciousness. I can see people accepting a world view like that of some of the Native American tribes, where the animals they hunted for food are honored for their sacrifice, and when an animal is killed for food, the hunter apologizes and promises to remember the animal.


How does your version hylozoism differ from animism?

The way you explain it they seem pretty much the same.

I've read the entry for hylozoism in Wikipedia, by the way, and I find that their explantion of a supposed distinction between animism and hylozoism makes absolutely no sense to me. perhaps it's because I spent too much time reading Inuit myths when I was in my early 20s.


My take wasn't that inanimate objects valued their survival but that you (via the quantum links) are part of their consciousness. Disrupting their structure (or worse disrupting a life-form) maps to your feeling of disruption and holds the potential for destruction of aspects of your linked structure. Like ripping apart sections of your own mind.

Perhaps a reconstructive therapy for those damaged by violating conscious structures would entail raising farms of crystals, to bask in their simple repetitive mental glow...


The reason I had initially thought about fungus(besides how cool they are) is because it solves some of these problems. Allowing for quantum entanglement between lifeforms doesn't necessarily mean all lifeforms with awareness of these connections are necessarily connected to each other.
It might even be that the connections themselves still require organizational networks(quantum wires) to have any kind of meaningful communication.
So instead of worrying about whether the rock is "conscience" or cares about its own destruction, the real question is whether or not its part of(or outside of) your qm network.
The networks themselves could have there own evolution patterns where one networked colony of conscienceless is fighting for resources(?) with another or even defensively avoiding being connected to the another network.


Alain, you're right that animism seems simliar to hylozoism. I guess a difference might be that a hylozoist regards the life/consciousness as being automatically inherent in every object, like mass. But an animist might be more inclined to see spirits of place only in the more interesting things, like a pariticular gnarly tree, or a certain mellow bend of the stream, probably just about any animal, but maybe only the more shapely rocks.

Markham, I do think a hylozoist can be comfortable with changing the forms of's all change everywhere after all.

No matter, never mind. (Not really relevant, but a nice line anyway.) It doesn't matter. I don't mind.


more inclined to see spirits of place only in the more interesting things, like a pariticular gnarly tree, or a certain mellow bend of the stream, probably just about any animal, but maybe only the more shapely rocks

sounds a bit like Shinto


"The stars are matter, we're matter, but it doesn't matter" — Don Van Vliet


Thanks! I see where this veers off now.


Okay, on a practical level- how would you tell the difference between a rock that has consciousness and a rock that's just a rock?
How do you test hylozoism to see if it's a load of hooey or not?


Though various methods of dampening the quantum brain fields
Pet peeve:
* dampening = making wet
* damping = removing energy from a system

Somehow, I don't think that making the quantum brain fields wet is what you intended to say... Otherwise, cool story concept--thanks!


As a mathematician I assume you know about complexity theory. I believe it started as an off-shoot of Chaos maths, or is at least related.
It seems very close to what you describe as 'gnarly' - the boundary between order and chaos where everything interesting happens. In particular and in context, emergent behaviour derives from complexity. The total is more than the sum of the parts etc.



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This page contains a single entry by Rudy Rucker published on December 28, 2011 4:31 PM.

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