The following is an edited transcript of an interview I held with Rudy Rucker, author of The Hollow Earth, at the Eaton Science Fiction Conference on Saturday, May 2, 2009.
MP. People started using the term steampunk around 1985 or ’86, beginning with an offhand comment by K. W. Jeter in Locus. You’ve mentioned to me that you have some reservations about the term steampunk, especially in relation to your novel, The Hollow Earth. Give me some of your impressions about the birth of steampunk.
RR: At the time, Tim Powers and James Blaylock were writing books that were kind of retro, and I think they were what you might call core steampunk authors. The subgenre really got some traction when Bill Gibson and Bruce Sterling wrote The Difference Engine. Because Gibson and Sterling were famous for cyberpunk, it was an obvious move to just affix the word “punk” to whatever they were doing. And they did in fact have steam engines in The Difference Engine, and some politics, so you could make a case for calling that book steampunk. But I still feel that it’s kind of stupid to put the name steampunk on any book that’s set somehow in the past and that is science fictional. But, there it is, people get a label, and they find it useful. And some people stick it on my novel, The Hollow Earth.
MP: Do you think the recent reprint of The Hollow Earth by Monkeybrains Books has something to do with the current increased interest in steampunk?
RR: I think the reprint of The Hollow Earth was a personal decision by Chris Roberson, the author who runs Monkeybrains Books. He enjoys reading and writing historical SF.
It’s true that in recent times I’ve been hearing the word steampunk more—I mean, I didn’t hear it at all during the last five or ten years. But it isn’t totally clear to me what people mean by steampunk these days. I’m not sure what recent book you would point at and call steampunk. My impression is that the current use of the word has to do with fashion, specifically of fashions relating to Victorian England.
It’s worth noting that a lot of the books that came to be thought of as steampunk were set in Victorian England—a standout is Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. Of course Blaylock’s Digging Leviathan was set in the U.S, as was, of course, The Hollow Earth. Not to be dissing any specific writers, I have to say that Victorian stuff bores the shit out of me. I don’t want to write about England. I’m an American writer.
MP: That is one of the things I really enjoyed about The Hollow Earth, was that it was decidedly an American setting. It seemed to have a sort of Huck Finn, Mark Twain sort of beginning to it.
RR: Well, that’s what I was looking for—the idea of the boy setting out on a journey. I was indeed thinking a little bit about Huck Finn when I wrote The Hollow Earth, and how Huck runs off with a slave. And I liked the idea of the quintessential American author, Edgar Allan Poe, being a main character.
Often when people write about Poe he tends to be somewhat of a caricature—a parody of himself. I got the collected works of Poe and I read just about everything in there. I was living in Virginia and I came to indentify very much with Poe. I saw him as a tortured writer like I was at that time, a person who always does the wrong thing at the wrong time, and fucks everything up, and is s unappreciated—even now I can relate to all of that. One thing about Poe, though—he’s such a windbag, and a braggart at times, that you get sort of sick of him—and I had some fun by tormenting him in my book.
MP: It’s a very satisfying read in that way, since not only do you torment Poe, but he and the main character don’t always get along. Now, you said you identified with Poe. Is this a bit of your transrealism here, writing yourself into the book? I mean, Jungian psychoanalysts would have a field day with The Hollow Earth.
RR: Whether The Hollow Earth is transreal, or autobiographical—in some ways, yes. There are elements of my personality that I wrote into the boy and into Poe, and there’s certain parts of my life story that match the story in the novel. I grew up in the sticks, if not actually on a farm. And there were times when my father drank a lot. A little transreal joke of mine is that the end of The Hollow Earth, the main character and his wife get on a ship bound for California, and the ship is called The Purple Whale. Right at this time, my family and I were moving from Virginia to California, and we were driving an old maroon station wagon that was purple, and that we called the purple whale.
As for the psychoanalytic elements—I didn’t have them consciously in mind at the start. It often happens to me that when I’m working on a novel, I’ll discover some deeper resonances. I didn’t initially understand why I was so interested in the Hollow Earth. And then I realized that maybe it has to do with a return to the womb or with, more simply, getting laid. I mean, we’ve got Mother Earth, and we go down to her southern hole, and we go inside there, and it’s warm.
Another symbolic resonance is that the Hollow Earth is like a skull, you’re going inside your own head.
In a completely different vein, there’s a technical scientific point I was eager to make in The Hollow Earth. We have an earth that’s like a tennis ball—a hollow spherical shell. The point I wanted to make is that inside a hollow shell like this, the gravitational forces cancel out and you’re weightless, in free fall. Most people sort of glaze over when I try to discuss this point with them—but it’s important, and it’s true, and it’s been known since the time of Isaac Newton.
Science fiction writers often don’t know much about science, and I think it’s actually the case that my Hollow Earth novel is the only one that takes into account the fact that you’re going to be weightless inside the Hollow Earth. People think, “I’m walking on the outside, I’ll go over the lip and I’ll walk around on the inside.” That’s what’s going on in all the Pellucidar stories, but that’s not the way that gravity works. You can do the math, it’s not particularly difficult, it’s just an elementary calculus problem—inside a hollow shell, the forces balances out exactly, the pull from what’s under your feet, and the full from what’s over your head.
The weightlessness is one of the things which really appealed to me about the Hollow Earth environment. You can go to outer space and be weightless, but you can’t breathe out there. In the Hollow Earth you’re able to fly around and be weightless and you can breathe, so it’s a nice combination.
MP: I thought the reversals at the end of the novel were particularly clever. I teach intro English and so I’m always looking for something more fun for the students. The reversal where they ended up being black…it was not something I anticipated, very bizarre. It’s an issue I could see raising in teaching The Hollow Earth, saying “Let’s talk about whether or not Rucker is being racist here, or just writing about the times, or saying something more.”
RR: Yeah, I was trying to flip things over, to have Poe be a black person on the other side. That’s a Poe thing—the theme of the double—so they go to a mirror-Earth and they meet a mirror-Poe—but on the way my characters have turned black. I wanted to write about race for a number of reasons. For one thing, in the years before I wrote The Hollow Earth, I was living in Lynchburg, Virginia, which is a rather small town and there were a lot of black people living there, and a substantial number of them have the surname Rucker. And I even went to traffic school with a black guy called Otha Rucker. Often I would ride my bike around town and I would get sort of a feel for the black neighborhoods. So I had a fairly clear picture in my mind of what a black community would be like, in the center of the Hollow Earth. Another model for the chief down there, by the way, was Bo Diddley, who is a musician that I love a lot.
MP: Was the inclusion of the Rucker River another transreal touch?
RR: Well, there actually is a Rucker River. The way The Hollow Earth really started is that my family, the Ruckers, originally came to Virginia in 1690, and they lived in this town not far from Lynchburg called Hardware, and they were farmers and they had a few slaves. They weren’t particularly successful, it’s not like they had a plantation, and then one of them moved down to Georgia, and my line came down through that. And of course the fact that my ancestors owned slaves plays a role in why I needed to write about this theme and find a way to come to terms with it.
The Rucker who lived near Lynchburg invented a certain kind of boat, called a bateau, which they used to travel down the James River to bring their tobacco to Richmond. You see, the James River is quite shallow and rocky, so it has to be a boat where it’s got a very strong bottom and you can just get out and push it over the rough spots.
The last year before we left Lynchburg, which was in 1985 or 86, somebody had the idea to have a bateau race from Lynchburg to Richmond, and crews. I got together with some guys—I didn’t do much of the work—but they built a boat, and we entered it in the race, and I helped pole or row it down the river. And I was already thinking about The Hollow Earth then, and I was calling my friend next to me, “Otha,” and that was perfect for me to go on that trip, it was deeply transreal.
MP: One of the ideas I’ve had, as I’ve been doing my research, is that the “punk” in steampunk is related to the idea of edgier characters – characters who have an oppositional point of view. It seemed to me like all the main characters in The Hollow Earth were pretty edgy.
RR: Back to one of my pet peeves—edginess is something you lose when you set your books in Victorian England! When you’re writing in a historical setting, it’s very easy to fall into a pastiche with prefab characters. What I always want to do in my novels is to write about real-seeming characters with desperate problems.
MP: I liked the inclusion of poems embedded directly into the text throughout. A lot of people write books about poets and then never include any poetry. I like Poe’s poetry better than his prose myself.
RR: Yeah, that was a nice touch to use his poems — I put in To Helen, The Conqueror Worm, The City Beneath the Sea. Those poems of Poe’s, they’re so wonderfully creepy and evocative.
As for Poe’s fiction, you have to grant that the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a very cool book. What happens at the end—and once again this isn’t widely realized—what happens is that the main character is seeing the hole that leads into the Hollow Earth. He talks about seeing a cataract along the horizon and he doesn’t really explain why he’s seeing it or what it is. Poe, he’s just so weird that he doesn’t bother explaining things to people. He’s like, “Fuck you, I don’t care if you understand, because I’m a genius and you’re a fool.”
But that’s how an entrance to the Hollow Earth could look, if you were sailing along the ocean, and there was an immense maelstrom hole in the ocean, a hole that’s maybe 500 miles across. You’d see across the hole to the far edge, and that far edge would look like this distant cataract, and you’d be confused – you’d think the cataract was in the sky, because it would seem to be above the false horizon of the near edge, and as you got closer, you’d be tilting down, and the far edge would seem to get higher and higher. It took me twenty years to fully understand what Poe was doing here—I only got the full picture when I wrote about a giant maelstrom in recent novel Hylozoic. Yes, Poe was a genius.
MP: Going from Poe’s journey to the South Pole, to another, could you comment on the Lovecraftian elements you played with in The Hollow Earth? You made your Great Old Ones a lot less malevolent than Lovecraft’s. More benign.
RR: I was thinking a lot about Lovecraft’s novella, “At the Mountains of Madness”—I even gave a chapter that title, it’s when they’re riding a balloon across an Antarctic mountain range, and my main character is watching the balloon shadow crawl over the mountains, and he knows he’s never going to come back. I mean, really never come back, because he’s going to come out in another earth.
In Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” they find an underground city and explore it, and they find the Great Old Ones, who Lovecraft calls radiolarians, but who I see as being basically sea cucumbers. The Lovecraft Great Old Ones want to eat us, or to destroy our souls, but I had my Great Old Ones be more like what you’d want a god to be like. They’re timeless and sort of gentle, and kind of indifferent to us.
Poe’s and Lovecraft’s works are very rich sources; they’re like nothing you read before them. Poe and especially Lovecraft can bleed over into this sort of purple prose, and sometimes that doesn’t work, but when it does, it really gets to you.
MP: You’ve said that what draws you to writing SF is a sense of wonder, and you’ve written quite a bit about mysticism at your website. Yesterday in the panel, there was a discussion about the “death of science fiction,” and you mentioned just “inserting a door to another dimension,” a literal door, when you run out of ideas. Do you think there’s a place in science fiction for that kind of wonder, a sort of turn to a spiritual, mystical mode within science fiction?
RR: I think there’s still a lot of room of all kinds inside science fiction. My genre’s house has many mansions.
The field isn’t very old when you think about it—I’m only like the second generation of science fiction writers, next in line after Fred Pohl. But already you have to be careful not to repeat the old things. I don’t want it to be like I’m throwing down standardized cards that say, like, time machine, spaceship, robot. And I don’t want to write SF that’s parodistically or self-mocking. If the ideas become juiceless tropes, that’s not interesting. As an extreme of this, in certain comedic SF books I feel like the authors are saying “Oh let’s just be silly—SF is all silly garbage, let’s be silly together.” It degenerates into fan fiction where, again, you’re just throwing down picture cards and laughing at them. That’s not a route I want to take.
It’s all about making up new tropes, or using the old ones in fresh ways. There’s always more cool new stuff we can work with, and the future is coming faster than people can absorb. We don’t want to fall back on recycling whatever Heinlein and Asimov did, anymore than a contemporary musician wants to emulate Sinatra or even the Beatles. That’s over, it doesn’t speak to our time.
I’m particularly leery of using things that I see on TV or in the movies…that crap is so watered down, it’s written by fifteen people, it’s completely under the establishment’s control. Star Trek is another way for the government to grind its boot into your face, another way for the rulers to indoctrinate the masses with lies about society.
I like to think of science fiction as an edgy literature, like the beatniks or the punks, where we’re turning our backs on the bullshit, we’re trying to make a new world, we’re trying to look at things with fresh eyes. And it’s always possible to look at things with fresh eyes. It’s never been easy to do that, but it’s not any harder now than it ever was.
I think it’s exciting when you have science fiction where you don’t depend on your characters working in a government lab. If you just need to have an arbitrary door to another world, then let’s do it. I mean, there’s been so many surprises in the history of science, why would we think we couldn’t still have something really surprising happen?
And if it’s mysticism—fine. We really have no idea what’s really going on.
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