The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Greed and the Fourth Dimension

James Schellenberg
Posted July 1, 2004

Rucker loves math and trashy science fiction.Joe Cube is a regular Silicon Valley guy, worried about his relationship with his wife and the upcoming Y2K crisis. One day a fourth-dimensional being named Momo manifests in his house and she wants to make a deal: she’ll supply 4D antennae, and Joe can market cellphones that communicate instantaneously anywhere in our world. Momo also attaches a third eye to his brain, which lets him see into the fourth dimension. Joe and his wife take off to Vegas to make big bucks with his newfound powers. But soon the demon-red Wackles, also from the fourth dimension, are stealing the ill-gotten money out of his briefcase and giving him cryptic warnings. Could Momo have an ulterior motive? Is Joe caught in a transdimensional conflict?

Welcome to the world of Rudy Rucker, a mathematician in love with the trashiest elements of science fiction.

Spaceland is a wildly satirical tale of Silicon Valley, complete with the Y2K crisis, venture capitalism, insane housing prices, and plain old greed. But it’s also mixed with a homage to the famous Victorian thinkpiece/novel, Edwin A. Abbot’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (freely available online). Flatland is a short novel, and not as readable for modern audiences in the way that other Victorian oddities like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland still are. Abbot’s book is set in a two-dimensional world, as the title suggests, and the first half is a dry history of this rather hidebound society. The mathematical/geometrical intricacies are explained by way of a constrained role for women and we find out that an artistic revolution involving the use of colour was put down with extreme violence. Flatland recreates some of the worst aspects of the Victorian era in a two-dimensional world with simple geometrical shapes.

The second half of the book finally gets to the good stuff. A Square from Flatland first has a dream of Lineland, a one-dimensional world, and of course the inhabitants of this world have no way of understanding the 2D aspects of a square. The Square then receives a visitor from Spaceland, a three-dimensional world like ours. It’s a glorious mindwarp, and the main reason the book has endured. Abbot also takes the speculation one step further, like any good sf author, when the Square later tries to convince the Spaceland visitor that there might be higher dimensions than three. The visitor disagrees vehemently, and this leaves the story ripe for a sequel.

Rucker’s Spaceland takes its title from this part of Abbot’s book. And he does a reasonably good job of the background, spinning out ideas from Abbot’s sparse original and carefully taking us through the implications of four dimensions. For example, at one point Joe returns from the fourth dimension to Spaceland (our reality), only to find that everything is reversed left to right except for him and the money he has just stolen (which is now worthless). So what happened? It has to do with the extra cardinal directions, vinn and vout, that we don’t have in Spaceland. Rucker even includes a diagram for those who might need it.

Rucker loves math and trashy science fiction.Woven into these mathematical games is a fun Rucker plot. As mentioned in the intro, Joe is a normal guy, slowly realizing that these advanced beings are not bringing utopia but a whole other set of motives and conflicts. We get thrown into this world just like Joe does, and it’s a tribute to Rucker’s imagination that the fourth dimension is such a strange place. Silicon Valley is also a strange place, of course, so the two halves match quite nicely. Another connection is greed, which is a dominating motive in both the third and fourth dimensions.

The book has a few disappointing elements. One is inherent to the protagonist Rucker has chosen: it’s emotionally limiting (even with Rucker’s flawless use of first person) to narrate from the point of view of a self-obsessed Silicon Valley businessperson. And insofar as there is an emotional buildup in the events that happen between Joe, his wife, and another couple, Rucker shuffles that offstage fairly quickly at the end (I didn’t quite buy Joe’s decision at the end). Lastly, while Rucker deserves credit for trying to convey the fourth dimension, it can still be pretty hard to conceive of what’s going on (which was also the point of Abbot’s Square from Flatland visiting Spaceland).

Rucker’s fabulous style, without the whole Flatland angle, can be found in his other recent books. Saucer Wisdom is his hilarious parody of accounts of alien abduction by survivors (with art by Rucker himself), mostly as a way of conveying Rucker’s ideas about advances in biotechnology. For example, the aliens use biology and scoff at Earth ideas about robots. Frek and the Elixir, Rucker’s latest book, is a deeply comic look at the perils of alien broadcasting and has a broad appeal. Spaceland is recommended for anyone interested in the specific mathematical games of Flatland and it’s likely the best possible sequel for that book.

Comments

2 Responses to “Greed and the Fourth Dimension”

  1. Zachary Houle
    July 7th, 2004 @ 5:38 pm

    Cool! The obligatory Flatland/Rucker article. Sometimes people do listen, after all! ;-)

  2. A.R.Yngve
    January 25th, 2006 @ 8:43 am

    I read SPACELAND and enjoyed it a lot.
    Actually, I think Rucker SUCCEEDS with the incredibly difficult task of describing a fourth-dimensional landscape seen by a three-dimensional human.
    (Taral Wayne’s illustration are a great help, too.)
    SPACELAND is destined to become a classic, just like FLATLAND.

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