Frek and the Elixir, by Rudy Rucker, Tor, 2004, 476pp.
Rucker channels his talents into a traditional quest tale of 12-year-old Frek Huggins, in 3003 seeking his father Carb and seeking to save the Earth's lost biome, collapsed in the fateful year of 2666 to a few commercial species (like house trees, or the anyfruit tree -- a tree my kids will recognise from the tiger stories I used to tell them). There is less crazed kink than in some Rucker stories, though Carb's interloping girlfriend does have six breasts. The earth is ruled by a parasitic worm. Frek is contacted by the Orpolese, who want contract rights to the Earth's reality show broadcast on the Planck brane. Meanwhile, the clam-headed Unipuskers want the same thing.
The Orpolese are eloquent sunspots, and the novel's most virtuoso scene is surfing a solar flare.
"Now to apply lotion with sun protection factor ten-to-the- thirtieth power," resumed the peppy voice of the enormous, wavering ring that was Tusky/Whaler. "Oinkment to shield your pigment. Stiffen up those suits. " Moving with the steady, rolling languor of a squid's tentacles, the braided wreath wound itself around Frek. A half dozen shimmering planes of additional tweet lifted free of Tusky's flesh and wrapped around Frek's arms, body, head, and legs. His spacesuit hardened and gleamed.
Orpolese domestic life is not terribly alien.
"They were both already married," said Whaler. "An Orpolese can get by alone, but we don't like to. Ulla and Bumby were already partnered when they met in some tasty shoal of loofy. They'd gone cold on their workaday mates, and they liked the looks of each other's hot mirror-twists. So Bumby hopped off his old wife and onto Ulla."
Tusky sent out an excited stream of glowing red hearts, soft dark thuddy holes in the roiling flame.
"What about the old wife and the old husband?" wondered Dad.
"They-killed them and ate them," said Whaler. "It's the usual way. Honeymoon breakfast."
"Ow," said Carb, then laughed in away that Frek didn't much like.
The Unipusker's imperative-only discourse made me laugh out loud.
"Greet Frek," said one of them. "Introduce self as Hawb. Introduce Hawb's companion Cawmb. Comment disingenuously upon the absence of the Orpolese. "
They have their own problems at home:
"Summarily state that all Unipuskers are one sex," said Hawb. "Remark that we use a type of genomic exchange for variation. Snigger that you will not be privy to the details. Admit that Cawmb and I are like a couple in that (a) we do exchange genomic sub-tilings, and (b) we are raising seven hundred and eighty-three children together, with thirteen more expected in the coming week. Qualify with the information that we bud off our children individually from our tails, and are capable of reproducing solo. Suggest that you refer to all Unipuskers as he. "
"Point out Hawb's insensitive and careless error regarding our number of children," said Cawmb in an irritated tone. "Supply the correct numbers of seven hundred and seventy-nine children, with seventeen more expected this week. "
"Impugn Cawmb's knowledge in this context," said Hawb, his voice rising. " Assert the accuracy of my original count. Report that I personally visited each of the children's rooms yesterday evening to tuck them in. "
"Expose Hawb's deceit and poor partnership," screamed Cawmb, his mouth opening very wide. "Reveal that four of those children died of ickspot two days ago, leaving four beds empty. Bewail my bereavement. Complain that I alone had to fumigate, lest the ickspot spread. Reiterate that seventeen children are expected this week, as Hawb would know if he were paying proper attention to his partner's tail!"
"End this topic thread," bellowed Hawb, his clamshell head splitting nearly in two. "Present a pleasant facade to our transgalactic guests! Usher Frek, the dogs, and the deformed thing to our feeding-chamber!"
The flying leathery jugs, among other denizens of the Planck brane, reminded me of As Above, So Below. There's also a (or the) Transcendent Pig.
I really enjoyed this book. I am not sure what Ross would make of it. My book club has offered to let me choose a "five star" SF novel for our next meeting -- this one is close, but I suspect they would criticise the characterisation or something. Humor never wins prizes. Title suggestions welcome.
John wrote: 476 pages. Lord. Must have been an intense mental strain to keep up these gymnastics that long. I wonder what it was like to read it?
I replied: I think some people can just generate a lot of words very fast! Anyway you can learn many details of Rucker's writing techniques from his web page, linked above. Reading Frek was quick and fun, and made me reflect that relatively few authors leave you with the impression that they are smarter than you.
Elise wrote: Unipuskers as HE?????? The parasitic worm's name is Bush! Fun is more important than prizes.
I replied: Would you like to claim Unipuskers as "she"? Be my guest!
Paul wrote: five star sci fi? Sure.
For non-sci-fi readers I would consider Use of Weapons by Ian Banks. Sci-fi for sure but clever and great characterization - you just have to get over the fact that the characters are robots and ships and stuff. Similar but not quite as brutal is his Excession, which I really liked too.
If you don't want to pick Banks, the other pure-sci-fi choice I would choose is Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, which has all the characteristics of great scifi and is really well written.
You could also go super-classic (like, say Childhood's End or all three of the Foundation trilogy) but that would get shredded by superliterati type who didn't remember reading all of the asimov books while listening to Yes albums....
Or, perhaps, you could claim some not-really-sci-fi-but-we-know-it-is book, like Mitchell's Cloud Atlas: A Novel or Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: A Novel (Vintage International) come to mind, or if you wanted to be a pain in the ass, Slaughterhouse-Five, but that's sort of not the point, right?
I replied: Our tastes are so similar! I really must read Cloud Atlas.