Mad Professor

The Uncollected Short Stories of Rudy Rucker


By Rudy Rucker

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At the untamed frontiers of intelligence, consciousness, matter, and reality lies Rudy Rucker’s The Mad Professor, a collection of twelve mind-bending science fiction stories that probe the outer limits of possibility. Rucker, an accomplished computer scientist and mathematician with numerous science books and novels to his credit, brings his deep and varied knowledge of the mind, mathematics, and the ever-weird and wondrous workings of the physical universe to the stories collected here. In Chu and the Nants we read of a bizarre future following a Verge Singularity, in which hyperintelligent computers have taken over the solar system. Panpsychism Proved breaks down the boundaries between mind and matter, exploring the notion that “every object has a mind.” And Six Thought Experiments Concerning the Nature of Computation is an exhilarating collection of mini-stories taking us to the outrageous extremes of theoretical speculation. In The Mad Professor, Rucker deploys the full range of his writing talent and scientific knowledge to take us on a wild romp through the known, the unknown, and the awesomely peculiar.



OF course I’m not a mad professor—everything I write and do is perfectly logical! Come right this way, step into my laboratory, and you’ll see for yourself. Careful not to touch that lever—whoops, you’ve turned on a lecture.

I might characterize my fiction by four qualities:

• Thought experiments

• Power-chords

• Gnarliness

• Wit

The notion of fictional thought experiments was made popular by no less a mad professor than Albert Einstein, who fueled his science speculations with Gedankenexperimenten. Thought experiments are a very powerful technique of philosophical investigation. In practice, it’s intractably difficult to visualize the side effects of new technological developments. In order to tease out the subtler consequences of current trends, a complex fictional simulation is necessary; inspired narration is a more powerful tool than logical analysis. If I want to imagine, for instance, what our world would be like if ordinary objects were conscious, then the best way to make progress is to fictionally simulate a person discovering this.

The kinds of thought experiments I enjoy are different in intent and in execution from merely futurological investigations. I’m not necessarily trying to make useful predictions that businessmen can use. I’m more interested in exploring the human condition, with literary power chord standing in for archetypal psychic forces.

+   +   +

When I speak of power chords in the context of fantastic literature, 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.

When I use a power chord, I try to do something fresh with the trope, perhaps placing it into an unfamiliar context, perhaps describing it more intensely than usual, or perhaps using it for a novel thought experiment. I like it when my material takes on a life of its own. This leads to what I call the gnarly zone.

+   +   +

I discuss my concept of gnarl at length in my nonfiction tome, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me about Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to Be Happy (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005).

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. The gnarly zone is lies at the interface between logic and fantasy.

I see my tales as simulated worlds 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. When I write, I like to be surprised.

William Burroughs was an ascended master of the gnarl. He believed in having his work take on an autonomous life to the point of becoming a world that the author inhabits. “The writer has been there or he can’t write about it. . . . [Writers] are trying to create a universe in which they have lived or where they would like to live. To write it, they must go there and submit to conditions that they might not have bargained for.” (From “Remembering Jack Kerouac” in The Adding Machine: Selected Essays, Seaver Books 1986.)

+   +   +

And now a few words about wit. Robert Sheckley, to whose memory Mad Professor is dedicated, was a supremely witty writer. Over the years I got to spend a few golden hours in Sheckley’s presence. And I think it’s safe to say that wit, rather than mere humor, characterizes his work.

Wit involves describing the world as it actually is. You experience a release of tension when you notice a glitch. Something was off-kilter, and now you see what it was. The elephant in the living room has been named. The evil spirit has been incanted. Perceiving an incongruity in our supposedly smooth-running society provokes a shock of recognition and a concomitant burst of laughter. Wit is a critical-satirical process that can be more serious than the “humorous” label suggests.

In this vein, Sheckley writes: “Good fiction is never preachy. It tells its truth only by inference and analogy. It uses the specific detail as its building block rather than the vague generalization. In my case it’s usually humorous—no mistaking my stuff for the Platform Talk of the 6th Patriarch. But I do not try to be funny, I merely write as I write. . . . In the meantime I trust the voice I can never lose—my own . . . enjoying writing my story rather than looking forward to its completion.” (From “Amsterdam Diary” in Semiotext[e] SF, Autonomedia 1997.)

+   +   +

The “mad professor” theme is itself a classic power chord.

One way to think of the trope is as a dialectic triad: the thesis of the dry professor and the antithesis of the unpredictable artist are synthesized into the mad professor—like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sharing a single body.

A different way to think of it is that being mad is actually part of being a professor, and not any kind of aberration. Professors, after all, have their heads in the clouds. They don’t see things like regular people do.

In the famous allegory of the cave in Book VII of The Republic, Plato describes a race of humans who spend their lives staring at shadows on the wall of a cave. From time to time some of them escape from the cave into the higher world. Having experienced the light of the true Sun, when they return to the prison of the cave their eyes are a bit slow in catching the subtleties of the shadow-play that ordinary men and women deem to be the entire real world—they’re like absent-minded professors.

“And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady . . . would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.”

Further shadings in the mad professor archetype can be found by distinguishing it from the mad scientist. What’s the difference? Professors tutor and counsel their students, they lecture and teach, they publish books and papers. They’re social. It’s not enough for a mad professor to gloat over the secret of reality in a dungeon lab as a mad scientist might. No, the mad professor is driven to write up what he or she saw, and to try and make everyone understand it. Another difference would be that the professors, who are less goal-oriented than the scientists, love erudition for its own sake, and affect a high literary style studded with quotes from timeless intellectual figures such as William Burroughs, Robert Sheckley, and Plato.

+   +   +

I’m certainly a professor. I started my academic career as a calculus section tutor in graduate school forty years ago. I worked as a professor of mathematics for about twenty years, and spent the following twenty as a professor of computer science. Two years ago I retired and became an emeritus professor, which means I get to stay home all the time.

I admit to being contrary, unpredictable, and idiosyncratic. But mad? Of course not. As my character Bela Kis puts it in my recent novel Mathematicians in Love (Tor Books, 2006): “Crazy means illogical. I’m logical. Therefore I’m not crazy. Note that a system can be at the same time logical and unpredictable.”

For this volume, I’ve arranged my stories in reverse chronological order; with the most recent ones first, and the oldest ones last. There’s one exception to this rule: although I wrote “Visions of the Metanovel” this week while putting the anthology together, it seems to work best as a closing piece. Further information about the individual stories can be found in the Notes section at the back of the book.

Five of the eighteen pieces in Mad Professor were written with other authors. One of the remarkable things about fantastic literature is the level of literary collaboration that it supports. In this respect, we’re like scientists—and like musicians. We conduct our thought experiments, we jam our power chords, and if all goes well, we style our work with gnarl and wit.

By the way, the picture at left shows me working on this introduction in my backyard. Enjoy the book!

–Rudy Rucker,
Los Gatos, California, May 22, 2006



OLD age is all about killing time. One evening Jack and I walked the quarter mile from our Journey’s End retirement complex to the Hump’s chain coffee shop in the strip mall, traffic whizzing by, everyone but us with someplace to go.

The shop was just about deserted and a couple of the barrista guys were having a discussion. One was offering the other fifty or even sixty dollars to do something boring. I didn’t catch what the boring thing was, so when the second guy came to wipe our tabletop, I asked him.

“He was wondering if someone paid me, would I count out loud to ten thousand by ones,” said the boy, fingering the ring in his nose, which was kind of an exotic accoutrement for Harrods Creek, Kentucky. “But it would be too stupid,” he added. He moved across the empty room, straightening chairs.

I did a quick pencil-and-paper calculation while Jack sipped his chamomile tea. I used to be an insurance adjuster, and numbers are my thing. “I figure I could probably count to ten thousand in the course of a day,” I told Jack in a bit.

He argued about this, of course—something about holes in the number line—but then he flipped to my point of view and pushed the calculation further, working it in his head. Before they fired him for his nervous breakdown, Jack was a math professor at the University of Louisville. “You could count to ten million in a year,” Jack announced after a minute. “And maybe if a person said the words really fast, they could hit a billion before they died. Assuming they started young. Assuming they didn’t pay very close attention.”

I called over the barrista with the nose-ring and told him the news, but his mind was already on other things. “We’re about to close,” he said.

“Maybe I should start counting,” I told Jack as the boy wandered off. “I could set a Winners World Record. My own taste of immortality.”

“Let’s see about that,” said Jack, hauling out the oversized cell phone he carried in his pants pocket. It was an off-brand model, a Whortleberry that he’d picked out of a sale bin at the Radio Shack in the strip mall near our rest home. He carried it with him all the time, not that anyone ever called him or me, other than telemarketers. Our wives were dead, and our kids had moved to the coasts. They couldn’t find interesting work in Kentucky. Jack and I had each other, Nurse Amara, and Hector, the fellow who did the dishes and made up our rooms.

“See what?” I asked Jack.

“See if there’s a counting-to-highest-number category on the Winners Web site.” Drawing out his smeared, heavy reading glasses he began pecking at the tiny buttons on the fat cell phone. “I get the Web on this sucker, remember, Bert?”

“Fuck computers,” I said. “A Java script put me out of my job.”

“Like I haven’t heard you say that seven hundred times,” said Jack. “Loser. Dinosaur. Old fool.”

“At least I didn’t go crazy and scare my students,” I said. “Telling them the world is made of holes. Screwball. Nut. Psycho.”

“Four hundred times for that remark,” said Jack, prodding the minute keyboard with the tip of his pen. “I wasn’t crazy, I was right. The world is like an engine-block gasket, or, no, like a foam. The holes triangulate the universe; they’re the tent stakes, as it were, that keep the whole thing from blowing away. And the big secret is—oh, you’re not ready yet. Here’s Winners.” He set the cell phone on the table so that I could see the screen. What I saw was a blurred flickering smudge. “Your glasses,” Jack reminded me, not unkindly.

I found my smeared, heavy reading glasses and studied the display. The Winners Web site was an outgrowth of the old Guinness Book of World Records, the difference being that Winners had far more categories. They made their money by harvesting information about the record holders so they could be targeted with ads.

“Says the Unaided Counting Record is twelve million, three hundred and forty-five thousand, six hundred and seventy-eight,” I said, squinting at the tiny screen.

“12,345,678,” echoed Jack, just saying the digits. “A tidy place to stop. It took the guy nearly two years. Clyde Burns. Says here he’s a Buddhist monk in Wichita, Kansas.”

“Closing time, gentlemen,” said the barrista.

“Okay, okay.”

Walking back, we discussed the project some more. Cars whizzing by. Low beige buildings in a parking lot. Dark green pastures and trees. A rustling cornfield.

“The monk counted for two years!” I said. “Two years is a lifetime when you’re my age.”

“That’s the problem with immortality,” mused Jack. “You never live long enough to get there.”

+   +   +

For breakfast we have a choice: oatmeal or powdered eggs. I chose oatmeal. Jack joined me at my table, stirring his eggs.

He was smiling. “There’s a hole in their rules,” he said.


“There’s a hole in eveiything,” he explained. “The universe itself can be described as a fractal pattern of holes in nonexistence. A temporary but nonetheless . . .”

“Never mind your crackpot theories about the universe,” I said. I had the feeling—or was it a hope?—that he was talking about the Winners Web site. “What about their rules?”

“You’re not required to vocalize the numbers, or even subvocalize. Just count.”

“You still have to think them,” I said. “It’ll still take me two years to get to where the mad monk left off.”

“Think biocomputation,” said Jack. “Think auxiliary processing.”


To make a long story short, which is what old age is all about, when you think about it, which I try not to do, Jack said he could hook me up to a computer that would speed up my brain cells.

“Neurons are just switches,” he said. “Firing or resting: binary. They can interface to a chip. And as long as they’re controlling the counting, it’s legal under the Winners rules.”

I toyed with my oatmeal. “You want me to swallow a chip? Or get an implant?” As usual the oatmeal was lumpy.

“Wait till tonight,” said Jack, glancing suspiciously around the dining room. As if anyone were there but Hector and our deaf, senile peers. “I’ll show you tonight.”

After an evening of watching the McNguyen and the Pootie Party shows, I followed Jack to the room we shared at Journey’s End. I was apprehensive, but eager to achieve immortality.

“Voilà,” he said. He showed me a knit skull cap. It was blue and orange and silver. It was the worst job of knitting I had ever seen, and I told him so.

“One of my University of Louisville honors students made it for me,” he said. “An extra credit grab. She had a B, and she wanted . . .”

“Never mind all that,” I said. “What does it do?”

“Guess,” he said, showing me the cord with the computer jack. “The silver yarn, clumsily woven, I admit, is a dermo-thalamic web which uploads to the processor inside my Whortleberry to speed up your internal computational sequences. If I hadn’t pissed away so much time grading homework for all those sections of business math, then maybe I would have been able to productize this and . . .”

“Never mind that,” I said, sensing immortality. “What do I do?”

“Put it on,” he said. “Start counting sheep, from one, until you fall asleep. As soon as your consciousness logs off, the Whortleberry’s processor kicks in, and the counting accelerates.”

“Have you ever tried it?” I said.

“There was no point,” he answered. “It’s only good for counting by ones. I ended up giving her an A minus, since . . .”

“Never mind that,” I said. “Plug it in. Give it here.”

I pulled on the magic beanie and lay down on my bed.

It was tight. “Should I shave my head?”

For once Jack looked confused. “You’re bald,” he said.

“Oh, yeah.” I’d forgotten.

I closed my eyes and started counting sheep. They were jumping a fence, faster and faster. I dreamed I was herding them up a boulder-studded hill.

+   +   +

“Wake up.”

I sat up. The light through the filthy windows told me it was morning.

Jack was standing over me, smiling. “What’s the first thing that comes to mind?” he asked. “Don’t think about it, just say it.”

“Twelve million, three hundred and forty-five thousand, three hundred and twenty-two,” I said. Even though my head was splitting, I counted to the next number. “Twelve million, three hundred and forty-five thousand, three hundred and twenty-three.” 12,345,323 in digits.

“Voilà,” said Jack. “You’re gaining on the monk already. You’ll pass him by breakfast.”

And I did. Jack uploaded the results to the Winners site and we slapped hands. I was now a world record holder.

I ate some powdered eggs. I didn’t even mind that they had lumps like the oatmeal. I was immortal.

But it didn’t last. Nothing does. Isn’t that what old age is all about? After lunch, between the Casa Hayzooz and Brenda Bondage shows, Jack checked the Winners site and discovered that the monk in Wichita had logged twelve million, three hundred and forty-five thousand, nine hundred and seventy-nine, beating me by eighty-six. I had 12,345,893; he had 12,345,979.

“That Buddhist bastard,” I said, with grudging respect. “I thought Kansas was a red state.”

“He must have nothing else to do,” said Jack.

“Neither do I!” I closed my eyes and started counting.

When we logged in later that night, after the McNguyen show, I was ahead by nine hundred and forty six. I went to bed exhausted, but pleased.

I was immortal again.

+   +   +

Powdered eggs, the breakfast of champions. I was still feeling like a winner when Jack dragged in, late, looking glum.

“Bad news,” he said. He whipped out his Whortleberry and showed me the Winners site. The mad monk was up almost ten grand; he’d reached twelve million three hundred and fifty-four thousand, two hundred and nineteen. 12,354,219.

He must have stayed up all night.

Much as I hated it, I was prepared to wear the cap again. “What if I throw a shit-fit and Nurse Amara sedates me?” I said. “I’ll sleep all day and double my score.”

“I have a better idea,” said Jack. “Look here.”

He showed me another Web site on his little screen:

“Sci-fi? I hate that crap.”

“Who doesn’t?” said Jack. “But this site’s gonna kick your skull cap into overdrive. The site’s run by a computer science student at a cow college in San Jose.”

“Computers in Mexico? I hate computers.”

“San Jose, California,” said Jack. “Silicon Valley. Computers are your friends. This ultranerd has hacked into Stanford’s fully coherent nuclear-magnetic-resonant dark-matter-powered Accelerandodrome. An outlaw link to a quantum computer! If we link your cap to that tonight, you’ll climb so far above that monk that he’ll be eating your positronic dust for the rest of his life.”

“What about my brain?” I asked, remembering the headache I’d gotten from counting to twelve million.

“Do you want to be immortal?” he asked. “Or not?”

To make a long story short, and isn’t that what old age is all about, I pulled on the magic beanie and lay down on my bed. I closed my eyes and started counting sheep again. They were jumping the fence faster and faster, flowing up the mountainside, scaling the cliffs, frisking into the white fluffy clouds. I picked up my dream-colored staff and followed them.

+   +   +

“Wake up.”

I woke up. I sat up.

“Say the first thing that comes into your mind,” Jack said.

I did like the day before, only more so, spewing out a jaw-breaking number name that went like this (and I’m sure you don’t mind if I leave out the middle): “Twelve duotrigintillion, three hundred forty-five unotrigintillion, six hundred seventy-eight trigintillion, . . . , three hundred forty-five million, six hundred seventy-eight thousand, nine hundred one.”

Whew. The inside of my skull was cold. I felt a faint, steady wind in my face, the air so very thin. Toothed, inhuman peaks of ice towered above me like the jaws of Death.

“My head,” I whimpered. “I hope I haven’t had a stroke.”

“Never mind that,” said Jack. “You’re at base camp Googol!”

I blinked away the mountains and saw my familiar room. Jack was smiling, no, grinning. There were even more lines in his face than usual.


“Base camp Googol,” he repeated. “On the Matterhorn of math, high above the workaday timberline. The land of perpetual snow.”

“Google? The search engine? What?”

“I’m not talking business, I’m talking math. ‘Googol’ is an old-school math name that a math prof’s nephew invented in 1938. It stands for the number that you write as a 1 followed by a hundred 0s. Ten duotrigintillion sounds pompous compared to that. You’ll notice that the number you just said is a hundred and one digits long: 12, 345, 678, 901, 234, 567, 890, 123, 456, 789, 012, 345, 678, 901, 234, 567, 890, 123, 456, 789, 012, 345, 678, 901, 234, 567, 890, 123, 456, 789, 012, 345, 678, 901. That’s why I say you’re at base camp Googol. By the way, Bert, I’m impressed you knew how to put all those digits into words.”

“Don’t forget, I’m an insurance adjuster.”

“Were,” said Jack. “Now you’re an immortal. I’ve got a hunch you’ll be ready for my secret pretty soon.”

He logged in and authenticated me on the Winners Web site, and all day we were riding high. Just before bedtime, right after Philosophical Psycho, we checked into the Winners Web site one more time.

I was still the champ. The mad monk was history. Or was he?


On Sale
Jun 17, 2009
Page Count
320 pages
Running Press

Rudy Rucker

About the Author

Rudy Rucker is a two-time winner of the Philip K. Dick award and a professor of computer science at San Jose State University. White Light, a novel; Gnarl!, a collection of his short fiction; and Seek!, a collection of essays, are also published by Four Walls Eight Windows.

Learn more about this author