Back in August 2008 (aeons in internet time), Jo Walton linked to “Fresh SF Futures I” on Rudy Rucker’s blog. If you read that, you got a sneak preview of some of the ideas at work in his new novel Jim and the Flims. Magic doors, subdimensional worlds smaller than the Planck length, and the afterworld are all here, and lots more besides.
On the other side of death and within every electron in existence lies the Flimsy, the afterworld not just of humanity, but of every sentient species. There are a septillion souls in the Flimsy; some are just passing through, while others are there to stay, alongside the native creatures of the place. Some of the natives are sentient souls born there to the ghosts who have stayed, but there are also strange beings native to the Flimsy: colorful, beet-shaped jivas and blue, baboon-like yuels.
Jim Oster, former bioengineer and surfer, now a mailman in Santa Cruz, CA, accidentally opens a hole between our world and the Flimsy, and it’s not long before its denizens, the Flims, are on their way here. And one of them ends up being responsible for the death of Jim’s beloved wife, Val.
In the midst of his grieving, Jim meets the quirky and seductive Weena Wesson. Weena has come from the Flimsy with an agenda that involves Jim and a group of his surf-punk friends who hang out at an old Victorian house that only occasionally occupies a vacant lot on Yucca Street. Jim’s adventures take him through the basement door of the Victorian and into the world of the Flimsy, where he learns what happens after we die and that the jivas and yuels may not be what they initially seem—and that he may have a chance to bring Val back from death. Of course, he and his surfer friends are also going to have to save the world from a massive Flim invasion, but no one ever said a hero’s quest was easy.
Rucker is known for serving up heady brews of science, mathematics, and metaphysics in his novels, and Jim and the Flims is no exception. But he does it in such an affable way that the complex concepts are relatively easy to follow. Jim himself is no dummy (though there were a few twists that I thought he surely should have figured out sooner), but his casual voice makes him a good narrator for the trippy, surreal events that ensue. Jim and his fellow Santa Cruzans are surprisingly mellow about the incursion of the afterworld onto their own, but then one gets the impression that a lot of them smoke enough pot to, for example, make telepathic communication with a female mummy with which one is having regular sex seem like no big thing. Or at least like a highly stoned tall tale.
Still, Jim and his friends also do pretty well some of the utterly strange stuff that they encounter in Flimsy. Part of the pleasure of the book is finding out what sprinkles, zickzack, kessence, the Earthmost Jiva, and Atum’s Lotus (and what one does with them) actually are, so I won’t spoil it for you here, but it’s worth noting that Jim takes to it all remarkably well. He does have a slightly irritating inability to keep his hands off the attractive women who cross his path, despite his frequently avowed dedication to Val. It’s one thing when he first falls for Weena while still certain that his wife is lost forever, but quite another once he’s entered the Flimsy and the possibility of her resurrection has become real.
It’s unusual to see an SF writer tackle the idea of life after death as directly as Rucker does here, and he is not at all shy about embracing ideas of metempsychosis, reincarnation, and even the existence of a kind of remote, albeit largely benevolent supreme being. It’s possible for a soul to stay in Flimsy, either of its own will or by becoming trapped there in an existence that sounds a lot like an idea of hell, but it’s just as likely that they will move on and re-enter the world outside, their past life’s memories erased. Rucker could have gone the standard sci-fi path and made the Flimsy an alternate world or parallel universe, but by making it the afterworld—and not just the human afterworld, but an all-encompassing one, with a fair amount of internal logic—he raises the stakes for the characters considerably. Religion doesn’t enter into it either; the beings in the Flimsy—humanoid or alien, jiva or yuel—are all flawed, still driven by their own desires, regardless of whatever spiritual systems they may have had in life. Does the Flimsy tread close to fantasy, if not stepping right over the line at times? Certainly, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I did find it a little disconcerting to see the Sanskrit word jiva used for Rucker’s beet-shaped Flimsy symbiotes. In Jain and Hindu writings, a jiva is the essence of a living organism (human or otherwise) that survives physical death. Rucker got to the idea and the appearance of his jivas by way of Jim Woodring’s Frank and his dream comics, where the jivas appear as floating, colorful, top-like spindles. Given some of the things we eventually find out about Rucker’s jivas, there is an element of cross-cultural wire-crossing that doesn’t necessarily work in favor of the novel.
The best thing that Jim and the Flims has to offer is Rucker’s delightfully eccentric and transrealist approach to what turns out to be a kind of modern-day Orpheus tale. It’s often silly and lighthearted, but it’s buoyed by the emotional weight of Jim’s quest, and also by the often beautiful and moving view of life and death. And I can guarantee that it’s probably not at all like anything else you’re going to read this summer.
Postscript: If you like director’s cuts, you’ll want to check out the Jim and the Flims page on Rudy Rucker’s website—after you’ve finished the book, of course, unless you like lots of spoilers. Not only can you see the paintings he created while working on the novel (such as the one above of the jiva and the yuel), but you can also read the blog posts he made during the writing of the novel and download the 217-page Notes for Jim and the Flims, containing all of Rucker’s working notes for the novel. It’s nearly as long as the novel (if not longer) but it makes for a fascinating view of an author at work. It’s also fun to see some of the ideas that didn’t make the final cut—apparently at one point, Weena was going to be a piece of re-shaped cow liver from an alien cattle mutilation. Really.