In his first new novel since 2013, cyberpunk pioneer Rudy Rucker offers his own smart, hilarious, and uniquely gnarly science fiction version of the classic road-trip story.
When a seemingly-innocent trumpet solo somehow opens a transdimensional connection to Mappyworld, a parallel universe containing a single, endless plain divided by ridges into basin-like worlds, three California teens find themselves taken on a million mile road trip across a landscape of alien civilizations in a beat-up, purple 80s wagon… with a dark-energy motor, graphene tires and quantum shocks, of course. Their goal? To stop carnivorous flying saucers from invading Earth. And, just maybe, to find love along the way.
Rudy Rucker’s Million Mile Road Trip is a phantasmagoric roller-coaster ride—available May 7th from Night Shade Books. Read an excerpt below set on Van Cott, a very distant cousin of the surface of Ringworld…
“Cruising Van Cott”
Villy’s glad that his car window is open. It’s a summer evening here, with the sky very black. Everyone’s staring at Villy’s purple whale. He feels proud of himself, sitting up high on his bitchin’ wheels, tripping into what looks to be a fully off-the-hook scene. And Zoe—Zoe looks gorgeous with her lively face and her cute dark hair. She’s peering this way and that, excited, taking everything in, although at some level she’s got to be bummed about having missed her concert.
They’re cruising down a city street among weirdly streamlined cars. An animated crowd fills the sidewalks, the scene lit by living street lights—tall, glowing calla lilies, with their blossoms aglow. About half of the figures on the street look human. They wear tight tops and baggy skirts. The clothing materials are fully natural—big flower petals, and leaves, and woven spider silk. When the humans greet each other, they often lift the fronts of their skirts and kick their legs like dancers. The person being greeted makes a polite squeal and acts surprised, like, “Oh ho,” or, “Oooh la.”
More striking are the many locals who aren’t human. Skinny yellow Szep like their new alien friends, Yampa and Pinchley. Chirpy futuristic ants three or four feet long. Lively little brown gingerbread men. And—they’re passing him right now—a lizard man chewing on a hefty drumstick of—fried chicken? The guy’s tail is ungodly thick, and he has muscular T-Rex-style haunches. He holds his tiny little arms up under his chin. Hell, he’s not a lizard man—he’s a dinosaur.
“A mini Thudd,” says Yampa, doing tour guide. “Munching a fried momo bird.”
One of the Thudd’s clawed hands holds his momo drumstick, and the other balances a coconut shell filled with something pink. The Thudd’s wife holds a fried momo breast by its crunchy wing. She wears a blue silk dress and sports a big floppy magnolia blossom atop her head. Not exactly a magnolia, it’s bigger than that. Their two dinosaur kids trail behind, nipping at each other and nibbling ground meat from cones made of curled-up leaves.
“Not exactly like Earth,” says Villy’s kid brother Scud. His short reddish-blond hair glows in the city lights. “All these aliens. Can you imagine when we tell the people back home about our trip? We’ll be, like, world famous. Hollywood starlets will be after me.”
“This is a guy who’s never had a date yet,” Villy says to Zoe, by way of apologizing about Scud. “A rough peasant, untutored in social couth.”
“I should have brought my phone,” says Scud. “I could be taking pictures with it. Did anyone bring their phone?”
“I wasn’t exactly expecting there to be a signal,” says Villy. “Or a way to charge the battery. We’ll just look at stuff and remember it.”
“What’s this place called?” Zoe asks Yampa.
“The title of this town is Van Cott,” says Yampa, once again prying the lid off the powdered chocolate can. She and Pinchley go back to dipping and licking their fingers.
“Van Cott is a trading center,” says Pinchley. “All sorts of folks.”
“And it’s me who brought us here,” says Zoe. “With my saucer pearl and my trumpet.” She seems on edge, but happy.
“You’re amazing,” Villy tells her with a smile. “The one and only Zoe Snapp. Playing the fourth dimension for your entertainment tonight.”
Villy hopes that Zoe and Scud can start getting along. Mainly Scud needs to watch his mouth—he’ll especially need to pipe down if Villy and Zoe get romantic. The thought of that causes Villy to raise his hand and caress Zoe’s cheek. And right away Scud makes a hooting noise.
Zoe turns and glares at him.
“Boy is she touchy,” says Scud, making it worse.
“I’m surprised they have cars here at all,” says Villy to change the subject. “If those actually are cars. There’s something kinky about them.”
“You might say this basin and your Earth’s surface are different views of one same thing.”
“Think of a puzzle-piece mega mural,” says Yampa. “Each piece has two sides. One side is a flat basin like Van Cott. And each piece’s other side is a fancy planet like Earth. And the two sides mostly match.”
“This side of this piece is like Earth if you peeled it and flattened out the rind and snipped out the dull parts,” adds Pinchley. “And there’s a gazillion more puzzle-pieces, each with a flat basin on one side matching a planet on the other side.”
The so-called mappyworld universe is a wild mosaic. A cosmic stamp collection. “But what’s in between the basins?” asks Villy. “What’s along the edges of the puzzle-pieces?”
“We got a big-ass mountain range round the edge of each damn one of ’em,” says Pinchley. “Now, you fellas separate your planets with light-years of twinkle stars and empty space and dead rocks. And mappyworld crunches all that crap down into the mountain ranges between our kick-ass basins of awesome.”
“There’s a hundred basins between Van Cott and our home, Szep City,” says Yampa. “A million miles. Every basin yummy.”
“Well, not every basin is exactly yummy,” allows Pinchley. “Like for instance there’s some stinky gas-giant basins. Kingdoms of the poot-blimps. But we’ll bypass those.”
“And after Szep City, the basins keep on going?” asks Zoe. “Forever and ever? An infinite world?”
“Debatable,” says Pinchley. “I myself do see mappyworld as an endless boogie. A song that don’t repeat.”
“And that way I’m the one and only Yampa,” says Yampa, swaying her long arms.
“Yeah, baby,” goes Pinchley. “Let’s dip some more of this powdered chocolate.”
“But who makes the mappyworld match out side—what you call ballyworld?” asks Villy.
“Goob-goob!” says Pinchley. “You saw her just now. The worlds are like her body, son.”
“Goob and goob,” adds Yampa. She’s laughing, and scarfing up the chocolate as fast as she can.
“You’re talking about that idol in the tunnel, right?” says Zoe.
“I’ve rarely seen her so clear,” says Pinchley. “She likes you three.”
“I popped a picture of her,” says Yampa. “I’ll appliqué it to my patron Lady Filippa’s dress.”
Yampa herself is still wearing the schoolgirl-type clothes that Zoe’s Mom picked out—the white blouse with the little round collar and the tasteful blue skirt with a zipper in the side. The clothes hang on the alien like rags on a scarecrow. The necklace that Zoe gave Yampa is apparently lost. The powdered chocolate is making the Szep reckless.
“You might say mappyworld is Goob with a capital G,” says Pinchley, holding up two fingers. “And your ballyworld is goob with a little g. Ever the twain shall wheenk. Get it? Got it!” The guy is trashed.
The low beetle-like convertible in front of Villy slows abruptly, and he nearly bumps into it. Around now Villy realizes that the other car really is a beetle.
The driver, a piebald alien with an exceedingly long snout, makes a gesture that could be construed as giving the finger. That is, one of his stumpy limbs is holding out a hooked claw. Waving it at Villy.
“So rude,” says Zoe, with a frown.
“Back up and ram him hard,” says helpful Scud.
“No,” warns Yampa. “That bad boy is an anteater. Never aggravate an anteater. They’re cold killers. Bounty hunters, paid per ant antenna.”
The anteater points his insanely long nose into the air and flicks his dark, snaky tongue. His fur is mostly black, with a big dingy white stripe around his middle like a diaper. His beetle car picks its way into a parking spot. The car walks on six legs. Looking at the traffic with new eyes, Villy flashes that all of the cars around him are beetles.
“Check out that snack stand,” says Scud before Villy can start talking about his discovery. “Those little gingerbread men are selling crooked rainbow tortilla chips that are sitting in a bowl of—water? But—”
“Those mini men are Flatsies,” interrupts Yampa. “They live in the Surf World basin. They link up with living waves. They’re—”
“I wasn’t done talking!” shouts the rude Scud. “I was trying to tell my brother that those nachos are getting all soggy. Who would ever eat something like that?”
“Those things aren’t food at all,” says Pinchley, coming back to his senses. “They’re live sea critters you can use for telepathy. Teep slugs, we call them. Got special feelers on them. You buy a teep slug and you set it on your bod and then you can read minds. Teep slugs swim in the Flatsies’ ocean. They’ll settle onto anyone that’ll have them. Draining off a little blood and maybe a little smeel. I don’t want one. Don’t want to know what everyone thinks.”
“Crooked rainbow tortilla chips,” goes Villy, mocking Scud. “You think this is the midway at the Santa Clara county fair?”
Right then, two gleaming, waist-high ants converge on the Flatsies and snatch a bunch of those colorful teep slugs. All very dramatic, lit by the flowering streetlights beneath the black sky. The two Flatsies begin shouting for help. Seems like they’re scared to go after the ants themselves. The gingerbread men have high voices, and they use weird old-time English. Like, “Sound the alarum! Seize yon footpads!”
The anteater from the convertible lumbers over to the Flatsies, extracts a payment in advance, and takes off after the ants, moving surprisingly fast. Scud is excited—he’s yelling a real-time, blow-by-blow account, pretending he’s a sportscaster—which is something he likes to do. High as they are, Yampa and Pinchley think Scud’s routine is funny.
Villy rolls forward, keeping pace with the anteater.
“I can’t believe we missed my group’s show,” says Zoe now.
“I know,” says Villy. “Everything got so—”
“Oh well,” says Zoe with a sigh. “My mental state is flip-flopping every thirty seconds. First you and I are running off together, then two aliens show up, then we’re nearly killed in a car crash, and now we’re in a seething parallel world. I’m like—” Zoe grimaces, widens her eyes, and holds up her hands with fingers widespread—as if in terror. Probably she means this to be ironic and devil-may-care, but that’s not what comes across.
“Easy there,” says Villy, a little worried about her. “Maybe you should play the solo you rehearsed for the show? It’ll chill you out. And I’d love to hear it.”
“Yeah,” says Zoe, brightening up. “Miles Davis with the Maisie Snapp variations.” Her eyes turn warm and alive.
She takes her trumpet from its case and leans out of the car window, blowing far-out choruses at the passersby. A woman smiles, a Thudd grunts, a Szep wriggles, a gingerbread man does a flip.
“This Van Cott is some kind of party town,” remarks Pinchley. “We even hear about it in Szep City.”
“We should sell some of our cocoa,” Yampa tells Pinchley. “Before you eat it all, you mad bad boy.” This is the chocolate cocoa powder that Villy gave them from his kitchen. Cocoa and caraway seeds. The aliens are absolutely nuts about these ordinary Earthly staples.
“You eatin’ more than me,” says Pinchley. “Anyway it’s a big can, and it’s still nearly full. We’ll just sell part of it.”
“Right,” says Yampa.
“The night market is right ahead,” Pinchley tells Villy. “We’ll park under a big funky tree with branches like colored snakes. And with floatin’ yellow Freeth heads underneath.”
“What about my caraway seeds?” asks Scud. “Do you want to sell them too?”
“We’ll save the seeds for Szep City,” says Yampa. “A treasure trove. They’ll fatten our reward.”
“If regular, average stuff from Earth is so valuable, why did you rush back here so fast?” Scud asks the Szep. “Why didn’t you seriously load up the car?”
“Because Pinchley is a crafty canny conniver,” says Yampa, cheerfully shifting her limp rag of a blouse from one shoulder to the other.
“Point is, we been sent to pick up Zoe and Villy,” Pinchley tells Scud. “Getting’T you is a bonus, plus the cocoa and the caraways. And a smart guy knows to quit when he’s ahead. Also we were about to have a head-on collision with another car.”
Zoe takes her trumpet from her lips. “Did anyone notice the woman who was driving that car?” she asks. “Did any of you notice that the woman was my mom?”
“What!” cries Villy.
“Maybe we didn’t miss hitting Mom’s car,” says Zoe, her voice getting spacy. “Maybe we rammed into Mom, and we’re all dead. Maybe I killed my mother, and we’re in hell.”
“We did not hit your Mom’s SUV,” Villy tells Zoe in a flat tone. “Will you stop it with the morbid raps? We slid over the other car in hyperspace. I know about hyperspace from videogames.”
“Look,” says Scud, eager to explain. He holds his two hands out flat, with his palms parallel to each other. He moves the hands back and forth, keeping the palms an inch apart. “Plane, plane,” he tells Zoe. And now he balls his hands into fists, and moves the fists around, not quite touching each other. “Hyperplane, hyperplane. See?”
Zoe flips over into giggling and for a while she can’t stop.
On the sidewalk, that anteater has finally caught up with one of the ants who ran off with the Flatsies’ telepathic slugs. The ant is chromium-shiny and five feet long. She’s working her mandibles, and the anteater is striking at her body with his stubby claws. A circle of Flatsie gingerbread men and women stands around them cheering. One of Flatsies has already peeled off some of the stolen teep slugs that the ant parked on the surface of her elegantly curved rear segment.
“You’ve got to admit it’s pretty great here,” Villy says to Zoe. “You did good bringing us here.”
“Maybe,” says Zoe. Villy can see she’s regaining her poise. Donning her default attitude: Bitter, yet willing to enjoy life, in a superior, ironic kind of way.
“What’s so good about caraway seeds?” Scud is asking Yampa. Scud is always very dogged in his lines of questioning, which can be annoying, and Villy’s talked to Scud about it, but Scud’s response is always that he’s more focused and alert than other people.
“Caraways are a mappyworld medicine,” answers Yampa. “An excellent elixir. Szep City will welcome Pinchley and me like a duke and a duchess.”
“You mean they’ll chop off our heads in the public square?” says Pinchley. “Like they did with Lady Filippa’s parents?”
“I mean like good old days duke and duchess,” says Yampa. “Before saucers. Before Szep City was sad and cursed.”
“How will the Szep treat us?” interrupts Zoe, putting some acid into her voice. “Like slaves? Like zoo animals? Like roast beef?”
“They’ll mow you down with rayguns,” says Pinchley. “Or try to. But we’ll be fast and sneaky. We’ll run to Lady Filippa. She’ll have an Aristo wand. You’ll act cool so the wand is willing to team up with you. And then you’ll meet Goob-goob. Goob-goob cares about ballyworld Earth, you bet. That’s why we saw her in the unny tunnel.”
They’re passing a lit-up Thudd club, with a dozen pairs of mini dinos dancing to the sound of a living bagpipe. Villy slows his jacked-up purple whale to a crawl, checking this out.
The bagpipe looks like a pig-sized Canada goose but with two necks and two heads. Both beaks are wide open: one is hissing, the other is honking. A mini Thudd rests his massive foot on the bagpipe-goose, kind of pumping it to keep the sound going. He looks serious about his work. Possibly this isn’t a nightclub, but a church? One of the Thudd celebrants leans back and balances himself on his tail. His partner beats the ground with her heavy feet, and he paws ecstatically at the night sky.
Following the upward gaze of the breakdancing alien velociraptor, Villy takes a good look at the black sky. Even though it’s not cloudy, there’s no moon, no sun, no stars. Nothing up there at all. It’s like they’re in an endless basement. Forever in the dark.
Zoe is noticing this too, and Villy can see that she doesn’t like it. He’s afraid Zoe might suddenly say they have to go home.
“I want to do this drive,” Villy quickly says before Zoe can open her mouth. “This is the best day of my life, Zoe. We kissed. And we’ve got these funky new Szep alien friends. And they did an insane custom upgrade on my car. And mappyworld, it’s like an old-time cartoon. And—”
“We’ll be dead in a week!” cries Zoe, flipping into her panic mode.
“If things go sideways, you get out your saucer pearl and honk your magic horn, and you’re home,” says Villy, losing patience with her a little bit. “Me, I’m staying.”
“A million mile road trip!” cries Villy. “Come on, Zee.”
“Maybe I will leave you,” says Zoe. Her face is stiff and she’s not meeting Villy’s eyes. “You can do the drive alone. You and your precious little brother.”
“If Zoe leaves, I’m going with her,” puts in Scud real fast. Villy wants to kill the guy, wants it more than ever before. The thought of Zoe leaving—partly because Scud’s here—the thought of Zoe leaving is like a hole in his guts.
“I need you,” Villy tells Zoe. Not holding back. “Otherwise—otherwise there’s no point. This trip is about us, Zoe. Look at me, will you? I’m your Villy. And I even brought condoms.”
“Sweetly spoken,” croons Yampa. “Listen to your lover, Zoe, and learn. And, early advice, if and when you do hop homeward, you’ll need to—”
“Don’t be bugging her with every little thing,” says Pinchley. “Here’s the night market! Park your car, Villy. And, Yamp, let’s you and me go sell our powdered chocolate.”
“And then, hooray, the million mile trip!” says Yampa. “We’ll traverse a candy-box of two hundred bosky basins, Zoe. We’ll be bugs among bonbons. Each sweetmeat a treat!”
Excerpted from Million Mile Road Trip, copyright © 2019 by Rudy Rucker.
Book cover: Night Shade Books; Background image: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Modified from the original.