Buckle Up For This 'Million Mile Road Trip'
There's an alien under the bed and another on the lawn. Zoe Snapp has a pearl in her pocket that's really a transdimensional gateway, opened solely by playing a particular riff on her trumpet. A few blocks away, Villy (who is maybe, kinda, Zoe Snapp's boyfriend) and his younger brother Scud are arguing about hamburgers, the replacement of spark plugs and the road trip Villy and Zoe have planned.
Five minutes later, the second alien is gonna arrive. He's a mechanic, stoned, a slacker, with a toolbelt full of marker birds and pancakes. He's gonna make Villy's car, the Purple Whale, into a machine capable of navigating multiple worlds, multiple realities, at thousands of miles an hour. Not a spaceship, a car. Like a car-car, only better, with quantum shocks, graphene tires and a dark energy motor. Thanks to the timely arrival of Yampa and Pinchley, the aforementioned transdimensional aliens, The Road Trip (capped here, as befitting a noble quest) is suddenly a jaunt across realities, across planets, and Villy, Scud and Zoe are, apparently, the heroes, destined to scrap with alien gods and flying saucers, and to save the earth from same.
This is Los Perros, Calif. — playground for Rudy Rucker, setting for his newest novel, Million Mile Road Trip. And things are only going to get stranger from here.
How, you ask? Because that's what Rucker does. Strange is his favorite paintbrush, his sharpest tool. Not haunting-strange or dire-strange (which seem, more and more, to be the only colors of strange that modern sci-fi writers reach for), but joyous-strange. Childishly goofy on a level that's 49% deliberate and 51% helium. He calls it "Transrealism," and that's fine for the academics and the guest panelists, but what it cooks down to is this:
"Via my teep slug, I wit your brother was laid low by a Freeth," says Filkar. "And you took a coward's way out. Here's solace: oft a Freeth seeks only to stun, and not to slay. Let us therefore suppose that Villy is hale. How do you regain face? Return bearing the benison of a teep slug."
Scud goes for it. The slug is an add-on. A power-up. He extracts the dusty spice jar from his jeans and drops a caraway seed onto flat Filkar. The gingerbread man bucks and shudders, absorbing the seed's fragrant biochemical essence and, very clearly, feeling the better for it.
What it cooks down to is music. What it cooks down to is a jubilant looseness. A freak collision of dialect and voice and neurons well greased, and a man who wants to tell a story about three teenagers going on a road trip through alien worlds without leeching any of the inherent strangeness from it.
And I picked those lines by just closing my eyes, opening my copy of MMRT and pointing to any goddamn chunk of words I chose — confident, utterly, that any of them would be just as indicative of Rucker's wild Ruckerness as any other.
The plot is jangled, uneven, mismatched. The characters seem to cycle rapidly between extreme emotional states — with the exception of Villy, who's always a kind of laid-back hippie surfer-slash-mechanic; a point of stability in a universe precariously balanced on two stools, a phone book and a sleeping cat. Deliberate instability, in other words, which makes Villy's (mostly) level chill a nice respite.
But it's one of those journey-means-more-than-the-destination kind of things — a true road trip novel — with Rucker just letting it all hang out as Villy, Zoe, Scud, the two aliens, a friendly saucer (who makes babies with Scud, kinda accidentally) and a threatening helium balloon visit world after world, all contained within the mathematical expression of "Mappyworld" — a flat projection of earth and every other inhabited world in the universe, existing in an endless egg carton of biomes separated by mountains made of the condensed mass of the light years between them.
As an alternate dimension to "Ballyworld" (our dimension, where everyone lives on balls, get it?), Mappyworld is a mathematical gank — a nerd joke of the sort that Rucker has always liked. So, too, his descriptions of the tunnels between dimensions, the physics thereof, the manipulations possible. He frosts the theoretical math with enough narrative sugar (and hand-drawn illustrations) to make it go down easy(ish), but keeps it grounded in a kind of wildest-possible-interpretation of mathematical truth. Which, again, is just the kind of fun that Rucker likes to have.
... no one going into this ought to be looking for logic. Or a smooth narrative arc. Or complete sentences. This kind of thing, you just jump in and hang on, warmed by the goofball joy of it all.
And so, we bounce and rocket across worlds and time. We visit inns and truck stops, alien cities and night markets. At the end of the trip, there's a goal — a fight for Earth in which Zoe, Villy and Scud are the required heroes. But (unsurprisingly), it doesn't play out like any humans-vs-aliens story you've ever seen before — largely because very few have ever been fought with trumpets and electric guitars.
But no one going into this ought to be looking for logic. Or a smooth narrative arc. Or complete sentences. This kind of thing, you just jump in and hang on, warmed by the goofball joy of it all, buoyed up by the high, jazz-cat bebop of the language, the glazed stoner rhythms. And by the end of it, your mind will be inevitably expanded — open to the possibility of almost anything.
Because the reality, trans- or otherwise — is a weird place all on its own. And you might as well enjoy the ride.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.