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Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to Be Happy

6 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1560257226
ISBN-10: 1560257229
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Timothy Leary meets Bill Gates in this muddled book, part memoir of a life spent teaching mathematical logic, part history of computer science, but mostly a long, strange quest for the meaning of life. UC-San Jose computer scientist Rucker argues that all of reality is a mathematical computation. Like most computation, physical reality—such as the wind driving leaves on a tree—produces "gnarly," interacting and nonrepeating patterns. Moreover, even human consciousness is computation, as shown by the lifebox. A device Rucker invented in one of his science fiction novels, it's a gadget that preserves an individual's life; to Rucker, a lifebox reduces a person simply to a computerlike device that uses software to access the personality. Yet, by the end, he decides that gnarly computation, though it might be the key to reality, doesn't hold the meaning of life, which is beauty and love. And individuals, he concludes, can be happy by "turning off the machine" and "opening their hearts." Rucker blissfully spouts his facile pop psychology, but most readers will be lost in the gnarled prose of computer science and bogs of poorly explained mathematical logic.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"[Rucker's] stylistic approach is so innovative that even non-techies will find themselves enjoying the ride. LIFEBOX is valuable ..." -- San Francisco Chronicle, November 13, 2005

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Thunder's Mouth Press (September 9, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1560257229
  • ISBN-13: 978-1560257226
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 7.3 x 1.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #288,732 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Rudy Rucker is a writer and a mathematician who spent 20 years as a Silicon Valley computer scientist. He's a contemporary master of science-fiction, and received the Philip K. Dick award twice. His 37 published books include novels and non-fiction books such as THE FOURTH DIMENSION. His cyberpunk series THE WARE TETRALOGY and his novel of the fourth dimension SPACELAND are favorites. His memoirs NESTED SCROLLS and ALL THE VISIONS offer uniquely skewed insights into our times. Recent books include COMPLETE STORIES and the novels TURING & BURROUGHS and THE BIG AHA. His new reprint collection TRANSREAL TRILOGY includes his classic novels THE SECRET OF LIFE, WHITE LIGHT, and SAUCER WISDOM. More info at

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Elderbear VINE VOICE on December 2, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. Rudy Rucker is an accomplished science fiction author and popularizer of mathematics and computer science. In this book he seems to bring together everything he has written in the past while playing with constructing a coherent world-view and philosophy of life. It works quite well. (Rucker is such a fascinating writer that my son was going to apply to San Jose State just to take classes from him. The book's revelation that Rucker is retiring disappointed my college-bound son and left him scrambling for other schools.)

Any description of this book with less complexity than the book itself will do the book an injustice. If you're a fan of Rudy Rucker, of infinity, or of mathematical and speculative philosophy, you MUST read this book. Students of the social sciences may have some difficulty wrapping their minds around the computational science ideas, but this book is an essential part of understanding what it means to be human.

Rucker has structured the book well. Each chapter is prefaced with a piece of microfiction that illustrates the concepts to come. The chapters begin with an annotated outline that relates the concepts discussed. Ideas are reconnected with earlier mentions in the book as well as preceding ideas.

Rucker is not afraid to make novel combinations of philosophy, psychology, math, computer science, quantum physics, science fiction, and personal anectdotes. This is one of the best books produced for handling notes well. Turning to the back of the book for a note is generally rewarded with insights or speculations related to the text. Only occasionally is a note simply a bibliographic or web reference.

The book itself is a gnarly computation as well as a gnarly program for gnarled minds. It should be required reading for everybody who things they have a grip on life, the universe, or anything. If I could give it more than 5 stars, I would.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By David Brunton on November 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found Rudy Rucker on a road trip. Or at least, I found part of his lifebox. If you haven't yet read this book, you probably don't know that the lifebox is a fictional invention into which a person speaks, and eventually it gets to know him well enough to tell his stories, and perform more menial conversational duties. That was Wetware, the first of his books that I read. Since then, I've read everything of his I could get my hands on, and I anxiously awaited the arrival of my pre-ordered copy of The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul.

I had a bad experience with submitting a snarky review about A New Kind of Science after I'd only read 200 pages, so I decided to actually read this whole book before trying to draw any conclusions. I believe that is something the crappy reviewer from Publishers Weekly just didn't do. My conclusions after the first read:

1. This is the most phenomenal, approachable, and thorough introduction (certainly leaves Fredkin and Wolfram in the dust for approachability) to cellular automata and computation that I've ever met.

2. This book, true to its title, has soul. It's wacky, interesting, fun, deep, and self-critical of the so-called "Universal Automatist" philosophy.

3. The illustrations, stories, personal anecdotes, and tables (yes, he loves his tables) are what makes the book work- it would have been possible to write this book (and probably to read it) without them all, but it would have been less fun, less interesting, and less illuminating.

4. Rucker obviously spent a tremendous amount of time in actual experimentation- doing it himself. He articulates a better "feel" for the field than anything else I've read.

I'm sending this book to my dad and my brothers for Christmas. I got them all A New Kind of Science year before last, but none of them got past the first chapter. I can't wait to hear what they think of this one!
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Daniel Halevi Bloom on September 20, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Genius SF writer Rudy Rucker's new book is fantastic, and just in time, too! He writes, among other things, that we are

presently in the midst of a third global intellectual revolution. The

first came with Isaac Newton: the planets obey physical laws. The second

came with Charles Darwin: biology obeys genetic laws. In today's third

revolution, says Rucker, we are coming to realize that even minds and societies

emerge from interacting laws that can be regarded as computations.

Everything is a computation. Cool!

Does this, then, mean that the world is dull? Far from it. The

naturally-occurring computations that surround us are richly complex.

For example, a tree's growth, the changes in the weather, the flow of daily news, a

person's ever-changing moods --- all of these computations share the

crucial property of being gnarly. Although lawlike and deterministic,

gnarly computations are --- and this is a key point --- inherently

unpredictable. The world's mystery is preserved.

Mixing together anecdotes, graphics, and fables, Rucker teases out the

implications of his new worldview, which he calls "universal

automatism." His analysis reveals startling aspects of the everyday

world, touching upon such topics as chaos, the Internet, fame, free

will, and the pursuit of happiness. More than a popular science book,

this book is a philosophical

entertainment that teaches us how to enjoy our daily lives to the

fullest possible extent.
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