As Above, So Below
by Rudy Rucker
As Above, So BelowNew York, TOR, 2002
A Review by
Colleen R. Cahill

Rudy Rucker is known for his high-tech cyberpunk books. In his latest work, however, he shows another side with a novel about Peter Bruegel, a sixteenth-century Flemish painter whose work had a major influence on the art of that time and today. While As Above, So Below is not a genre work, it is a well-written story that touches on art, religion, family and more.

The novel begins with one of Bruegel’s earliest works, Mountain Landscape, drawn in 1552. Rucker focuses each chapter on a different painting by Bruegel and a black and white reproduction of each piece is included in the book. The art is more than a nicety as it gives us the painter’s view, which was the basis of Bruegel’s work. Even in his early years, Bruegel was a watcher, observing his fellow man and even using a convex mirror to get a different view of the world. Bruegel’s work was what he saw: the majesty of The French-Alps, the wonder of The Tower of Babel, or joy of a Peasant Wedding. Not that Bruegel was all sunshine and light: he showed life’s darker sides, as in Magpie on the Gallows or The Beggars. While struggling against the reputation as “the second Bosch” because he also did allegory paintings, Bruegel dreamed of becoming a successful artist with a studio, patrons and family. This was not easy the chaotic world of the mid-1500’s, when great religious unrest tore Europe apart, especially in the Netherlands, where Bruegel spent most of his life. Unfortunately, his talent in art was stronger than his judgement of human character. He trusted friends completely and never foresaw his betrayal by a lover which lead to his exile as a court painter. Some might consider such a role a triumph, but Bruegel wanted more freedom to choose his work, rather than just creating portraits of nobility. Though he was not clever with people, Bruegel escaped this trap in a way that only an artist would think of, and he did it with style.

As Above, so Below is not only rich in art, but also in history. Rucker stays as close to the known facts as possible, and many of Bruegel’s friends and associates are figures in history. One of his closest friends was Abraham Ortelius, a famous map publisher, weaves in and out of Bruegel’s life. Perhaps the most interesting character in the book, aside from Bruegel himself, is the fictional half-European, half-Native American adventurer Willibrad Cheroo. Cheroo was just the opposite of Bruegel in temperament, belief and talent, causing a competition with the artist for prominence, women, practically everything but art. This complex relationship was one of rivalry tempered with some grudging respect. Presented against a backdrop of Antwerp and Brussels the story shows a variety of colors; religious oppression, iconclastic riots, political upheaval. It has all the detail of one of Bruegel’s works.

Rucker has crafted a fine piece of historical fiction. He brings us a Bruegel we can understand and explains an era that has echoes in today. By combining his talent as a storyteller with his passion for this artist’s work, Rucker has created a portrait of an painter and his life. I recommend this to fans of art, history or Rucker’s work.