Paul Di Filippo
Since the appearance of "Rescuing Andy" in the May/June 1985 issue of Twilight Zone, Paul Di Filippo has published more than one hundred short stories. The inclusion of his "Stone Lives" in Bruce Sterling's 1986 manifesto, Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology has led Di Filippo to being identified with that popular 1980s subgenre. However, Di Filippo's imagination is too restless for his work to be so easily categorized. His bibliography is dominated by a string of diverse thematic collections that showcase the breadth of his erudition and the scope of his oeuvre. And two of his novels are vastly underappreciated masterworks, beautiful and brash acts of memetic transgression.
Di Filippo's first book, The Steampunk Trilogy (1995), is comprised of three thematically connected novellas inspired by re-imaginings of the nineteenth century. The standout piece here is "Victoria," a sardonic romance oozing with strange science and the slithery subconscious of Victorian sexual hypocrisy.
Ribofunk (1996) is a mosaic of tales set in a cyberpunk future in which biological sciences have transformed all aspects of life in a fundamental, consciousness-altering manner. This is one of Di Filippo's most ambitious and difficult works. It's also one of his most daring creations: an ambiguous future, neither utopian nor dystopian, replete with changes and ideas that challenge the immutability of consensus reality. This urge to defy that oppressive conformity is one of the driving forces behind Di Filippo's fiction, and here it is expressed with both robust vivacity and surreal beauty.
Di Filippo's first novel, Ciphers: A Post-Shannon Rock-n-Roll Mystery (1997), is even denser than Ribofunk. It's a bizarre conspiracy thriller involving time travel, math theory, snake worship, and generous quantities of outrageous sex. Much of the text is made up of sampled rock lyrics, emphasizing the story's frenzied pace. Ciphers dances to the beat of information overload. Although Di Filippo may have written a number of more affecting texts, this novel remains a magnum opus of sorts: a sprawling "pop culture meets weird science" epic in which the author indulges his diverse passions and obsessions, transforming them into rich entertainment.
Di Filippo has often said that writing SF and fantasy comedies and satires is his default mode, that he can write these with little effort. Most of his fiction is imbued with a wry, sardonic attitude, but the stories he refers to here are his lighter pieces, such as those collected in Fractal Paisleys (1997). This aspect of Di Filippo's output is much less noteworthy. Although, for example, the characters in Fractal Paisleys are often outcasts who by their very nature cannot participate in the status quo, these stories do not attack consensus reality with as much gusto and imagination as Di Filippo is capable of. The stakes seem less important, the ideas less challenging and layered. The stories thus tend to be less memorable. One story rises above the pack in this collection: "Do You Believe in Magic?" -- the first-person narrative of a misanthropic music journalist horrified at the Disneyfication of the world.
With Lost Pages (1998), Di Filippo turned in another major work, a collection of alternate biographies of major twentieth-century writers. These stories range from ironic pastiches to surreal fantasies to utopian dreams. Many of the stories here count among Di Filippo's best, but one story in particular is a stirring call to arms for those who believe in SF's transgressive potential. "Campbell's World" tells of a world where a very different sort of Campbell assumed the editorship of Astounding, thus shaping a type of science fiction that ushers in an era of utopian wonder undreamt of by the science fiction of our world, infected as it is by the patriarchal Eurocentric scientific worldview and right-wing Libertarianism.
Joe's Liver (2000), Di Filippo's second novel, is mimetic comedy, with no fantasy or speculative elements whatsoever. It's an entertaining romp, but it is not as startling, challenging, and/or memorable as Di Filippo's fantastic fiction. Di Filippo's fiction is at its best when it makes brash use of cognitive dissonance, and this comedy of manners isn't much concerned with such ideas.
Of all of Di Filippo's books, Strange Trades (2001) (previously reviewed in Strange Horizons) is the one that has the most overt social conscience. It deals with work, and its stories are filled with a parade of Di Filippo's empathically portrayed nonconformists struggling against various oppressions of the market economy. The collection includes a number of notable novellas, namely, "Spondulix," "Harlem Nova," and "Karuna, Inc." Another of the novellas here, "The Mill," is an uncharacteristically serious speculative tale that stays much closer to traditional SF forms. As a result, it is devoid of the voice and verve that make so much of Di Filippo's work so fresh and exciting.
2002 has been a banner year for Di Filippo, with four new books being released: a novel (A Mouthful of Tongues), a novella (A Year in the Linear City), and two collections (Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans and Little Doors).
A Mouthful of Tongues is Di Filippo's most mature and accomplished work, a deliriously inventive utopian dream told with unabashed sexual frankness. It is the tale of a woman who, after suffering sexual abuse, merges with an artificial creature being developed at the corporation that employs her. Patriarchy, corporate capitalism, social conformity, and sexual repression are all attacked with passion. All this is enveloped in deliciously rich and luscious prose. Here, the author shows more confidence than ever, and the ecstatic utopia that might emerge from this picaresque and pornographic nightmare is powerfully seductive. Di Filippo never flinches, never smirks, presenting his radical vision with conviction and sincerity.
Several contemporary fantasists have recently created postindustrial fantasy worlds in which landscape and transmogrified urban settings play an integral narrative role: Jeff VanderMeer's Ambergris, Jeffrey Ford's Well-Built City, and China Miéville's New Crobuzon being the most prominent. A Year in the Linear City is Di Filippo's entry into this evocative genre, and it's a strong personal statement. It's very metafictional -- a mode that clearly stimulates Di Filippo's imagination -- and its protagonist, "cosmogonic fiction" author, Diego, is a transparent doppelganger for Di Filippo himself. Mythic and grand, yet intimate and moving, it displays an impressive emotional range, and the Linear City itself is an awesome and staggering creation.
Neither Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans nor Little Doors count among Di Filippo's major collections. They're both good books, but weighed against his four best collections -- The Steampunk Trilogy, Ribofunk, Lost Pages, and Strange Trades -- they seem minor.
Babylon Sisters gathers Di Filippo's hard SF stories that deal with one of his fetish themes: posthuman speculation. Ribofunk also addressed posthumanism, but with much more satisfying results. Ribofunk was radical in both content and manner, imbued with a funky energy and narrated from a posthuman point of view, a narrative strategy that was brash, exciting, and intriguing. In Babylon Sisters, Di Filippo relies too often on traditional SF exposition to explain the ideas behind his stories, and this staid form does not do justice to Di Filippo's radical fictional agenda.
Little Doors is a collection of Di Filippo's humorous fantasies. They're quite fun and well executed. But they are light, and they don't deliver the transgressive punch of his more challenging and ambitious works.
In 2004, Prime Books will be releasing a collection of Di Filippo's Plumage from Pegasus columns, which run regularly in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. In these, Di Filippo gleefully indulges his metafictional wit. He pastiches numerous genres and authors, juxtaposes styles and ideas that collide in sardonic explosions. Plumage from Pegasus is exuberantly playful and is the most idiosyncratic and personal aspect of Di Filippo's oeuvre. It's not the most ambitious, nor the most important. But it is perhaps an apt reflection of Di Filippo himself: relentlessly playful and fully in love with fiction.
Claude also recently conducted an interview with Paul Di Filippo.
Claude Lalumière is a columnist for Locus Online, Black Gate, and The Montreal Gazette. He's contributed fiction to Interzone, Other Dimension, The Book of More Flesh, Redsine, and Fiction Inferno. He's coeditor (with Marty Halpern) of Witpunk: Stories with Attitude, forthcoming in April 2003 from 4 Walls 8 Windows. Visit Claude's Web site for more about him.