Work is a temporary aberration in the history of our species.
--Arthur C. Clarke, quoted in the introduction to "The Boredom Factory" by Paul Di Filippo
According to Paul Di Filippo, Strange Trades, his fifth and newest collection of speculative fiction short stories, is a "volume that strives to offer balanced portraits of a variety of vocations and workplaces, and attitudes toward same." Humph. Sounds a little humdrum and uninspiring, doesn't it?
Well, Strange Trades is anything but commonplace or lackluster. And Di Filippo's out-of-(writerly)-character and somewhat bland categorization of his volume of eleven stories is the tamest phrasing you'll find in the dynamic, mind-expanding Strange Trades.
As the father of ribofunk speculative fiction, Di Filippo makes his Strange Trades progeny fulfill his coinage's criteria:
Ribofunk art doesn't prohibit, but allows. Doesn't tease, but delivers. Doesn't bore, but excites. Isn't cool and distanced, but hot and intimate. Always comes down on the side of change and chaos (the essence of Life), not stasis and predictability (the definition of death).
--Paul Di Filippo in "Ribofunk 1997," available from Cyber Noodle Soup
You get the ribofunk sensation as you journey through these "Di Filoppian" tales (terminology borrowed from Bruce Sterling, who penned the introduction to Strange Trades), which focus on a multitude of occupational situations set in a variety of landscapes and timescapes.
Strange Trades also has its own agenda -- presenting the classic theme of "working for a living." And Di Filippo knows from where he writes. His former strange trades include driving an ice-cream truck, selling doughnuts, coordinating production at a jewelry factory, and working as a COBOL programmer for an insurance company. In the introduction to his eerie "SUITs," Di Filippo encloses this caveat:
In a collection of stories devoted to various modes of employment . . . the author's attitude to the workplace and the marketplace are bound to emerge fairly strongly -- if he's done his job right. Contradictory and shifting, my take on earning one's bread by the sweat of one's brow has undergone a number of metamorphoses. But at the core has remained a distaste for rigid, authoritarian environments, big corporate cube farms and their ilk.
The book's amalgamation of characters work as coffee shop and sandwich shop owners, doctors, a nightclub manager, an architect, a messenger, office and factory workers, and a National Security agent. They share their workaday lives with such things as "lifegems" attached at the base of the throat, "holocasters," the society-controlling "metamedium," and implants that replace the brain's "ethical nucleus" -- what the old-fashioned refer to as the conscience. Some are clothed in Gap(tm) jeans, white sandals, camisoles and skirts, and denim cutoffs; others are decked out in "iridescent vests and slikslax" and "rubbery black suit[s] that [merge] imperceptibly into boots."
The collection begins with "Kid Charlemagne," which, Di Filippo admits, co-opts its title from the Steely Dan song and "owes its existence to [his] long-standing love affair with J. G. Ballard's Vermillion Sands." Set in the Hesperides, a touristy island locale off the California coast, the story is a far-flung voyage to a post-war world where Capetown, South Africa has been A-bombed, citizen IDs are mandatory, a genetically modified tobacco mosaic virus funded by the Sierra Club has eradicated tobacco cultivation, and "estheticine" is the illicit drug of choice.
These wondrous details are, however, background to the evocative dimension of human existence that Di Filippo inserts into the tale. "Kid Charlemagne" is not SF merely for the sake of showcasing clever circumstances and atmosphere. It contemplates prejudice, revenge, thwarted lives, and the vagaries of love, while summoning a distinct feeling of pathos.
Holloway, the manager of La Pomme d'Or nightclub, meets the mysterious Charlie Maine -- a.k.a. the performer, Kid Charlemagne -- a "slim fellow" with eyes "a luminous blue" and skin "the color of a polished chestnut." Charlie's presence arouses in Holloway long-suppressed memories of his dead lover and of a time when he once believed that "the world . . . seemed right and beautiful." After the death of his lover, the "world grew pale and dingy," sending Holloway to seek solace in estheticine. Holloway muses: "In a world of ever-increasing ugliness, who did not occasionally wish that everything might appear beautiful?"
An empty packet of estheticine is discovered. Suspicion surrounds the once-addicted Holloway, but there's also Christina van Staaden to consider. A South African refugee, van Staaden is beautiful, but a bit sketchy -- and she wants to get to know to Charlie. Their acquaintance leads to much perplexity, and forces Holloway to take action.
Strange Trades ends with the excellent, tongue-in-cheek, "The Boredom Factory." Unemployed P., the story's "Kafkaesque" protagonist, feels a mounting urge to find a job. He'd like to be useful to society, to perform a vital role. A new factory opens in P.'s town, and it seems that this is just the opportunity for the dream-job he's been wishing for. Factory life reflects a conveyor belt of monotony, setting up nicely the stinging, prescient conclusion to Di Fillipo's "sour little parable."
Sandwiched between these engaging, pointed tales are creatively complex stories that whirl you, thrill you, and transport you to worlds of outlandish distinction. You'll wonder how in the heck one writer can concoct such a mixture of inventive and crazy-funny narratives, while at the same time -- and most importantly -- holding it all together with first-rate writing.
In the not-to-be-missed "Harlem Nova," Di Filippo dons the anthropologist's cap. He invokes Lévi-Strauss's construct of bricoleurs: a group of people who live as "scavengers" removed from the general public, "using odds and ends that the rest of society discards."
Architect Mike Ladeychapel, is plunging headlong into his urban reconstruction project when his crew comes upon a "tribe" of "trespassers" living in one of the site's soon-to-be-demolished abandoned buildings. These "bricoleurs" are not mere squatters; they're an organized group with an "ethos," a "philosophy," and a leader named Sledge.
Mike must negotiate a way to remove "the Bricks" from the property. His gentrification mindset wars with his conscience:
Sledge and his people were true bricoleurs, a subculture seemingly essential to the smooth functioning of any society.
And I was sentencing them to cultural extinction.
And also dooming something vital, perhaps, in the mainstream culture along with them . . .?
I had my orders. . . . There wasn't any way out. Cultures got flattened everyday all around the world, under the steamroller of consensus reality, for the good of the majority. But mankind went on. Somehow.
An homage to Samuel R. Delaney's story, "We, In Some Strange Power's Employ, Move On a Rigorous Line" (which can be found in the collection Distant Stars), "Harlem Nova" is deeply engrossing. It sets urban progress against moral philosophy and explores the collision between the powerful and the powerless.
"Spondulix," a tale of "fiscal science fiction" that Di Filippo later turned into a novel (published by Cambrian Publications), and its "dark cousin," "Karuna, Inc.," a Philip K. Dick-inspired narrative, stand as two of the collection's longer stories, and two of its most laugh-out-loud absurd.
In "Spondulix," sandwich shop-owner Rory Honeyman has a cash flow problem and can't pay his best employee, Nerfball. Without Nerfball, Honeyman's Heroes will surely go under, because a "sandwich crafted by Nerfball emerged from beneath his flashing knife as a thing of beauty, guaranteed to draw repeat customers."
Amid his anguish over continually stiffing Nerfball on his wages, Honeyman -- a former Olympic diver who, in his pre-Honeyman's Heroes days, worked in a circus, where he harbored a fondness for the "diving equine," Baroness von Hammer-Purgstall -- has a "blaze of inspiration." He creates spondulix, a kind of coupon redeemable for sandwiches at his shop, which he'll use to pay Nerfball until business steadies.
As "assorted fringe folks," belonging to groups like the Beer Nuts and the Outlaw Party, conjure up their own ideas on how best to use, circulate, and promote spondulix, Honeyman begins to suspect that his "brainstorm [is] going to lead to his complete undoing." Well, yes. And no.
"Spondulix" underscores Di Filippo's wittiness: this is a fantastically funny story. You meet characters named Suki Netsuke; Earl Erlkonig; Ped Xing, the Orthodox Jew Zen Master; and Hilario Fumento, a writer who composes his "gems" of inspirational wisdom on pencils and call slips "pilfered" from public libraries. In its absurdity, however, "Spondulix" shows humanity at its best and worst. There are those who strive for love and a life of fulfillment; others who are led by greed and duplicity. With its hero-underdog to root for, a healthy amount of societal subversion to encourage, and a love story to cheer for, "Spondulix" entertains.
If "Spondulix" is drama of the absurd, then "Karuna, Inc." is drama of the evilly bizarre. Thurman Swan, a veteran suffering from Gulf War disease, and Shenda Moore, owner of Karuna Koffeehouse, become embroiled in corporate-warfare-takeover. Thrown into the mix are a canary-colored dog, an underground lodge of business people who take pleasure in torture, a Santeria Priestess, and the maniacal "Dark Intercessor." Suffice it to say that Di Filippo has created a head-spinningly inventive tale.
"The Mill" is the "most autobiographical story I have ever written," Di Filippo informs us. It addresses real-life, turn-of-the-century industrialism and the plight of workers bound to the factory for their survival and economic well-being. Yet Di Filippo exchanges real-life for hard SF, thrusting the story into an alternate universe where the "Factor" is God-like ruler of the cosmos, and the characters' lives are entirely beholden to the Mill and its production of "luxcloth."
At 61 pages -- more novella than short story -- "The Mill" delivers masterful writing and storytelling, and plenty of it. It follows Charlie Cairncross and his family, as they live out their lives according to the Mill's ordained societal tenets. Competitive commercialism, adherence to Mill-mores, and the life of the laborer are but a sampling of the themes Di Filippo wedges into his imaginative setting.
"Do you remember a time before the Internet and the Web?" Di Filippo asks in the introduction to "Agents." In this, his "digital future" story, Di Filippo ups the ante. . . way up. Jump ahead somewhere in the late-twenty-first century and imagine a world where you command, as "human overseer," a "translucent" "holo-casted" image of yourself -- an agent -- to travel through the "metamedium" -- a quasi-, hyped-up-Internet -- and send back all matter of information: sensory, audio, and visual. Add in an unscrupulous overseer who learns how to circumvent an agent's strict behavioral code, and then sit back and take in the chaos that unfolds.
Dr. Strode, a "biosculptor" or "peeker," centers as the unlucky leading man of "Skintwister" and its companion, "Fleshflowers." As a "peeker," Strode enters his patients' bodies and "influences [their] cells directly through . . . psychokinesis." Strode specializes in using his exceptional talents to alter his patients' looks, but when a beauty with a grudge fancies his services, ethical and career problems arise. In "Fleshflowers," Strode is transferred to Mars to promote the "health and continued functioning" of human and plant life alike. The doctor, however, is already plotting his return to Earth.
Finally, "Conspiracy of Noise" pits the unwitting messenger, Howie, against the larger forces who would "impose [their] worldview on the rest of humanity." Howie's work-related responsibilities are few and far between. Mostly, he sits with his feet up on his desk, listening to his headphones. For $750 a week, Howie thinks he's landed a pretty good gig. But when his co-worker, Eugene Herringbone, hands out a business card which reads, "I SUFFER FROM A LESION IN THE WERNICKE'S AREA OF MY BRAIN AND CAN SPEAK ONLY GIBBERISH," Howie starts having second thoughts. Before long, though, he's involved in his company's skewed dissemination of information -- all to disastrous effect.
Missing out on the skewed -- and skewering -- humor of this collection would be equally disastrous. Full of storytelling that is untamed, writing that is superb, and tales that are expansive and suggestive, Strange Trades is a wry romp worthy of your attention.
Amy O'Loughlin is an award-winning book review columnist and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Worcester Magazine, The Boston Book Review, Calyx, Moxie, and American History. She is a contributor to the upcoming reference work The Encyclopedia of the World Press and the anthology of women's writing Women Forged in Fire. Her previous publications at Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
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