Monday, October 29, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of Paul di Filippo

Today is Paul di Filippo's 64th birthday. So, it's time for another compilation of my Locus reviews -- lots of them this time, as Paul is a very prolific writer, and a writer whose work I greatly enjoy. The first review comes from Locus Online before I started reviewing for the print magazine -- I did a few reviews and essays for that site, edited by my predecessor as short fiction columnist, the excellent Mark Kelly (and doubtless those contributed to me getting the gig at the print version.)

(Locus Online, 12 April 2001)

It would be a shame if readers missed the long novella in the Spring 2001 issue of Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, one of the DNA Publications stable of magazines. This story is "Karuna, Inc.", by the always interesting Paul Di Filippo. Di Filippo works well at the novella length, and much of his best fiction is in that category, including the stories in The Steampunk Trilogy as well as such fine works as "The Mill" and "Spondulix".

"Karuna, Inc." (like "Spondulix", actually) presents a rather utopian view of economic activity. Shenda Moore is a brilliant young woman who took a nice inheritance and founded the title corporation, with the following mission: "the creation of environmentally responsible, non-exploitive, domestic-based, maximally creative jobs ... the primary goal of the subsidiaries shall always be the full employment of all workers ... it is to be hoped that the delivery of high-quality goods and services will be a byproduct ...". Without commenting on the likelihood of such a plan working in the real world, I'll just say that it would be nice if it would. But unfortunately, Shenda, though she doesn't know it, has an enemy: a consortium of maximally evil corporate types, led by the sinister Marmaduke Twigg.

The story is told alternately from the viewpoints of Shenda, Twigg, and a damaged veteran named Thurman Swan. As Shenda brings Thurman out of his shell of self-pity, Twigg comes to realize the existence of "Karuna, Inc." and moves against it. Di Filippo alternates sunny scenes of Thurman and Shenda with grotesque scenes of Twigg and his fellow evildoers, each of whom have a special operation to make them as evil as possible. The evil seems a bit over the top, and the good has a large dose of wish-fulfillment intermixed, but the story throughout is gripping, and the characters involving. It's a very fun read, mixing tragedy and optimism, mysticism and business, with Di Filippo's usual off-kilter imagination. Not a great story, but a good, enjoyable, one.

(Locus, February 2007)

And Paul Di Filippo, in "Wikiworld" (Fast Forward 1), engages in another of his utopian economic fantasias, this one about a world in which stuff gets done on the "wiki" model: a group of interested people competing and cooperating to build something. Such as house for our hero, Ross Reynolds, which leads to him running the country for three days, starting a trade war, and falls in love. Oh, and ganja on the Moon is involved too. Light-hearted, imaginative, fast-moving, sweet: lots of fun, like any number of similar Di Filippo pieces.

(Locus, November 2002)

Paul Di Filippo's "Shipbreaker" (Sci Fiction, October) is intriguing, about a man and two friends who are part of a crew of various species who salvage decommissioned starships. The hero, Klom, finds a curious alien in some sort of suspended animation, and after reviving it, adopts it as a pet. But it turns out to be something more than anyone expects. One interesting aspect of the story is the low position of humans in a galaxy dominated by much more intelligent species. The story does read like the opening segment of a novel rather than a complete story, however.

(Locus, December 2002)

The DAW mass market anthologies are a mixed lot -- some are quite awful, and some, like Mars Probes, are quite good. Once Upon a Galaxy, edited by Wil McCarthy with anthology veterans John Helfers and Martin H. Greenberg, is one of the better ones, if not so good as Mars Probes. The theme is "science fictional retellings of fairy tales", and most of the stories take a reasonably inventive approach -- sometimes a bit paint-by-numbers in replacing fantasy elements with Sfnal nuts and bolts, but still enjoyable. My favorite entry was Paul di Filippo's "Ailoura", a clever retelling of "Puss in Boots" on a far planet with genetically engineered animal-human chimeras, AI houses, immortality, and of course a younger son cheated out of his inheritance. Di Filippo throws in some nice Cordwainer Smith references for the SF initiates -- a very fun story. McCarthy's own "He Died that Day, in Thirty Years", is a clever and sardonic extrapolation of the unexpected effects of a slightly malfunctioning memory tailoring drug. Most of the rest of the book is decent entertainment as well.

Di Filippo is on a roll lately, though really he's been doing excellent stuff for a long time. His entry in the justly celebrated PS Publishing series of novella-length chapbooks, A Year in the Linear City, is one of the best novellas of this year. Di Filippo follows several episodes in the life of Diego Patchen, an up and coming writer of Cosmogonic Fiction, or CF, the Linear City's analog to SF. The plot turns on Diego's worries about his dying father, and his friend's obsession with a drug-addicted woman; as well as a trip down the city's border river to a distant borough. It's not really much of a plot, just a series of episodes. The fun is in di Filippo's description of the title City, which is very narrow but of unimaginable length, bordered by train tracks on one side and a river on the other side, and mounted, apparently, on some huge scaly beast. Di Filippo invents an engaging and convincing slang, sketches an interesting social/political/economic backgroun, and portrays any number of genially colorful characters, such as Diego's glorious fire-fighting girlfriend Volusia Bittern, or his editor at his main magazine market, an obvious John W. Campbell pastiche. The story is by turns pleasantly rambling, funny, sad, and full of sense of wonder. In general feel it recalls several of di Filippo's "alternate economy" novellas, such as "Karuna, Inc." and "Spondulix". Paul di Filippo is clearly one of the most original, and one of the best, SF writers now working, and while he is certainly not ignored, he does not seem to me to get quite the credit he is due. Perhaps that will soon change.

(Locus, March 2003)

There is also (in the November-December 2002 Interzone) a neat story by "Philip Lawson" (Michael Bishop and Paul di Filippo). "'We're All in This Together'" is about a serial murderer who seems to get inspiration from the banal sayings of a newspaper column called "The Squawk Box". A mystery writer obsessed with contributing a saying to this column ends up involved in the murder investigation. Rather loopy, but with a serious core.

(Locus, April 2003)

Also in the April issue of F&SF, Paul Di Filippo contributes "Seeing is Believing", about a private investigator and a beautiful scientist investigating a criminal who seems able to use his PDA to bypass his victims' brains "Executive Structure". Di Filippo takes a nice SFnal idea and wraps a fast-paced and funny caper story about it. It's not exactly believable but it's great fun.

(Locus, May 2003)

Last month at Interzone Paul Di Filippo and Michael Bishop were featured in collaboration. This month they each appear separately, with rather humorous pieces. Di Filippo's "Bare Market" tells of a journalist's interview with Adamina Smythe, the computer-enhanced genius girl who controls the world's financial markets, resulting in unprecedented prosperity. But Adamina, besides being a genius, is incredibly beautiful, and the journalist is smitten -- what will sex hormones in the system do to the world's fortunes?

(Locus, July 2003)

Perhaps best of all is Paul Di Filippo's "Clouds and Cold Fires" (Live Without a Net), in which the departed humans have left a revitalized Earth in the charge of long-lived, intelligent, genetically engineered chimeras of some sort. Pertinax and his friends must deal with a threat from one of the still technologically oriented "Overclockers", humans who have stayed behind on reservations, and who refuse to abandon the old ways.

(Locus, December 2003)

"The Dish Ran Away With the Spoon", by Paul Di Filippo (Sci Fiction, November), is a very funny and clever tale of "blebs" -- spontaneously generated AIs caused by linkages between random sets of "smart" appliances. These AIs don't always have the best interests of humans in their "minds", and Kas, who lost his parents to a bleb, becomes paranoid when his girlfriend Cody moves in with him: he's worried that their combined possessions might bring the assemblage to a sort of critical mass. But his paranoia starts to affect his relationship with Cody -- just the opening a newly formed AI needs! Fun stuff, sort of a Cory Doctorow/Charles Stross future refracted through Di Filippo's unique sensibility.

(Locus, March 2005)

But best this issue (Interzone, January-February) is Paul Di Filippo's "The Emperor of Gondwanaland". This is a Borgesian story (and knows it, as signaled by being partly set in Buenos Aires, and by the use of Funes as a name) about an overworked magazine editor who stumbles across internet references to micronations. One of these is Gondwanaland, which seems insanely detailed for what must be an imaginative creation. The man joins a discussion group, and eventually falls in love with a woman on one of the groups. She pushes for a meeting -- but how can he find Gondwanaland?

(Locus, April 2005)

From the April F&SF, Paul Di Filippo's "The Secret Sutras of Sally Strumpet" is an amusing story with a dark edge, about a struggling writer who has finally made it big. The problem is, Riley Small's bestseller, The Secret Sutras of Sally Strumpet, purports to be the memoirs of a 25 year old sexual adventuress. Now that a movie deal is in the offing, a 35 year old man just won't do as the public face of the author. So, Riley and his agent decide to hire an actress -- when a mysterious woman shows up and declares that she IS Sally Strumpet -- and to Riley, she seems perfect. Especially when she seems ready to continue her sexual adventuring -- with him. But every silver lining has a cloud ... Di Filippo is very entertaining on most subjects, particularly on the ups and downs of a writing career, as already well established by his Plumage for Pegasus pieces -- and this story is another delight.

(Locus, December 2009)

Paul Di Filippo’s "Yes We Have No Bananas" (Eclipse Three) is one of his wacky but serious pieces of economic extrapolation, mixing advanced physics (involving branes and parallel worlds) with a world in which ocarina music is the height of popularity. The lead character, Tug, is down on his luck -- his girlfriend has left him, he’s being evicted, he’s lost his job, and so he ends up on a houseboat drawing a comic strip with a beautiful young woman and helping a nutty physicist put on a play designed to demonstrate the correctness of his theories ...what can I say? It’s Paul Di Filippo.

(Locus, April 2011)

Paul di Filippo, in "FarmEarth" (Welcome to the Greenhouse), suggests that one way to make boring ecological remediation tasks more enjoyable might be to embed them in a gaming environment, and wraps a nice story around that about a group of kids too eager to take on more advanced responsibilities, who thus get involved in a dangerous conspiracy.

(Locus, November 2013)

Also good this month (Asimov's, October-November) is Paul di Filippo's "Adventures in Cognitive Homogamy: A Love Story", about a brilliant young researcher visiting a "Science Park" in Colombia, where he is seduced into a dangerous encounter with a beautiful member of the underprivileged classes -- followed by (perhaps a tad too predictable) consciousness-raising. Di Filippo also has the best story in the November Analog, "Redskins of the Badlands", which resembles "Adventures in Cognitive Harmony" in the featuring a somewhat innocent highly talented hero, betrayed at the outset by his beautiful lover, encountering a dissident group (and having sex …) The angle here is a bit different -- Ruy Lambeth spends most of his time in his "skin", guarding UNESCO world heritage sites from the depredations of people like a group of ecoterrorists menacing Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta.  Both stories are a bit thin towards the end -- mostly interested in introducing some neat tech in the context of a somewhat optimistic (but far from perfect) future society ...But both are fun rides along the way.

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