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Strange Trader
A Pocket Interview with Paul Di Filippo
by Nick Gevers


When I first interviewed Paul Di Filippo, for Interzone in 2000, I had the following to say in Introduction:

"Paul Di Filippo is an eminent practitioner of bohemian Science Fiction. His numerous stories make themselves comfortably at home in many different milieux, styles, and subgenres. A Di Filippo story can jump effortlessly from Ancient Rome to Alice's Wonderland, from Emily Dickinson's parlour to the infinite grasslands of the afterlife; and the author's language follows suit, shifting from neo-Victorian diction to contemporary slang to hallucinated future argot with a like masterful ease. This literary hyperkineticism allows Di Filippo to inhabit his many settings with sympathetic imagination, but also with the intent of a critical trickster, one who sharply deconstructs, parodies, and satirises his subjects.

"Di Filippo's short fiction has appeared in many markets since his debut with 'Rescuing Andy' in 1985, including, very notably, Interzone, which has published such major stories as 'Walt and Emily', 'The Happy Valley at the End of the World', and 'The Double Felix'. In the mid-1990s, collections began to appear in steady succession from small presses: The Steampunk Trilogy (1995), Ribofunk (1996), Fractal Paisleys (1997), and Lost Pages (1998), from Four Walls Eight Windows, as well as a chapbook volume, Destroy All Brains!, issued by Pirate Writings. Ribofunk was the first of these books to achieve mass market distribution, as an Avon paperback in 1998.

"Di Filippo's first (published) novel, Ciphers, a long Pynchonesque extravaganza concerning genetics, rock music, and much else, was issued jointly by two further small presses, Permeable and Cambrian, in 1997; the latter publishes a second novel, Joe's Liver, in 2000. Meanwhile, Di Filippo continues a prolific career at shorter lengths: new short stories appear regularly, his influential and wide-ranging critical column is featured every two or three months in Asimov's magazine, and his genre spoofs and commentaries enliven The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction under the heading 'Plumage From Pegasus'."

There is a little to add: Joe's Liver appeared as scheduled, and a major collection, Strange Trades, is just out from Golden Gryphon Press. I conducted a supplementary interview with Paul Di Filippo by e-mail in September 2001, concentrating on this substantial new compilation.


NG: Paul: like your four previous full-length collections, Strange Trades is assembled along a theme: Work, cover scanin all its various forms and dubious glories. Writing, as both you and Bruce Sterling point out, is one strange trade; but what's your attitude towards the demands of the less voluntary sorts of labour you portray: office work, assembly-line manufacturing, and the like?

PDF: From my quasi-Buddhist perspective, I believe that work of any sort can be ennobling--if the worker has the right mental attitude. The old "chop wood, carry water" mentality of the Zen monk community, exhibited in the best of cases even unto the level of Enlightened Master, who'd pitch in with the kitchen chores, etc. But cultivating this kind of enlightenment is not a practice our society encourages, and so we all suffer at our jobs. But another angle must also be considered: what the Buddhists call "right livelihood," i.e., that work which a) does not contribute to individual and global suffering and b) is consistent with the individual's talents, desires and emotions. Here too, Western culture all too often treats workers as interchangeable, disposable cogs in its production/consumption machinery. I have no idea how, except as a single individual, to get around this on a grand scale, and indeed any William-Morris-style Utopia seems further off every day.

NG: Still: "Kid Charlemagne", the opening piece in Strange Trades, is very much J. G. Ballard-Vermilion Sands material, a look at the postmodern playgrounds of the rich; and "Karuna, Inc." takes a highly jaundiced stance towards the profit-centred impunity of the corporately wealthy. Can't Strange Trades be read as a multifaceted critique of capitalism, an intimation of how it can at least be modified?

PDF: Let me say up front that I heartily endorse capitalism, with the caveat (adopted from politics) that it's an awful system full of inequities, but it's the best we've come up with so far. I dislike such facets of capitalism as putting art into the marketplace and ranking its quality by units of product shifted. I dislike the gross inequity between executive pay scales and the minimum wage. I dislike the "tragedy of the commons" aspect to capitalism, where natural resources are plundered and despoiled simply because capitalists have no long-term vision. I hope and suppose that all these attitudes and more emerge from the individual stories in Strange Trades. As for modifications, being basically a wordsmith, not a master of "the dismal science," I hesitate to offer any radical revisions to the system for fear of making things worse! Okay, maybe outlaw SUVs, but that's it!

NG: Although its stories feature a lot of incidental humour and satirical absurdism, Strange Trades seems more generally serious than your other collections. Are you primarily a comic writer? And what difference is there in the creative demands made by more sober, moral story-writing?

PDF: My default mode is indeed comic fantasy writing, the kind of stories collected in my Fractal Paisleys volume. These I can produce with my left hand, and folks seem to like them. But as Woody Allen has famously observed, "Comedians are not sitting at the grownups' table," so occasionally I feel motivated to stick my oar into some current or timeless ethical tempest. These stories indeed require more diligence and thoughtfulness and pondering than the comic pieces, and hence move forward more slowly on a day-to-day basis. I can't honestly say I favour one mode over the other though.

NG: "Spondulix" is one of your definitive depictions of social misfits, alternative-lifestyle oddballs. Your attitude towards them--detectable on a more serious level in "Harlem Nova"--seems to be one of guarded admiration. How deep does your acquaintance with, your affection for, the lumpenproletariat run?

PDF: These are my people. While I don't hang with derelicts, outlaws, hobos, hackers, slackers or rock 'n 'roll rebels on a regular basis (I really don't chill much with anyone save family and a small circle of friends), I instinctively know that I am more at home with them when I do meet such folks than I am with any other stratum of society.

NG: "Agents" and "Harlem Nova", written when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, project the Internet with a mixture of prophetic accuracy and, well, unprophetic inaccuracy. Looking back, how do you feel about your Nostradamian facility then? How conceptually intimidating is writing very-near-future SF?

PDF: Writing near-future SF is probably the purest task an SF writer can set him- or herself, even more so than writing Benfordian or Bearish or Eganish "cosmological/ontological" SF. In the latter case, while being true to physics and biology and other sciences, one can also fudge a bit by employing vast scales of time and space, wherein anything one imagines will eventually come to pass without traducing the laws of nature. But playing on the narrower field of the next couple of decades, one must also get the politics, the culture, the sequencing of events just right, projecting in a more or less linear fashion all the multiplex data and trends of the contemporary world. These barriers are why very few people nowadays attempt such work, and this development represents a huge failure of nerve on the part of the SF community. My admiration for Bruce Sterling knows no bounds for his willingness to tackle such scenarios. My own record, as you say, is spotty at best, but I am convinced that I need to do more in this vital area.

NG: "Conspiracy of Noise" is one of your early Pynchonian ventures: a really quite penetrating assessment of the power of information and disinformation. What started you on this fascinating track, and how did your novel Ciphers evolve from "Conspiracy"?

PDF: I'm not quite sure at this late date how I first became interested in information theory. Surely reading Jeremy Campbell's great book Grammatical Man had a lot to do with it. But at some point I realized that everything we valued--from people to art--had a very insubstantial basis in "information." That is, models of reality could be encoded in various "ciphers"--DNA, binary code, etc.--and replicated unto infinity. From this small seed, all of the vast edifice of Ciphers sprang. "Conspiracy of Noise" was not a conscious attempt at a run-through or blueprint, but rather a first tentative stirring of the urge to get this insight down in narrative form. And by the way, my original, soon discarded title for Ciphers was the cumbersome The Cipher of the Serpent and the Rose.

NG: The related stories "Skintwister" and "Fleshflowers", apart from pillorying voluntary cosmetic surgery, depict the evolution of alternative (frankly New Age) medicine into orthodox medical practice. Is this satire or speculation?

PDF: It seems to me that the mind-body link, the two-way feedback between soma and psyche, is an undeniable facet of our existence. As a user myself of such "New Age" treatments as acupuncture, it seemed plausible to me at the time that the practice of "skintwisting" could be perfected. The satire was minimal, especially since I was also trying to write a good old-fashioned John Campbell psionics story as well!

NG: "The Mill" is quite an uncharacteristic story for you: almost a traditional SF allegory, set on a far planet in the far future. How did this earnest pastoral come to be?

PDF: As I mention in my introduction to this story, "The Mill" is based on my own experiences in the doddering textile industry of my home state. The physical remnants of this once-vast enterprise are everywhere in New England, and I have long been enamoured of the history of this business, looking backwards at the eighteenth and nineteenth century with a nostalgic yet hard-nosed perspective. As for capturing the tone of the pastoral, I was aided immensely by reading Flora Thompson's biography Lark Rise to Candleford, a book I was turned onto only by a citation in Crowley's Little, Big!

NG: Your career is in an impressive growth phase. What are your projected publications over the next twelve months or so?

PDF: First up is my erotic dark fantasy novel A Mouthful of Tongues, from Cosmos Books. Then, also from this fine POD firm, a story collection titled Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans. Cambrian Press will be bringing out the novel-length version of Spondulix; PS Publishing will print my novella A Year in the Linear City; and finally in Fall 2002 Four Walls Eight Windows debuts my collection of pure fantasy stories, Little Doors. And you know what: while this number of publications looks like a lot, it still feels like I'm not working hard enough!

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© Nick Gevers 13 October 2001