(Four Walls Eight Windows, $15.95, 207 pages, paperback, September
Literary trickster Paul Di Filippo opens his latest mischievous offering--a
collection of stories exploring alternate, fictional lives of 20th-century
writers--with an "essay" entitled "What Killed Science Star Trek." This short-lived mid-60s
series (starring Bela Lugosi as alien Officer Strock, Mickey Rooney
as Engineer Spotty, and Jayne Mansfield as Communications Lieutenant
Impura) was so embarrassingly abysmal that anything vaguely science-fictional
could no longer be taken seriously. Sadly, this farce isn't far from
attributed to one "Dr. Josiah Carberry." In it, the "scholar" discusses
the title's obscure literary genre and the history of its demise. "Dr.
Carberry" boldly goes where no scholar has gone before, asserting: "And
the name of SF's nemesis was
Two stories share a premise: What if the protagonist had emigrated
to the USA? In "The Jackdaw's Last Case" Franz Kafka is a pseudonymous
lovelorn columnist for a romance pulp magazine by day and a gun-toting
Shadow-like costumed vigilante by night. Di Filippo colours this story
with evocative constructivist imagery, creating a beautiful mood piece
in which Kafka ultimately attains salvation from the demons that ate
away at him in our world. In "Anne," the young Ms Frank writes her diaries
not while hiding from the Nazis, but in a lush Hollywood setting while
playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and suffering through a dysfunctional
marriage to Mickey Rooney. The Kafka is a piece of rapturous beauty,
while the Anne Frank is simply an entertainment, albeit a delightfully
"The Happy Valley at the End of the World" stars Saint-Exupéry
in a world devastated by a disease that's killed most of the population.
It seems to not really come together thematically until the appearance,
halfway through the tale, of the young Jimmy Ballard, recognizable as
J.G. Ballard's younger self (previously encountered in the autobiographical
Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women). From that
point on, the reader recognizes the Ballardian landscape of global disaster
(as depicted in The Drowned World, The Drought, and The
Crystal World) and surreal aerial fantasies (The Unlimited Dream
Company); the latter element supplies the thematic link between
Saint-Exupéry and Ballard. The ubiquitous presence of ethically
decaying British colonialists, whose delusional perceptions of reality
cause their environment to collapse around them, is equally Ballardian.
"Alice, Alfie, Ted, and the Aliens" is an alchemical transmogrification
of the lives and works of Alice Sheldon (who wrote under the male pseudonym
James Tiptree, Jr.), Alfred Bester, and Theodore Sturgeon. Its only
weakness is that its themes and accomplishments are utterly impenetrable
to anyone not familiar with the biographies and writings of these visionary
authors, relatively unknown outside of serious SF circles.
The status of these writers brings us back to Di Filippo's farcical
intro which caricatures a problem against which SF constantly struggles.
The juvenile, cliché-ridden mediocrity of most filmed SF confers
on the genre a reputation that keeps it condescended to and marginalised.
No matter its brilliant burgeoning under the pen of H.G. Wells; no matter
classics like Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, LeGuin's The Dispossessed,
or Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles; no matter modern masterpieces
like Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun, Robinson's Mars
trilogy, or Pollack's Unquenchable Fire; no matter the heartbreaking
love stories of Theodore Sturgeon, the painful transcendence of Cordwainer
Smith's prose, or the violent alienation of James Tiptree, Jr.'s short
fiction; none of it matters. For every Blade Runner there are
ten Star Trek films insulting SF; for every Brazil, there
are a dozen James Cameron and/or Arnold Schwarzenegger gun-fests blasting
away at its credibility. When Herbert's Dune and Ballard's Crash--two
superlative novels--were brought to the big screen, both clumsy adaptations
left audiences and critics wondering why anyone would ever read such
books. Di Filippo's intro derives much of its punch from the frustration
felt by many over this situation.
Other stories in Lost Pages feature the likes of Thomas Pynchon,
Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs,
but the real gem of this book is the transcendent utopia "Campbell's
World." Its conceit is based on a pun. In our world, John Campbell was
the influential editor of the seminal SF magazine Astounding.
In Di Filippo's, that position was held by mythology scholar Joseph
Campbell. His influence on the history and propagation of fiction manages
to subvert the whole world in a wave of sensual sanity and intellectual
integrity for which we can't dare hope, but whose advent would be most
Lost Pages is meant for those who believe in the power of art
and artists to dramatically affect people's lives and to stimulate societal
change. It's also wickedly funny. Somewhere the trickster is laughing
and crying (you know it's the same release).
Originally published, in substantially different form, in The National
Post, Saturday 30 Jan 1999.
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