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Lost Pages

by Paul Di Filippo

(Four Walls Eight Windows, $15.95, 207 pages, paperback, September 1998.)

Review by Claude Lalumière

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 cover scanFiction?" 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 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 reality....

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 amusing one.

"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 welcome.

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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