Ribofunk, Paul Di Filippo

Avon EOS, 1998, 241 pages, C$3.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-380-73076-6

It’s no surprise if Ribofunk rhymes with cyberpunk. In his own way, Paul di Filippo created his own genre, a mixture of deeply ironic low-down technological anti-glitz combined with a distinctive narrative style that is, as pointed out in the opening-page blurbs, to biotechnology what cyberpunk was to the consumer electronic market segment.

Ribofunk is a series of thirteen short stories -published 1989-1995- unified by a common future history. Sometimes late next century (or maybe the one after that), biotechnology has progressed to the point where bio-modifications of the body are as commonplace as -say- tattoos, sentient human/animal beings are commonplace and North America is ruled by Canadians. Among other things. It’s not an enviable future: despite the wonderful aspect of many technologies, it’s also a world constantly threatened by genetic terrorists, runaway splices and experiments gone awfully wrong. It far less “clean” that even the dirtiest cyberpunk.

But what a trip it is! Ribofunk is a frenzied, ultra-dense ticket to a richly-detailed future too good to miss. di Filippo packs more ideas in a twenty-page story that some writers manage to put into full-length novels. Given some of the latest headlines, most of it even appears quite reasonable. It’s been said that biotech will the twenty-first century’s biggest science. Ribofunk shows that the same might be true for twenty-first century’s science-fiction. When mixed up with the traditional SF elements like robotic servants, nanotechnology, space travel, moving walkways (take that, Heinlein!), amusement parks and such… it’s an experience that will leave you wanting more. DI Filippo’s satiric tone also helps.

Even better; up to a certain point, Ribofunk impresses more with is style that with its ideas. Di Filippo writes like Heinlein on an overdose of Gibson; densely-packed futurespeak evoking a fully-realized future that feels immensely real. One story is told by a narrator whose brain was damaged in such a way that he unpredictably breaks into rap rhyming in times of stress; it’s a hoot. Another is a series of dispatches from a soldier increasingly affected by biological warfare. Three stories are in a deliciously noir-ish tough-guy PI tone of voice. Another one tells of a genetically-modified Peter Rabbit going against farmer McGregor… Virtually every page of this collection can be examined for textbook examples on how SF should be written. Di Filippo has done truly stupendous things with the English language.

Given this onslaughts of stylistic merit and overflowing ideas, it seems almost ungrateful to speak of shortcomings, and yet… Ribofunk‘s stories exhibits a curious tendency to falter at the end, or ending abruptly without any kind of after-denouement. Some stories also appear quite simplistic in retrospect, although most readers will probably be so caught up in the prose that they’ll miss it the first time around. Characterization is adequate, although most will agree that di Filippo’s world is the principal character. The last story also appears out of place with the remainder of the future history, for reasons that will remain a spoiler.

Still, Ribofunk takes its place along with Egan’s Axiomatic as an SF tour-de-force, an array of future wonders and completely absorbing storytelling. One of the best collections in recent memory, and an exceptional value for anyone given its positioning as the last 3.99$ Avon/EOS special offer. It’s the kind of book that creates fans. Don’t miss it: As the jacket blurb says, “The future isn’t electronic, nuclear or cyber… it’s organic.”

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