PS Publishing, 2003, 296 pages, $50 hc, ISBN 1-902880-66-8
What a stroke of genius for PS Publishing to ask Rudy Rucker to write the introduction for Paul Di Filippo’s Fuzzy Dice. It makes every reviewer’s opening statement “This Paul Di Filippo novel is a lot like a Rudy Rucker novel!” feels trite and obvious. On the other hand, well, who else but Rudy Rucker to appreciate Fuzzy Dice? It’s a lot like Rucker’s novels: anarchic, playful, grounded in hard SF concept while being almost completely unhinged. It plays not only with Science Fiction concept, but with SF itself.
The basic set-up of the novel couldn’t be simpler: A down-on-his luck bookstore clerk is contacted by advanced intelligence and given a way to travel to parallel universes of his choice. It doesn’t take much more to provide di Filippo with excuses to romp through a series of richly-imagined parallel realities, while putting his narrator through various adventures.
Along the way, we see narrator Paul stuck in 1970s hippie utopia; in a two-dimensional universe written as homage to Conway’s game of life; in a matriarchy; in an old black-and-white kid’s TV show; in universes where individuals are parts of a predefined group personality; in even weirder universes where learned traits are passed to kids, or where ideas are contagious. (Hilariously, one of the late-novel comments by the entities that enabled Paul to travel at will between dimensions are that his choices have been appallingly unimaginative.)
Like Rucker’s fiction, Fuzzy Dice is very, very weird. And yet, unlike much of Rucker’s fiction it still makes sense throughout, and isn’t overly mean to its characters. This may not sound like much, but it’s enough to give me a warm fuzzy feeling about Fuzzy Dice, whereas most of Rucker’s fiction somehow leaves me feeling confused and misanthropic. Di Filippo seems compassionate even in sketching a remarkably self-deprecating protagonist. Throughout the novel’s adventures, Paul grows, learns, and even makes progress of some sort. His companions along the way aren’t simply discarded, and some of them even show signs of having actual independence.
The sustained progress from one adventure to another is important in avoiding the trap so common to picaresque novels like Fuzzy Dice: Once it becomes clear that this twelve-sided adventure is going to go through twelve universes, each one given twelve sub-chapters, there’s a real risk that the novel becomes an imposed exercise. And while Fuzzy Dice doesn’t avoid built-in repetitiveness thanks to its rigid construction, it makes the most out of it by carrying some characters from universe to universe, and allowing Paul to revisit some past choices toward the end of the book.
Like much of Di Filippo’s fiction, it’s very playful, not only in storytelling voice (which is loose and not to be taken seriously at all), but also in the elements it chooses to use. There are quite a few metaphysics, mathematics and computer science-related gags along the way: The opposing sides in the great AI war that Paul dimly discovers are the Moraveckians and the Minskyites, with a throwaway mention about Drexleroids. Much of the novel’s quirkiness is in presenting literal representations of purely theoretical concepts. The overarching metaphysical conflict in which Paul becomes a player is based on a perennial debate within the AI community, and part of the fun is seeing DiFilippo taking down hallowed concepts by having the character understand them through a puff of mind-altering substances, or referring to things like “Artificial Insanities” or the all-important “Ontological Pickle”. I’ll leave smarter scholars tackle how, as a genre, Science Fiction is unique in allowing a writer like Di Filippo full opportunities to play with such specialized scientific concepts.
Fuzzy Dice’s somewhat rarefied audience may be reflected in the novel’s unconventional publication history: Until recently, it had been difficult to purchase in its limited editions, but a recent mass-market re-edition ensures that it will be available once more. It’s not as if the book is about to date itself out of meaning: Who doesn’t want to have a few laughs while reading a science-fiction novel that not-so-seriously ponders the nature of the multiverse?