Tag Archives: Paul Di Filippo

Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010, Damien Broderick & Paul di Filippo

<em class="BookTitle">Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010</em>, Damien Broderick & Paul di Filippo

Non-Stop Press, 2012, 288 pages, $14.99 tp ISBN 978-1-933065-39-7

As someone who rather enjoys reviewing science-fiction novels, I’m not exactly the friendliest target audience for a book such as Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010 (henceforth 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010). I’m not a librarian looking to stock up my collection; I’m not simply a reader looking for a few new book recommendations. I am, in some distant ways, a colleague of Broderick and di Filippo in the Grand Community of SF Reviewers, fact-checking them and trying to find out whether they did their jobs correctly.

And then there’s the question of canon-making.

Books like 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 are essential in the formation of a continuing genre SF canon. They point at novels that should become part of the genre’s continuity, present an updated view of the genre’s last few years and can influence what we think of the genre by claiming novels that did not emerge from the SF genre conversation, but may come to influence it someday. David Pringle’s introduction explicitly sets 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 as a successor to his own Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, 1949-1984 and in doing so sets it up as part of a critical continuity. Much as the previous volume was used to stock up libraries and influence reading choices, this one also attempts to present a certain vision of the genre’s latest quarter-century.

Dispending right away with some essential statistics and credential-building: 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 does indeed proposes 101 novels for consideration as the best of that 25-year period. (The complete list is available here.) I have read roughly 57 of those novels, depending on your definition of “read”. If you look through my Alternate Hugo list of favourite SF novels, you will find that I too think the best of about 20 of the 101 novels, and that I also quite like 16 more. The rest, well, does reflect a certain critical consensus.

But moving beyond pointless shelf-measuring contests, 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 is remarkable for the way it tries to redefine the Science Fiction genre in at least two ways. For one thing, this is a very inclusive list. Authors only get one entry on the list, which means that some entries act as general discussions on the entire body of work of an author (the entry on Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game includes commentary on Speaker for the Dead, for instance), and also allows more authors to make it on the list. You can see how this may skew the result: My own list of “best SF novels of 1985-2010” would probably include five Charles Stross novels, for instance, but Broderick/di Filippo only (rightfully) select Accelerando.

They also reach out and claim novels that may not conform to a strict definition of SF. This isn’t merely going and claiming The Hunger Games trilogy as an explicit bid to bring YA back to SF (even though the book itself has significant flaws as science-fiction, Broderick/di Filippo make the point that it’s the kind of work that escapes the self-referential tendency of genre SF), but also going and claiming works such as Perdido Street Station, Temeraire and Zero History that are great books, but are usually more closely aligned with other genres rather than SF.

Fortunately, there is more to 101 Best SF Novels 1985-2010 than just a list you can look up elsewhere on the web: Much of the real value of the book is in the (sometimes frustratingly short) commentary offered on all listed novels. Broderick/di Filippo are professional reviewers, and their commentary is usually able to highlight what makes each novel special, and why they deserve to be read. There’s an attempt to present broader trends through the lens of each selection. The sum of each entry ends up forming a set of broad opinions about the state of the genre from 1985 to 2010. It’s a broad set of opinions, and it isn’t immune to the kind of silliness you get when trying to develop 101 critical approach vectors to tight deadline: in other words, don’t be surprised to find a lot of very strange assertions in the text of the book as it overreaches and states things that may not sustain scrutiny. But that’s what you get for explaining 25 years of SF in 101 750-words segments.

Broadly speaking, it does occur to me that the selection of 2010 as the last year of this roundup is going to be more significant than simply the end of a quarter-century. As you may recall (Bob), 2010 marked a second post-recession year, the introduction of the iPad, the consequent explosion of the eBook market and the beginning of major changes to the publishing industry. (Including more and more authors taking control of their backlist and publishing them as eBooks –who’s going to check how many of those 101 novels are available as eBooks, and will be in a year?) 2014 is still far too early to tell where we’re going to end up, but the rise of eBook self-publishing as a viable commercial alternative means that the next 101 Best SF Novels 2011-2035 is going to look very, very different from the 1985-2010 installment, which may represent the last hurrah of a genre with well-defined boundaries defined by the traditional book-publishing industry.

And that’s fine. Part of canon-making such as listing the 101 best novels of 1985-2010 is allowing us to define the past and prepare ourselves for the future. No one knows how the genre will evolve in the best few years, but it can depend on solid foundations to find its way.

Fuzzy Dice, Paul Di Filippo

<em class="BookTitle">Fuzzy Dice</em>, Paul Di Filippo

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?

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.”