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Thursday 4 October 2001

Strange Trades, by Paul Di Filippo
(Golden Gryphon Press, October 2001)

Reviewed by Nick Gevers
(Special to Locus Online)

Strange Trades is Paul Di Filippo’s fifth major story collection, his first since Lost Pages in 1998; and this affords as good an opportunity as any to assess Di Filippo the literary phenomenon, Di Filippo the Great Neglected SF Writer. For this—as Claude Lalumière effectively asserted in passing in a recent essay on Locus Online—is what Paul Di Filippo is: one of the ablest, most intellectually provocative, and stylistically versatile of all contemporary SF authors, unfairly underrated by too many. Strange Trades is impressive proof of this contention; but before discussion of its especial merits is undertaken, it’s perhaps best to summarize Di Filippo’s achievements and some causes of his relative neglect.

Di Filippo is not without profile; his stories appear regularly in major magazines such as Interzone and F&SF, and his eclectic and informative criticism is carried in Asimov’s and on SF Weekly. Possibly his specialization as a short fiction writer limits him to the magazine market; but no, he has written a number of excellent novels as well, yet they-like his superb collections-emanate exclusively from small presses (only one story cycle, Ribofunk [1996], has ever appeared from a large publisher, and then merely as a very cheap mass-market paperback.) This overall obscurity is reinforced by the odd failure of even Di Filippo’s finest stories—the best advertisements for his talents—to break into Asimov’s, arguably the most prestigious fiction magazine in the field, and his corresponding omission from Gardner Dozois’s annual Year’s Best anthologies as well. This peripheralization may yet change, but it has a foundation in some of SF’s essential perceptions and biases, and so may, unfortunately, be lasting.

Those perceptions and biases: primarily, there is SF’s allegiance to linear realism, its traditional speculative verisimilitude. Di Filippo is a flamboyant postmodernist-in the terms of “Harlem Nova”, one of the stories in Strange Trades, a bricoleur, a scavenger of huge volumes of cultural detritus, which he rearranges as entertainments with a flashy glib surface and impertinent heterodox depths. He seems to write SF Lite, SF without extrapolative rigor or earnestness of direction; his exuberant imagined futures and alternate histories are (and here his particular allegiance to Samuel R. Delany emerges) linguistic architectures, plays of allusion and verbal dazzlement, artifacts of style. Other SF writers of this stamp—Kim Newman, Don Webb, Howard Waldrop (and for that matter Delany in his later years)—face a certain reflex distrust also, as if what they write is a mockery of SF and not SF proper. And yet Bruce Sterling and Michael Swanwick carry off an equivalent postmodern tightrope act with due frivolity but without corresponding censure; it all depends on how an author is read. Di Filippo deserves to be read anew, read for what he is: an enormously gifted conjuror of meanings, whose lightness is of a Pynchonesque profundity, and whose encyclopedic appropriation of popular culture is utterly discriminating, ebulliently on target. All SF is bricolage out of shared concepts and idiom; Di Filippo’s SF is simply unusually candid about the fact, and all the more intelligent for that.

Di Filippo’s most characteristic tales are pieces he himself somewhat derisively labels “trailer-park SF”, intersections of drunks, hoboes, and lumpenproletarians with the supernatural or logically exotic (for some very amusing examples, see Fractal Paisleys [1997]). It’s conceivable that some believe on this basis that Di Filippo is somehow slumming, but such snobbery is atavistically unbecoming. In any case, Strange Trades, while true to standard Di Filippovian techniques and agendas, is his most serious book to date, speculatively direct, sternly moral amidst its playfulness. Here, Di Filippo and orthodox SF have their closest encounter, and even the purblind should see how the latter is enriched by their commerce.

Admittedly, the collection’s opening story, “Kid Charlemagne”, is lame in its Ballardian homage, limp in its outrage. But there are few false notes from there on. “Spondulix” is an hilarious novella, a carnival of alternative-economic buffooneries pointing up the underlying arrogance of any government’s pretensions to exclusive legitimacy; its truths are unsettling, its resolution slyly uneasy. Its even more powerful thematic counterpart, the short novel “Karuna, Inc.”, also rolls out an ensemble of bohemian oddballs, but soon sets them in dire and sanguinary conflict with their corporate dark opposites, about as savage a satirical conception as Di Filippo has yet permitted himself. Indeed, Strange Trades abounds in quite venomous satire: “Conspiracy of Noise” contextualizes information manipulation and overload with breathtaking, ferocious ingenuity; “SUITs” imagines the solitudinous ennui of office life at a sinister ultimate; “The Boredom Factory” hammers home the stultification of the workplace, the emptiness of mere production. “Agents” and “Harlem Nova” analyze contrasting modalities of escape and responsibility as the economy of the future kicks promisingly yet ominously in; “Skintwister” and “Fleshflowers” are interlinked projections of the cult of appearances rampant but at last redeemed. And as an unexpectedly solemn gesture of solidarity with conventional far-future SF, “The Mill”, a penetrating mock-pastoral novella, administers its laissez-faire lesson soberly, clearly, almost generically; it is SF by anyone’s definition, and in that light, so are all its fellow stories in Strange Trades.

Those stories are, cumulatively, one of SF’s more compelling dramatizations of the human dimension of Work. They are all about occupations, about how individuals are enriched or distorted, lent wisdom or complacency, by the demands of their livelihoods; the conclusions drawable are spiritual or material, introspective or practical. Labor, however bizarre its impositions, however soulless its overtones of drudgery, has nobility and integrity, a rightness just waiting to be discovered. This volume makes that case skillfully and eloquently. And so: purposefully multivalent, concretely speculative even as its wit ranges omnivorously far, Strange Trades will, if the fates are kind, be a breakthrough book for Paul Di Filippo, a token as much of the forcefulness of his thought as of his well-known comic brio. May justice prevail, even in that strangest of trades that is SF.

Nick Gevers is a freelance literary critic and interviewer, whose work appears regularly in Interzone, Infinity Plus (of which he is Associate Editor), SF Site, Nova Express, and Redsine. A resident of Cape Town, South Africa, he has an extensive background in the academic study of SF, and recently was appointed an Acquisitions Editor at Cosmos Books, an imprint of Wildside Press. The anthology Infinity Plus One, co-edited by Gevers and Keith Brooke, appears soon from PS Publishing in the UK.

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