Reviews, interviews and articles by and with Paul

The Inferior 4+1 is a Livejournal community maintained by Paul, lizhand, Paul Witcover, lucius-t and ljgoldstein.

Recent posts:

  • New Review at the B&NR March 26, 2015
    I look at a debut novel of time travel:http://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/the-lost-boys-symphony
  • New Review at LOCUS ONLINE March 25, 2015
    A genre novel marketed as mainstream? What will they think of next?!?http://www.locusmag.com/Reviews/2015/03/paul-di-filippo-reviews-jill-ciment/
  • Scary Weather March 18, 2015
    We’ve been having a sort of heat wave here, with an average high in the last 7 days of 78 degrees.  (The historical March average is 64 degrees.)  I don’t understand why people aren’t running around with their hair on fire yelling, “Climate change!  Do something!  Climate change!”  But then I’m not running around with my hair on fire either.  Still, I’d like to hear people saying something other than “Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”
  • Here's a Good Book: H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald March 16, 2015
    For some reason none of the books I've been reading lately have grabbed me, or even kept my interest for very long -- so much so that I started to wonder if this was just going to be a crappy year for books.  And then, happily, I read H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.H Is for Hawk is really three books -- one an account of Macdonald training her goshawk Mabel; one about T.H. White, with emphasis on his own book about goshawks; and one a narrative of the author's mourning after her father died unexpectedly.  You wouldn't think these three things would fit together but they do, and amazingly well at times.I actually read White's book The Goshawk, a long time ago -- I'm not that interested in hawks, but I am interested in anyone who can write The Once and Future King.  What I was too young to get is that White was terrified by his sadistic urges, that he projected these feelings onto the hawk, and that he saw the purpose of his training as beating the savagery out of the hawk -- and so, of course, allowing him an outlet for his own sadism.  Macdonald understands this, though, and a lot more: she writes with great compassion about White's sad life, his disastrous upbringing, his attempt to deny his homosexuality, his belief that it was only by being perfect that he could win his parents' love.  (There's one heart-rending story about just how horrible his parents were.  When he was very young, his father built him a huge wooden castle to play in, with a pistol barrel on the battlements.  His father wanted to fire a salute for White's birthday, but when he ordered the child to stand in front of the castle, White was sure his father was going to execute him.  What on earth can that have been like, to feel in that much danger from your parents?)All of this horrible mixed-up mess goes into the training of Gos, his hawk.  Macdonald explains something you don't really get from White's own account, that he does pretty much everything wrong.  He over-feeds Gos, and then wonders why the hawk refuses to hunt.  He decides to train Gos by keeping him awake for days, a very old-fashioned method, and then gets tired and lets the hawk go to sleep.  He screams at Gos when Gos fails to learn something.  He ignores Gos.  He uses poor quality twine to tie Gos down, and so of course Gos escapes.  Gos, like White, has to be perfect, but there's always the fear that even perfection will not bring love, and so, to prevent this, White has to screw things up.And yet Macdonald points out a wonderful thing: it was the hawk, in The Once and Future King, that led Wart to Merlyn, and to self-knowledge and a kingship.  White was wiser than he knew.The best part of the book for me was Macdonald's account of her father's death, which is told with an honesty that goes bone-deep.  After he dies she runs away from her friends, her job, civilization.  For weeks at a time she does nothing but work with Mabel. She seems to want less to train a hawk than to become one, solitary, savage, wild. Her final epiphany is not what you'd expect, though.  It takes a while, but she realizes that training Mabel isn't helping her deal with grief.  "I don't need wildness any more… Living with a goshawk is like worshipping an iceberg, or an expanse of sliprock chilled by a January wind.  The slow spread of that splinter of ice in your eye.  I love Mabel, but what passes between us is not human."Her writing, as you may have noticed, is gorgeous.  Here's a description of a breeder taking her hawk out of a box: "Another hinge untied.  Concentration.  Infinite caution.  Daylight irrigating the box.  Scratching talons, another thump.  And another.  Thump.  The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust.  The last few seconds before a battle.  And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it's all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box… My heart jumps sideways.  She is a conjuring trick.  A reptile.  A fallen angel.  A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary.  Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.  A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers."Wow.  I didn't mean to quote so much, but once you get started you can't really stop.Anyway, I was delighted to find a book this good.  And now I wonder -- are there books out there I've missed?  Recommendations, please?  Bonus points for science fiction or fantasy, which I don't think I'm reading enough of.
  • New Review at LOCUS ONLINE March 13, 2015
    I look at some SF from Taiwan:http://www.locusmag.com/Reviews/2015/03/paul-di-filippo-reviews-wu-ming-yi/
  • Bowery Boys Pulps March 3, 2015

The Weird Universe explores a human and natural cosmos that is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine. The usual suspects are Paul Di Filippo; Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes; and Chuck Shepherd, purveyor of News of the Weird.

Recent posts:

  • April Fools!
    Tomorrow is April Fool's Day — a day on which the vast majority of people will go about their lives as usual, oblivious of what day it is, and a very few people will go to extreme lengths to prank and play jokes on unsuspecting victims. I have to confess that I've never played an April Fool prank in my life, and don't really have any interest in changing that. But over at my other home online, I've delved pretty deeply into the history of this unusual holiday. And this year I took the time to give my list of the Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes of All Time a complete overhaul. So check it out, if interested. And if you're in the Nova Scotia area, you can catch me on a CBC radio show tomorrow, Maritime Noon, talking and answering questions about the history of April Fools.
  • Balloon Girl
    1947: The entertainment at gunmaker Melvin Johnson's dinner party was a balloon-clad model whom guests (apparently a bunch of old men) shot at with a pellet gun between courses. To the guests' great frustration, the balloons failed to break. Source: Life - June 30, 1947
  • Life Imitates the Smothers Brothers
    I just hope he knew enough to yell, "Fire!" Full article here.
  • Ancient Remedy
    Scientists recreated a thousand year old medicinal remedy to study its efficacy and got a big surprise. The mixture, which includes cow bile, garlic, leeks and wine, kills the antibiotic resistant staph infection MRSA.
  • Dogs demolishing a chair
    This video comes with no explanation (and no sound). The action really starts around 2 minutes in, and I fast forwarded through much of it. But I'm curious to know, why exactly do these dogs so desperately want to destroy that chair? The Musical Chair from Held Hands on Vimeo.
  • Imperishable Burial Robes
    Alex gave us green burials--here's the opposite! Keep your corpse looking fresh, stylish and whole! Original article here.

by Charlie Dickinson

(Originally published online on Dec 8, 1998)

Irrepressible humor, a stand-back imagination, a wondrous facility and control of the English language are qualities often assigned to science fiction writer Paul Di Filippo. Native to Providence, Rhode Island, Di Filippo, along with others of his generation, reinvigorated SF storytelling with a cyberpunk ethos during the 1980s (an early Di Filippo story, “Stone Lives,” appears in the definitive cyberpunk anthology, Mirrorshades).

By 1995, Di Filippo had published nearly 100 short stories when a three-novella volume, The Steampunk Trilogy, came out. Never one to give his imagination a rest, Di Filippo took the cyberpunk attitude back to Victorian times.

Subsequent books were two story collections: biotech-themed Ribofunk (1996), and Fractal Paisleys (1997) with the SFWA Nebula award-winner, “Lennon Spex,” and a novel: Ciphers: A Post-Shannon Rock-n-Roll Mystery (1997).

Di Filippo’s most recent release is Lost Pages (1998). Although paying homage to a number of modern writers, Lost Pages lets the reader consider some very alternate realities: What if novelist Franz Kafka worked a day job as a columnist for health-faddist and publishing magnate Bernarr Macfadden and moonlighted as a superhero? And that’s only the first of nine stories.

Savoy’s Charlie Dickinson caught up with Paul in cyberspace to pose the 20 Questions.

1

Your short story “Anne,” included in Lost Pages, is a great, imaginative read. You take the Holocaust icon and let her escape from Holland to Hollywood. Any trouble publishing this story?

My record-keeping for the submission of “Anne” indicates that it journeyed to a mere four recalcitrant editors before finding a home with the munificent and perspicacious Scott Edelman in the first issue of Science Fiction Age. I must have had high hopes for mainstream acceptance, since the first two zines I tried were Playboy and Esquire. Only the response of Alice Turner at Playboy sticks in my memory. She accused me of dishonoring the memory of Anne Frank in a particularly scandalous and trivial way. My written response to her: “When I play God, Anne Frank gets another fifty years of life.”

2

“Anne” seems a pretty obvious collision between Jewish moral earnestness and your quite valid postmodern esthetics. Can we have both, ethics and esthetics, and not have one trump the other?

I always like to keep in mind a quote from the work of Thomas Pynchon that one member of the online Pynchon list uses as his signature sign-off: “Keep cool, but care.” I think that one line puts the whole esthetics/ethics rivalry in perspective. The Buddhist goal of wise compassion does the same: wisdom, the intellect, balanced with heart. If it’s possible to be some weird mix of Flaubert and Gandhi, that’s my goal.

3

Without doubt, Lost Pages pays homage to some twentieth-century writers that matter to you. They’re the protagonists in your stories. We’re seeing more historical figures in contemporary fiction. I’ve read T. Coraghessan Boyle sits down with original source materials to compost his fictive imagination. What was your approach with Lost Pages?

The stories in Lost Pages quickly proved to me what SF writer Howard Waldrop had already ruefully discovered: it’s possible to devote an elephant’s worth of research time to produce a mouse of a story. (A very witty and charming mouse, to be sure.) To me, employing a writer as a protagonist involves becoming intimately familiar with his work and his life, as well as the era in which he or she flourished. Obviously, this is a potentially infinite amount of research. In many cases I fudged, garnering just enough details to convey a larger authoritativeness. I had wanted to do an original story for the volume, one in which D. H. Lawrence lived to randy old age and became the dictator of a sex-based, Dionysian U.S. government, but felt daunted by the amount of reading that would have demanded. Maybe when I reach my own hypothetical old age, I’ll buckle down and write that one!

4

One story I especially loved in Lost Pages was “The Happy Valley at the End of the World,” where Antonie de Saint-Exupery meets Beryl Markham. How did that story take off?

The kernel for my Saint-Exupery story was actually reading the script of Wells’ Things to Come. I began conjecturing how in reality the airmen Wells was relying on as saviors of humanity were really a raffish, selfish lot, and probably wouldn’t have gone along with his plans at all. From there, it was a simple matter of choosing the two standout aviators of their time as protagonists. I avoided Lindbergh, since one of my rules of writing is to focus on the secondary or lesser-known personages of history. They offer so much more in the way of fresh tales!

5

You’re having a My Dinner with Andre evening with one famous, or infamous, living person. Whom and why?

I think I’d like to sit down with Neil Young and find out his secret of not growing old.

6

Reading about your formative years in the Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, I was struck by one defining moment for you at age eighteen. You’d graduated from high school in Providence and you’d spent the summer working at a tough physical job in a spinning mill. While your former classmates were off to college, you took your savings, packed typewriter and a small book collection, and were off for Hawaii. You were a writer. Okay, once there, you didn’t write your first publishable story. Nonetheless, how did this experience change you?

Striking out on my own at age 17 proved to me one indelible truth: I wasn’t a prodigy. The science fiction field is famous for its brilliant youngsters. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Samuel Delany, Michael Moorcock. I think I had some notion back then that I was one of them, and that stint proved that I surely lacked the chops at such an early age to follow in the footsteps of these teen geniuses. My path would not be identical to theirs.

7

Now, flash forward a few years. You’re almost twenty-two and boom! you’ve set up housekeeping with your life’s companion, Deborah, and you’ve sold your first story. Two decision biggies — whom to live with, what to do for a living — that plague many people through their twenties, and beyond. Do you feel your early focus and decisiveness gave you more time to produce what many consider a respectable body of work by someone who’s not that far into his forties?

As mildly disillusioning as my first foray into the dedicated creative lifestyle was, it had a paradoxical confirming effect. This was what I wanted to do, but I just wasn’t ready yet. So a few years later, making certain major decisions once and for all did indeed free my energies to flow into a channel that had been at least shallowly scraped in the sands of Hawaii five years in the past. Richard Feynman’s famous anecdote about deciding to eat only chocolate pudding for dessert for the rest of his life in order to free up a few decision-making neurons for more important matters has always resonated with me.

8

Your writing has loads of humor and none of the neurotic drearies. So if you don’t write as therapy, why do you write?

Writing humor has always come naturally to me, although in times of personal crisis the stories do emerge somewhat grimmer. Consider “Mama Told Me Not to Come” in Fractal Paisleys, which begins with the narrator’s attempted suicide. In any case, I think I write for the same reason many writers do: to replicate through my own prose some golden hour of reading of my youth. Haven’t quite done it yet, though!

9

Public imagination thrives on the idea of SF visionaries like Verne whose boldly speculative worlds come true decades later. Power of the imagination aside, I suspect you read loads of articles about biotech, cybernetics, nanotechnology, and such. Care to comment on how you go mining for SF ideas?

I keep abreast of science mainly through journals for the self-educated lay person such as Scientific American, and through pop-sci books. Although some writers such as Fred Pohl and Bruce Sterling delve into esoteric professional journals and visit actual labs, I find that most of the time I can get enough insight into up-and-coming trends and gadgets and waves of paradigm-shifting through standard sources. What counts in making a fun story is the twist. Given transgenic animals, for instance, will you find them waiting on you at your local McDonald’s, or being illegally served on a bun at some black-market dive? Or both?

10

Here’s a question we ask everyone: What are you reading now? Why did you pick it?

As a full-time reviewer, I read so much that this question would have a different answer almost every hour! [Could Savoy agree to refresh these lines accordingly? (Grin.)] This morning, however, I picked up something very different: a work in manuscript, sent to me by Jonathan Lethem. Titled Doofus Voodoo, it’s written by a friend of Lethem’s named Tom Clark, and so far has managed to intrigue me. Clark is a poet, and his weird tale seems on a par with something like Steve Aylett’s Slaughtermatic, another fine book I commend to one and all.

11

You still write on a Commodore 128?

My Commodore, alas, has been put out to pasture. In line with Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media Project, an ongoing chronicle of obsolescence, I now maintain the faithful C128 as a shrine, and keep electric incense perpetually aglow before this fine old piece of hardware on which I wrote five novels and scores of stories.

12

So I take it you don’t do Windows?

[Editor’s note: Paul opted for a Mac.]

Five hundred years from now, Bill Gates will have entered the ranks of the minor deities. Whether as Zeus or Lucifer remains to be seen!

13

Your favorite pizza and where?

This important question deserves a three-part answer: a) any pizza purchased in Italy, because I’d have to be in Italy to eat it; b) Deborah’s caramelized onion-and-garlic white pizza on homemade wheat dough; c) Caserta’s on Federal Hill in Providence.

14

Anyone who has read your novel Ciphers: A Post-Shannon Rock-n-Roll Mystery realizes that your R & R knowledge is both encyclopedic and reverent. You’re on a desert island and have an entertainment choice. Either the CDs or the videos go. Which will it be and why?

I doubt I’ve watched more than two hours’ worth of videos since the birth of MTV, and that amount’s been in ten-second snatches. Videos are to music as film adaptations are to novels. No contest here on which to dump!

15

Tell us about “pronoia.”

Pronoia is the irrational belief that someone somewhere is trying to do you good. Whether this belief is as harmful to one’s mental well-being as paranoia, and whether the notion of someone trying to do you “good” is a scarier prospect than that of someone trying to harm you, both remain unanswered questions.

16

What bumper sticker(s) is on your car, or what would you compose to tell other motorists what’s on your mind?

Our 1981 Cressida sports a colorful “Free Tibet” injunction and also one of those black-rimmed, white oval place-abbreviation stickers, in this case “BI”. The latter stands for Block Island, a beautiful resort we love to visit, although its shady alternate meanings tend to raise motorist eyebrows.

17

One of the things you’ve done to survive as a fiction writer was a stint at the refreshment counter in a stag movie house. You gain any special understanding of human nature from this work? Any of it of value in writing stories?

I learned that it’s possible for the average person (not the actors and actresses on-screen, but the owners of the theater) to utterly divorce their feelings about the product they peddle from the paycheck it delivers. A useful marketplace reminder of how anyone can slide into becoming a merchant of the dubiously valuable, and a lesson every writer should keep uppermost in mind.

18

You’ve also had a gig writing computer code and with your SF eye on the future, what’s your best guess on how the Y2K Millennial Bug is going to play out? You stocking up the wine cellar, you ready to plant potatoes in the backyard?

I wrote in COBOL plenty of Y2K code, and am indelibly grateful I am not now in charge of cleaning the mess up. But I will take the absurdist stance that dealing with the Y2K glitch will boost the global economy into new stratospheric levels, as businesses are forced to invest in up-to-date hardware and software and modernize their procedures. Already, Y2K has earned millions of dollars for consultants and old hackers.

19

About a year ago, in doing its annual roundup of hot books for ‘98, Publisher’s Weekly discussed at length Fractal Paisleys, your previous short story collection. The reviewer said you deserved to be better known, but your primary work in the short story form kept you from reaching a wider audience. What’s on tap in the way of novels?

My first novel, Ciphers, has received some encouraging reviews that allow me to believe readers might be ready for more. In Spring 1999, Cambrian Publications will release a picaresque comedy — no fantasy or speculative elements! — titled Joe’s Liver. And a manuscript titled Fuzzy Dice is currently seeking a home. That one’s a Ruckeresque romp across dimensions. But I’ve yet to choose what longer project surfaces next from a pool of several new ideas.

20

You ever entertain the notion that it’s time to move on to a bigger state than Rhode Island?

Wasn’t it William Blake who urged us “to see Texas entire in ev’ry minuscule Rhode Island”? Something like that keeps me here in the land of my birth, happy and productive, and like all good Yankees I say, “Don’t fix what ain’t broke!”