Reader's reviews of Paul work

by Charlie Jane Anders for io9

If you really loved your loved ones, you’d get them Cosmocopia by Paul Di Filippo, with illustrations by Jim Woodring. It’s that rare thing: an art book that makes your brain burst.

A limited edition of 500 copies, Cosmocopia is a thing of total beauty. It reminds me of some of McSweeney’s weirder experiments, but in the service of a trippy, crazy science fiction novel. Besides the book itself, which is a sturdy hardcover with a few illustrations by Woodring, the whole thing comes in a cardboard box which contains a print of lurid illustration of the novel’s most disturbing scene. And there’s a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle which comes together to form a demented image of weird creatures from another universe.

But honestly, it’s worth the $65 price tag just to get Di Filippo’s novel (novella?), which may actually be the most demented thing I’ve ever read by him. And if you’ve read Di Filippo’s work, you’ll know that’s a tall order. I’ve been a screaming fan of his since I first read his story about Queen Victoria running off to live in a brothel and being replaced with a genetically engineered mega-newt, which is in the Steampunk Trilogy book.

In Cosmocopia, Di Filippo tells the story of Frank Lazorg, an artist who rose from a pulp illustrator in the 1940s to become a famous artist in his own right. Lazorg is a creature of pure ego, and every time you think he’s going to see something beyond himself, he reverts to type. Now an old man, he’s suffered a stroke that’s left him unable to paint… until a mysterious benefactor sends him a crimson block of crushed scarabs to use as pigment. Lazorg eats the scarab paste instead, and becomes reinvigorated, seeing the world anew through the crimson haze.

And just when you think you see where the story is going — Lazorg is going to become a drug fiend, seeing more and more fantastical things and becoming more monstrous in the process — it takes a sharp left turn, and then another. Without giving too much away, Lazorg leaves this universe behind and visits a more primitive universe, closer to the source of creation. The “Cosmocopia” of the book’s title isn’t literally a horn of plenty, it’s a series of stacked universes, with the smaller universes closer to the source and the bigger universes farther away.

In this new universe, the inhabitants all have their genitalia on their faces, and they have two brains, one in their head and one in their guts. They view Lazorg as a monster (and he is, sort of) but eventually come to accept him. But just surviving isn’t enough for Lazorg, who wants to be a great artist in every universe. Art, as Lazorg understands it, doesn’t exist in this other universe, so he has to learn the closest equivalent, which is called ideation. He eventually masters the local art form, but that isn’t enough for him: he has to bend it to his will. Along the way, he uses anyone who cares about him, including the local creature, Crutchsump, who falls in love with him.

This story lets Di Filippo ask some fascinating questions about the nature of art, and the differences between representational and non-representational artworks. (Which is fitting for an art book, which comes with lovely illustrations and is an object of beauty in itself.) It’s all mixed up with sexuality and spirituality, and the nature of that mysterious endpoint of the series of stacked universes. But in the end, the story is always about Lazorg’s raging ego, which makes him a more audacious creator than anyone else but also makes him crave fame and adoration. Is it really possible to be a great artist without having a horrendous ego?, Di Filippo seems to ask. We never quite get an answer, just like Lazorg’s final confrontation with the source of the Cosmocopia doesn’t quite settle all our questions.

In short, Cosmocopia is one of the few books-as-fetish-items that is also a thought-provoking, exciting read. If I had to quibble, I’d say I wished for a few more illustrations inside the book. And $65 might be a tad steep — although it’s a gift for the whole family. (I think the jigsaw puzzle is kid safe, if you have a weird kid.) But those are just quibbles, and honestly this is way better value for money than a few DVDs, or some nice drugs — and the effects will last a lot longer.

by Steven Shaviro for The Pinocchio Theory

“Life is tenacious, life is ingenious, life is mutable, life is fecund.” To consider what it means for us to live on — to survive, and to reproduce our social existence — as parasites on the monstrous body of Capital, we must turn from Lovecraft to Paul Di Filippo, a more recent writer of the fantastic, who also hails (as Lovecraft did) from Providence, Rhode Island. Di Filippo’s story “Phylogenesis” might be thought of as an account of what happens after Cthulhu arrives and devastates the Earth. The story does not explicitly refer to Lovecraft’s mythos; but it follows Lovecraft in giving its horror a biological-materialist basis, rather than a supernatural one. And if Di Filippo’s prose is as dry and understated as Lovecraft’s is florid and inflated, this follows from the way that our very understanding of life changed over the course of the twentieth century. Lovecraft’s early-twentieth-century teratological wonderment is a sort of inverse vitalism: it posits the monstrous proliferation of slithering tentacles, oozing, viscous fluids, and misshapen membranes as the underside, and the deliberate undoing, of the common assumptions of organic unity and integrity. In contrast, Di Filippo’s late-twentieth-century cool, efficient prose reflects the contemporary situation in which “a feeling for the organism” (Evelyn Fox Keller) has been entirely abandoned, and replaced by a view of life in terms of “biotic components,” about which “one must not think in terms of essential properties, but in terms of design, boundary constraints, rates of flows, systems logics, costs of lowering constraints” (Donna Haraway).

The premise of “Phylogenesis” is that an alien species of enormous “invaders came to Earth from space without warning… In blind fulfillment of their life cycle, they sought biomass for conversion to more of their kind.” As a result, “the ecosphere had been fundamentally disrupted, damaged beyond repair.” The invaders’ massive predation leaves the earth a barren, ruined mass: “the planet, once green and blue, now resembled a white featureless ball, exactly the texture and composition of the [invaders].” Human beings are reluctant to accept the hard truth that they cannot repel the invasion: “only in the final days of the plague, when the remnants of mankind huddled in a few last redoubts, did anyone admit that extermination of the invaders and reclamation of the planet was impossible.” The human agenda is reset at the last possible moment: with victory unattainable, survival — bare life — becomes the only remaining goal. There is no longer any environment capable of sustaining humanity; it is necessary, instead, “to adapt a new man to the alien conditions.”

And so the “chromosartors” get to work, genetically refashioning Homo sapiens into a new species. We are reborn as viral parasites, within the bodies of the spacefaring invaders. Most of the text of “Phylogenesis” lovingly recounts the physiology, psychology, and overall life cycle of this new parasitic humanity. The bioengineering is precise and efficient. Everything is optimized in accordance with the physiology and metabolism of the host, and in the interest of flexibility. Anything deemed superfluous to survival is unsentimentally jettisoned. The “neohumans”mate quickly, reproduce in great numbers (in “litters” of five or more), and mature rapidly. They exhibit both swarm behavior — ganging up together when necessary to overwhelm the host’s defenses — and nomadic distribution — “scattering themselves throughout the interior of the gargantuan alien” to reduce the chances of being all wiped out at once by the host’s counterattacks. Once they have killed their host, they go into hibernation within “protective vesicles,” in order to survive the vacuum of deep space until they can encounter another host. In this way, they are able to perpetuate both their genes and their cultural heritage. Since they unavoidably “possess a basically nonmaterial culture,” they only use light-weight technologies that have been interiorized within their bodies. They are especially gifted with “mathematical skill,” including a genetically-instilled “predisposition toward solving… abstruse functions in their heads.” Aesthetically, they are all masters and lovers of song, “the only art form left to the artifact-free neohumans.” Mathematics and music are the sole “legacy of six thousand years of civilization” that has been bequeathed to them. The lives of the neohumans are short and intermittent; they are “mayflies, fast-fading blooms, the little creatures of a short hour. Yet to themselves, their lives still tasted sweet as of old.”

China Miéville insists upon the radical novelty of Lovecraft’s “Weird fiction”: its “unprecedented forms, and its insistence upon a chaotic, amoral, anthropoperipheral universe, stresses the implacable alterity of its aesthetic and concerns.” In Lovecraft’s own time, this alterity was (among other things) a response to the dislocations of World War I. Today, Lovecraft’s Weird vision remains relevant because, as Miéville says, “with the advent of the neoliberal There Is No Alternative, the universe [i]s an ineluctable, inhuman, implacable, Weird place.” Di Filippo’s story, with its decidedly non-Weird rhetoric, figures a further step in the same process. It narrates the naturalization of Lovecraft’s inhuman implacability. It does this precisely by devising a brilliant strategy for adapting to catastrophic monstrosity. When There Is No Alternative — when it no longer seems possible for us to defeat the monstrous invasion, or even to imagine things otherwise — Di Filippo’s parasitic inversion is the best that we can do. The neohumans of “Phylogenesis” evade extinction at the hands of the monstrous aliens, by devising a situation in which their own survival absolutely depends upon the continuing survival of the monstrosities as well. The parasitic neohumans end up killing whatever host they have invaded; but their continuing proliferation is always contingent upon encountering another host. The extinction of the invaders would mean their own definitive extinction as well.

As far as I can determine, Di Filippo never intended “Phylogenesis” to be read as an allegory of Capital. Yet the traces are there, in every aspect of the story. The downsizing of the neohumans (adults are “four feet tall, with limbs rather gracile than muscular”), the rationalization of their design in the interest of mobility and flexibility, their uncanny coordination and ability to “monitor the passage of time with unerring precision, thanks to long-ago modifications in the suprachiasmatic nuclei of their brains, which provided them with accurate biological clocks,” the “inbuilt determinism” by means of which their sexual drives are canalized “for a particular purpose,” their severely streamlined cultural heritage, and the ways that even their nonproductive activities (singing and nonprocreative sex) serve a purpose as “supreme weapons in the neohumans’ armory of spirit”: all these are recognizable variations of familiar management techniques in the contemporary post-Fordist regime of flexible accumulation. The neohumans make use of the only tools that they find at hand. They parasitize and mimic the very mechanisms that have dispossessed them. And their emotional lives are effectively streamlined in a post-Fordist manner as well. Feeling an overwhelming sense of loss, and aware of all the ways that their potential has been constrained, they nonetheless conclude that “we just have to make the most of the life we have.” Both socially and affectively, Di Filippo’s neohumans are the very image of the multitude invoked by Hardt and Negri, and by Paolo Virno. They exercise a genuine creativity under extremely straightened circumstances, and produce, and themselves enjoy, an experience of the common. But Di Filippo recognizes, more clearly than Hardt and Negri and Virno do, the limitations of any “mobilization of the common” in a situation of “actually existing” capitalism.

By Roivoire for Interpretatio

Waist-deep in the bioethical imaginary, if it can walk and talk, I am completely comfortable with addressing someone as an equal. It really doesn’t matter if this person has high heel implants, sensory tentacles and no eyes or nose, or a furry pelt. The genetically-engineered animal-human DNA-spliced characters in Paul Di Filippo’s Ribofunk are not seen as beings worthy of agency by their human co-characters in the context of their own universe. In the privileged world of the reader, the complexity and potential of these people is visible. Their behavior and capability mark them as autonomous, with a wide variety of intelligence and personality that create a heterogeneous and unpredictable group that mirror the same elements in humanity. These are beings that deserve the rights of humanity, which answers the tacit question of the rogue splice liberation effort plot-fragment. But what the act of answering this question does is ask another: what does the process of deeming splices worthy of enfranchisement demand of the reader? This becomes evident by the last chapter, when the “Grey Goo Boo Boo” evolves into the world-devouring “mass of rogue silicrobes known as the Urblastema,” or the Urb for short (279). By creating a group so easy to empathize with in the form of the splices, Di Filippo sets in motion the process of accepting the microscopic collection of hive-mind-components of the Urb as an entity that demands and deserves these same qualities. This is a far more complicated challenge to surmount for a newcomer to Di Filippo’s world, but the stories in this volume finally succeed in validating the sentience of both groups.

Di Filippo goes to great length to sculpt multiple models of splices that represent paradigmatically different extremes of this caste-like, subjugated class of beings. They are a caste because they are defined by their genetic origin, and so cannot change how they fit in their society. They are Ribofunk-world’s Untouchables: all splices are subservient in one way or another to humans, until the role of Krazy Kat is introduced. He is the first splice that has agency and uses his non-human abilities to inflict violence upon oppressing humans. In a different way, violence is also imbedded into the dog-like “Little Worker,” whose loyalty and affection to her master propels her to “do anything to make Mister Michael happy” (31). For the supposed good of her master, she indirectly kills off Mister Michael’s wife and his sex-servant splice, all for the aim of being together with him, alone. Other protagonists are an anthropomorphized mouse and rabbit. The choice of these animals cannot be an accident (poor bunny can’t be free!), it is in fact pure pathos, compounded by the humanity of their actions and desires. These characters are unique to each other but legibly compounds of their genetic sources. Since humans cannot be defined strictly by intelligence or personality, they are grouped together and deemed worthy of a specific place in a hierarchical structure of organisms by unique qualities of awareness or consciousness. This is what is referred to as sentience, and it is given privilege by those that inhabit this exclusive philosophical space.

In both instances of splices and the Urb, the Uncanny Valley plays a key role in how humans can metabolize the affront of conversing with one deemed “other.” This conversation might mean that said other can have just as much a right to exist and proliferate as said human. Humans in the Ribofunk world have a problem with splices despite – no, because – there is actual human in this organism. The reader will not grapple with the being-ness of the Urb despite – no, because – the Urb is able to perfectly duplicate/replicate/masticate (?) an intelligence and a body that is human. There is a recognizable pattern that emerges from these situations: the familiar exists within an unfamiliar form, then the human denies this familiarity and condemns the package that it arrives in either as sub-sentient, as with the spliced, or as enemy – the Urb.

So the tendency to dismiss the duplicated based on the mere premise of it being “duplicated” is tautological and therefore invalid. Meat is meat, whether it was functional muscle for an animal once, or engineered and reconstructed to be exactly the same (petri meat, anyone?). The Urb inhabits sentient space – the place where humans can react to it as a tangible force, mind and body – by means of creating its own macrocosm, a strangely carnivorous process that excretes a duplicate of what it ingests, all the information simultaneously intact and assimilated into the greater rhizome of the “panplasmodaemonium” with all the organisms and objects as its independently moving but ultimately networked visible manifestions.
It is successful in its aim to assimilate the entirety of the planet, and in the complicated process of understanding “everything” that it is, the Urb seeks to surpass sentience, as it finally attains absolute agency. But this is another appearance of the familiar, the striving for self-knowledge. It all fits into the uncanny model of human, questing to conquer all the outside as it does to know the inside.

In the acceptance of the Urb as a being that possesses the same qualities that humans and splices base their rights to exist and reproduce as they see fit upon, the Urb develops from an annihilating enemy to yet another site of difference that is more complex than good or evil. It makes the possession of faculty and cognition that much more complicated, interesting and worthwhile for the human. The parallax of intelligence formed by insight from a non-human can only help the understanding of its existence within a human.