Reviews, interviews and articles by and with Paul

Paul Di Filippo’s short novel “Cosmocopia” is just part of a package featuring a jigsaw puzzle and other articles reminiscent of the vivid, multi-colored heyday of pulp adventure stories.

By Ed Park

Paul Di Filippo’s short novel “Cosmocopia” (Payseur & Schmidt: 106 pp., $65) is an art book, in multiple senses of the phrase. There is an artist at its center: Frank Lazorg, whose career describes a trajectory from commercial to fine art, beginning in the 1950s with comics, focusing on “hyper-real yet fantastical book covers for paperback-original novels” during the next two decades (“a gallery of demons and brawny warriors, luscious-bottomed maidens and brawling barbarians, aliens and otherworldly explorers”) and concluding — or so it seems — with vivid depictions of “mental landscapes, surreal collages, visions of dimensions beyond.” A stroke has left him physically weak and creatively impotent. “Cosmocopia” is the story of his artistic redemption, a tried-and-true mode, which Di Filippo transforms into a fable at once ludicrous and heartfelt.

“Cosmocopia” is also an art book because it costs 65 clams, comes handsomely bound as a horizontal artifact and shares space in a large box with a 513-piece jigsaw-puzzle of a Jim Woodring illustration inspired by the work (putting the pieces together is tough because everything’s gray). The set also includes a deliciously fiendish full-color scene (also by Woodring) of Lazorg at his demented peak, painting his model blood-red.

You may not know the publisher, Payseur & Schmidt; according to the book’s copyright page, P&S “has embraced the underground for the last 96 years” — indeed, this is one of the few copyright-page how-do-you-dos worth quoting in full, so here’s the rest:

” . . . releasing over 417 volumes and bearing witness to two World Wars, 17 presidents, 23 resident art directors, five generations, three bankruptcy filings, and one 1906 Pearl Improved #11 letterpress, with offices on 47 planets in 13 solar systems, as well as Cauheegan, Wisconsin, and Seattle, Washington. Like Toxoplasma gondii, we remain.”

What is “Cosmocopia,” then? Just the book? All these goodies, I mean items, together?

The high-end presentation of “Cosmocopia” is itself a commentary on the story, and Di Filippo and Woodring’s (and Payseur & Schmidt’s) multiform production is more than just so many bells and whistles.

The above précis of Lazorg’s artistic career shows his steady movement from low to high art (quotation marks should go around both “low” and “high”), a restlessness that can be read as a series of rejections of lubricious, juvenile fare. In a plot development straight out of a pulp story, the spent artist receives a mysterious package, partakes of the occult-rejuvenating powder therein and winds up with a horrifying murder on his hands. In the throes of his climactic masterpiece, he is translated into a completely alien world — that is, he’s a character in the sort of story he once provided eye-grabbing, crowd-pleasing visuals for.

The style reads like a loving pastiche of creaky distant-planet narratives. Our first immersion into this new setting (upon being jerked out of Lazorg’s, and ostensibly our, world) begins: “Crutchsump knew that a trove of valuable fresh bones awaited her on the Shulgin Mudflats at the edge of Sidetrack City, where the metropolis met the water of the Rodinian Sea.” The awful, slightly disgusting-sounding name (Crutchsump); the inscrutable folkways (bones? of what? and why would you want them waiting for you?); the meaningless geography (ah, the Rodinian Sea!): Di Filippo slings this deadly stuff so effortlessly that one can be forgiven for releasing an inward groan.

But soon he’s unloading a “Jabberwocky”-size helping of impenetrable neologisms — shifflets, grapple-gnaws, mockmucks, gorgit vendors, trindlebrumes and much more — and deploying antique vocabularies, and the effect is comic, disorienting and evocative, sometimes all at once. A creature is turned into “a heap of calcific flinders”; “juncos, lammergeiers and questrals . . . parceled the sky into avian empires.”

All books are worlds created out of language, and “Cosmocopia” presses this to the breaking point. Even as Di Filippo elides the issue of translation (Crutchsump immediately understands what this oddly shaped visitor is saying), he plays with the idea that certain concepts simply have no equivalent. A reenergized Lazorg spends the majority of the novel in Crutchsump’s world, which has no signs, no writing and, alas, nothing resembling his preferred mode of creative expression. (“What is ‘painting’?” Crutchsump queries, when Lazorg tells it about his previous profession. “Is it a kind of thing like ‘writing’?”)

There is no art, per se, on this world, but something called “ideation” exists — a sort of standardized sculpture involving mental strength and something called nacre. Di Filippo nimbly describes the process (or “technics”), giving plenty of details while preserving the form’s essential strangeness. Even more fun is his take on alien sex. Crutchsump explains to Lazorg: “Male and female are variable roles based on size. During mating, whichever introciptor is the smaller will slip inside whichever is the larger. The smaller is considered the male.” (Introciptor?) Lazorg and Crutchsump may be anatomically incompatible denizens of parallel universes, but one absurdly roots for them to hook up.

“Cosmocopia” fluctuates between a jeu d’esprit and a portrait of the artist as an old man. Di Filippo has implanted a bizarre, funny and melodramatically inclined fantasy world within the “real” world of his story. This is the author’s way of showing both the nightmarish multiplicity of worlds and the hazy line demarcating genre art from a supposedly higher form.

by Peggy Kolm for Biology In Science Fiction

“Ribofunk is speculative fiction which acknowledges, is informed by and illustrates the tenet that the next revolution–the only one that really matters–will be in the field of biology. To paraphrase Pope, ribofunk holds that: “The proper study of mankind is life.” Forget physics and chemistry; they are only tools to probe living matter. Computers? Merely simulators and modelers for life. The cell is King!”
~ Ribofunk: The Manifesto, by Paul Di Filippo (1996)

In the mid- and late 1980s the hot new science fiction subgenre was “cyberpunk“. The stories were usually set in a gritty near-future Earth, where massive international corporations are more powerful that individual governments. The stories themselves heavily featured hackers and crackers and artificial intelligences, hence the “cyber” part of the name.

With the advent of the Human Genome Project and greater focus on biotechnology in the media in the 1990s, there was a natural evolution to stories where it was DNA that was hacked, rather than computer networks. The Such stories have been dubbed by some “biopunk” or the catchier “ribofunk”, a term invented by Paul Di Filippo.

In a recent interview with Marshall Payne at The Fix, Paul Di Filippo talked about how he coined the term:

“During the waning days of cyberpunk, I half-jokingly tried to predict the next big movement in SF. I took the prefix “ribo” from the cellular component ribosomes1.”

I’m personally fond of the term, even though it was originally coined as a parody of the term cyberpunk. I think the greater rhythmic complexity of funk music helps capture the idea that biological systems are more complex and unpredictable than computers. And ribosomes are organelles found in all forms of life that help translate the gene sequences expressed in a cell into proteins (click the link for a cool video). As such, ribosomes play an important in translating changes in the genome made by human genetic engineers into detectable changes in the organism. I think that’s fitting.

And I can’t argue with Filippo’s Ribofunk Manifesto: “the next revolution–the only one that really matters–will be in the field of biology.”

Of course ribofunk just sounds catchy, which is important too.

When Di Filippo’s Ribofunk collection of stories was published in 1996, he talked to Jeffrey Fisher at Wired about the impact of biotechnology on evolution and society. Instead of the conventionally beautiful, hyperintelligent, and uniformly bland engineered humans of the future that some people have posited, he imagined a much more interesting population:

“I think humanity is not wise enough to know what genotype or somatype is going to be the most successful or the most fit – simply because we’re not fully in control of our environment. You could engineer a human to survive the greenhouse effect because you think that’s what’s going to happen, and then all of a sudden the glaciers are creeping down on you. So what we should be encouraging is a kind of chaotic, wildly creative assortment of genotypes and somatypes. And I think that’s going to happen naturally. I don’t think there’ll ever be any impetus toward monoculture; we’ll see diversity become more rampant.”

So what novels might be included in the biopunk/ribofunk cannon? Matt Staggs at Enter the Octopus has a list, as does the Genome Alberta blog. Different people have different takes on what should be included, but the elements that I’d include:

  • not-too-distant future setting
  • extensive use of genetic engineering, particularly on humans
  • a dystopian feel


That’s a pretty broad definition, I know. Some of the books I’d include in the subgenre:

  • Ribofunk by Paul Di Fillipo (of course)
  • Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling (cyberpunk with biotech elements)
  • The Scab’s Progress in Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans by Paul Di Fillipo and Bruce Sterling
  • White Devils by Paul Mc Auley (which features biopunks)
  • Clade by Mark Budz (Kevin Anderson in the New York Times review of this novel supposedly coined the term “biopunk”)
  • Winterlong: A Novel by Elizabeth Hand
  • Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  • possibly Richard K. Morgan’s Thirteen


Human genetic engineering seems to be a pretty standard element in recent works set in near future dystopias, so I’m not sure where the line should be drawn – or even if it should. Arguing about such SF subgenre designations is all part of the fun.

1. There are some sources that say the “ribo” is from ribonucleic acid (RNA), but in every interview with Di Fillipo I’ve read, going back to 1996 he’s said the source was “ribosome”. I fixed the entry in Wikipedia, and we’ll see if it stays.

originally published at ENGL 1102

A strange tale to say the least, Paul Di Filippo’s Victoria charters a unique path through the steampunk genre; unique not only for its creative biological concoction, but also the incorporation of sexual themes juxtaposed with an almost humanitarian perspective of the urban squalor of London. While a stunning example of the steampunk genre, I also feel that the story is rebelling against more than just the Edisonades which preceded it. This story is also displays a “punk” attitude with respect to the role of women as well as child labor.

From the very beginning, Di Filippo makes it clear that Cosmo has had sexual relations with his eugenic, growth-hormone-induced creation, the newt Victoria. This is also mirrored at the end of the story where William Lamb is found laying with newt Victoria in the Palace: the intentional conclusion of a circuitous farce intended to divert Cosmo’s attention away from the newt Victoria while Lamb could have his way with her. The actions of both Cosmo and Lamb are in clear rebellion to the ideas of the Edisonades. No longer are the scientists and officers of high political standing and influence masters over their creations. Control is not made manifest in their personality; replaced, rather, with a heap of dependence ultimately bringing the master and creation down to the same level if not implying a slight power in the latter.

Throughout the story, Cosmo repeatedly returns to thoughts of newt Victoria and whether or not she is okay or needs attention. Similarly, when newt Victoria is taken away from Lamb he proclaims that he “cannot do without her now” and in an almost comical display of his dependence on her pulls on her arm so hard that it falls off (Di Filippo 292). An otherwise morbid scene, in this case it is comical because of the newt’s ability to regenerate limbs. Nonetheless it is an accurate display of both men’s dependency on the creation, lest one forget that it took the pulling of both men on opposite sides of her, in a sort of dependence tug-of-war, to separate her arm from her body.

During his journey to find the real Victoria, Cosmo explores many of the dilapidated, waste-strewn boroughs of London. During such instances, the air is devoid of all humor, replaced by a sharp forthrightness. I feel that the author adopts said tone during these instances to comment on the reality of the life for the poor in London; many of whom trudge through the filth and feces, quite literally clearing a path, as well as cripple themselves to earn a few pennies. This is in rebellion to the ignorance that the Edisonades and society in general had with respect to the realities of the urban poor. Whilst heroes were off on their adventures in the savage lands of Africa or elsewhere, the urban poor were forgotten and left voiceless. The highly symbolic interaction between Cosmo and Tiptoft is reflective of Di Filippo’s desire to not forget the plight of the urban poor, and possibly have scientists and inventors actually help them out.

For all his character flaws, I feel that Cosmo is more a hero than any of those described in the Edisonades. Moral in action and reflective of consequences, Cosmo and Nails are realistic heralds of the perspective that Di Filippo hopes to interject into the mind of contemporary society.