Items Tagged: Reviews

by Carol Ann Sima for Rain Taxi

Ciphers ♦ Cambrian Publications & Permeable Press ($16.95)

Fractal Paisleys ♦ Four Walls Eight Windows ($20)

Just as the forests in fairy tales are places of enchantment, the writings of Paul Di Filippo can be counted on to captivate. Never more so than in Ciphers, a mystery in which the fate of the world hangs in the balance. Probably it’s too late. But in the event the world can be pulled back from the brink, it’s rock ‘n roll we’ll have to thank. For Di Filippo, rock ‘n roll (including but not limited to classic rock, funk, hardcore, grunge) perpetuated individualism, the capacity to triumph over obstacles, and, failing that, console ourselves. In the words of Frank Zappa, quoted early on in Chapter 00000010, “Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, love is not music. Music is the best.”

Now a word or two about that precipice on which the world is precariously poised: Information saturation is the price we’re paying for modern technology. Overload. This is the Age of Noise. Our DNA, already in the clutches of excessive stimulation, is being groomed for who-knows-what. Thematically, Ciphers is the epic of our times, exploring how we’ve come to this sorry state and options for our redemption. But Ciphers has far too much more going for it to be categorized as some sort of masterly inquiry into the state of modern man. It’s funny, comically weird, sexy, out and out lusty. Take for instance, the mighty python with primal instincts and the female Goddess with exotic taste in lovers.

As for plot: Cyril Prothero, an overeducated underachiever clerking at a record store, receives a call from his girlfriend, Ruby Tuesday. Employed by Wu Lab, she’s stumbled upon a deep dark secret. Subsequent to the call, she disappears, initiating Cyril’s odyssey–there’s no other way to put this–through a Burroughs/Calvino/Joyce/Feiffer landscape. Assisting him in this investigation is Ruby’s friend, Polly Peptide whose boyfriend, Augie Augenblick (trust me, some of these names will leave indelible impressions) has also inexplicably vanished.

The whereabouts of the missing two and their connection to the ever elusive Dr. Wu are just some of several teasers. During the course of reading, any number of things go begging for answers: How does Max Parallax, a 300-pound deaf and blind detective who never leaves his residence, manage to single-handedly get the goods on Wu Enterprises? From the far reaches of Dahomey, pausing along the way to ruminate on why Cambodia “was the only nation ever to be ruled by a man whose name formed a perfect palindrome (Lon Nol)” to the shores of the U.S.A.–”3.8 million miles of paved highway”–we are as puzzled by Wu as his second-in-command, Paddy O’Phidian, who despite years of loyal service still cannot fathom why Wu has arranged the deaths of Malcolm X, Joplin, Vicious, and Lennon. Is it the conspiracy to end all conspiracies? If so, does this amount to “a true end–or a beginning?”

At the conclusion of this 500-page novel (complete with glossary) you may well feel as I did: Wired, the pulse racing, like I’d done laps, like I wanna do more. Hock my pearls for a Harley, ditch my laptop and run with the wolves on wheels.

As further demonstration of Di Filippo’s versatility, Fractal Paisleys plays with tickle bones you didn’t know you had. Described by the author as “trailer park science fiction,” this collection of short stories is notable its overall effect of everyday plausibility. No matter how far-fetched their predicaments, the characters themselves are rooted in reality. They are waitresses, car mechanics, the folks who routinely deal in the nuts and bolts of daily life–probably the last people on earth you’d think to take a walk on the wild side in stride. Not that they are non-pulsed, far from it. What characterizes them is a matter-of-factness, a pragmatism. The double-takes are there, just not analyzed to the nth cerebral degree.

Ultimately, this makes for droll humor. Case in point: the title story. Driving an exhausted Tracey home from her dead-end job serving drinks in a joint owned by a tyrannical boss, Jay Dee collides with a not-quite-of-this-earth time traveler. No sooner does Jay Dee relieve the corpse of a remote control device than we are into car chases, three-way sex, and of course, just desserts for the boss. In the annals of getting even with the miser who holds the purse strings, the ending ranks right up there with Hitchcock at this most ironic. In “Flying the Flannel,” a down-and-out band is abducted by a birdlike creature. Purpose: Compete in a Star Wars talent show. Win, they save Earth from alien domination; lose, it’s a takeover. Pulling out all the stops, lead drummer Phoebe plays as one possessed. Perhaps she is. Mainly, it’s the absurd premise that makes this mandatory reading: and, God forbid if extraterrestrials rock with more soul.

Meant to be eaten with the fingers, these tales provide the pleasure of familiar comfort food with the wake-up zing of spices. My personal endorsement: It’s not an acquired taste. Consistently, Paul Di Filippo delivers.

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.

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.