Items Tagged: Reviews

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.

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.


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.