Items Tagged: Ribofunk

by Chris Bell for Words Shift Minds

(Originally published on the NZBC blog, Sunday 12 November 12 2006.)

He’s been described as having “irrepressible humour, a stand-back imagination, a wondrous facility and control of the English language”. Paul Di Filippo is the author of hundreds of short stories — some of which have been anthologised in The Steampunk Trilogy, Ribofunk, Fractal Paisleys, Lost Pages, Little Doors, Strange Trades, Babylon Sisters — and his novella, A Year in the Linear City. As well as his short stories, di Filippo has written a number of novels, including Ciphers, Joe’s Liver, Fuzzy Dice, A Mouthful of Tongues, and Spondulix. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, USA. In this interview, di Filippo describes his goal as “to be some weird mix of Flaubert and Gandhi”. It’s been a while since NZBC five-minuted anyone, so we ordered tall lattes, kicked back and asked the man who invented the word ‘ribofunk’ to tell us what it’s all about.

Di Filippo is the kind of guy other writers love to hate: as if his prodigious output were not enough, it is said that he managed to write five of his novels and many of his short stories on a Commodore 128 computer. He apparently regards himself a “quasi-Buddhist” and is a member of the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop, a peer-to-peer, professional science fiction writer’s workshop in Texas.

He coined the word ribofunk to describe the sub-genre of science fiction in which he specialises, and which uses elements of the hard-boiled detective novel, film noir and post-modernist prose. His manifesto defines the sub-genre thus:

“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 modellers for life. The cell is King!”

A search on ‘ribofunk’ generates around 20,000 Google hits.

Your biog says you’ve been a finalist for a lot of awards, but have you ever won any?

“I have indeed broken my loser’s streak just once, by winning a British SF Association Award for best short story for 1994’s The Double Felix. The story title was misspelled on the official ballot, and my name was misspelled on the official trophy, which arrived years later and looks like Monty Python’s Holy Grail. I currently use it to hold sticks of incense. All of which is not to negate my gratitude to BSFA.”

Rhode Island: Red state or Blue state, state of denial or state of fear?

“Well, with the recent election the whole country starts to resemble a more regal purple, sensibly blending red and blue. But RI remains more liberal than the average. The citizenry seems more hopeful than fearful, although we do live continuously under the dire threat of colonisation by rich Bostonians to our north.”

You once wrote an exposé of the frustrations involved in having work accepted by Wired, in spite of the magazine briefing its commissioned contributors in detail. Has Wired bought any more work from you since you wrote this article?

“I think a whole new regime has taken over the magazine since my experiences, and with any luck they wouldn’t hold my past outburst against me. And although I have not placed any long pieces with the magazine since that first ill-fated one, I did recently secure an entire page (!) in the November 2006 issue for my six-word short story, commissioned along with almost three dozen others: ‘Husband, transgenic mistress: wife, “You cow!”’”

You’re a prolific author of short stories, particularly of speculative fiction. Good, paying markets for short stories around the world are in decline. How does the market for your own work look in the States?

“The demise of magazines that pay a ‘living wage’ is not good news for me or any other writer whose focus is short fiction. I’m heartened by a prevalence of original anthologies, and classy small-press magazines, but it does become more difficult to sustain oneself by writing just at these lengths for such markets. And of course the invention of webzines is another cheerful development, although their mode of existence is yet shaky. A certain online monetary inflation calculator that I occasionally use indicates that the penny-a-word rate obtained by the pulp writers of the 1930s, once derided as chicken feed, should translate to twenty-cents-per-word in modern terms. So even the top mags that pay, say, ten-cents-a-word are paying half what used to be standard during the Depression!”

You’ve written a sequel to a comic by Alan Moore of Watchmen fame. Was this a daunting prospect, and did you get to meet or correspond with Moore during the course of the project?

“I had almost zero contact with Moore throughout the whole project. But he read my scripts, and I learned of his approval through my editor, Scott Dunbier. I also learned that Moore preferred that I not kill off his favourite character, as I had intended, and that I substitute an adoption scene for a woman getting pregnant by her canine husband and giving birth to some sort of doggy hybrid. Good calls, I say in retrospect, on his part!”

In your essay The Infantilisation, Electrification, Mechanisation and General Diminishment of King Kong, you posit that “seriously intentioned sequels and offshoots of the Original Tragedy … fumblingly recast or attempt to extend the material in such a manner as to rob it of all its archetypical force and resonance”, so what did you make of Peter Jackson’s retelling or, for that matter, Russell Hoban’s?

“Although I thought the Jackson remake was exciting and skilful, in the end it seemed superfluous. What really did it add? The Hoban piece, from what I see online, looks a bit more like a post-modern pastiche than a straight remake, so I have hopes for it, especially given Hoban’s talents.”

If visitors to NZBC only read one book this year, which book should it be?

“For sheer fun and pleasure, if you’re a ‘core SF’ reader, I’d have to recommend The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi. I’ve always been a sucker for Keith Laumer’s Retief series, and [Scalzi’s book] is like a supercharged refashioning of those tropes. But I haven’t yet gotten my hands on Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day…”

What’s on your iPod’s ‘On the go’ playlist at the moment, or are you an iPod refusenik?

“Although a huge music listener, I am an iPod refusenik, mainly because I don’t need portability of music. I take walks ranging from one to three hours every day — trying to do very little driving — and when I’m out and about I like to talk to people and hear birdsong and random conversations and even traffic noise. I don’t care to be insulated in a fake Hollywood soundtrack of my own devising. When I’m home, I like to listen to large blocks of music composed with a scheme by the creator: in other words, entire ‘albums’ or CDs. And actually, when I’m writing, I play the radio! WBRU, the college station associated with Brown University. That way, I get exposed to new music and also experience the serendipity of someone else’s choices.”

You’ve said that writing is a job that provides “no job security with seniority” and freelance writers are always “scrambling to stay afloat”. E-books would seem to dovetail naturally with the sci-fi genre and its fandom. Might technology, after all, be the writer’s life-raft?

“Certainly print-on-demand, as exemplified by Wildside Press and its imprint, has been a lifesaver for me, allowing publishers to take on books of mine with only marginal sales potential, such as my collection of humour columns, Plumage From Pegasus. I have little experience with e-books, but selling some reprint stories through Fictionwise was a good experience for me. I don’t think, despite all the headwork by such visionaries as Cory Doctorow, that we yet know the ultimate model for the vehicle that will connect writers and readers, to the profit of both!”

What do you use for note-taking, capturing ideas and tracking submissions? Are you a proponent of pencil and notebook; do you favour proprietary software; or is it open source everything for the man they call PDF?

“I am old-fashioned enough to still stick with pen and paper for my note-taking. I have a pocket notebook brand that I love, Oxford Memo Books, because it’s sewn together instead of employing a metal spiral, and so when you sit on it, it doesn’t imprint your butt like something out of a Re/Search tribal scarification volume.”

What are you working on right now, when is your next book due to be published and what will it be?

“I’ve just placed two books with PS Publishing: Harsh Oases, a story collection, and Roadside Bodhisattva, a (mainstream!) novel. I’m not even certain which one Pete Crowther intends to bring out first, but there will be one in 2007 and one in 2008. My current work in progress is a novel for the firm of Payseur & Schmidt to be titled either Cosmocopia or Cosmicopia (readers, help me decide!), with illustrations by Jim Woodring.”

(Originally published on the NZBC blog, Sunday 12 November 12 2006.)

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!”