Items Tagged: Weird Universe

By Marshall Payne

Paul Di Filippo is a protean writer, able to blend disparate fictional elements in his own unique, wildly inventive way. As Cory Doctorow refers to him in the introduction to Paul’s most recent collection, Harsh Oases, “He’s like baking soda in the genre’s fridge, soaking up all its flavors, mixing them together.” Paul’s fiction has appeared in SCI FICTION, F&SF, Cosmos, and many anthologies such as The New Weird and Salon Fantastique, to name just a few. He is the author of ten novels and 13 short story collections, as well as being a regular reviewer for almost all the major print magazines in the field, including Asimov’s, F&SF, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Interzone, and Nova Express. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his partner, Deborah Newton, a calico cat named Penny Century, and a chocolate-colored cocker spaniel named—according to the author, in a highly unimaginative fashion—Brownie. I am pleased that Paul was able to answer a few of my questions for The Fix.

You’ve been a full-time writer for the past 15 years. What is your writing day like?

My days, like those of most writers, I suspect, attain a startling uniformity, averaged out over time. I arise between 6:30 and 7:00 AM. After chores and breakfast and the indulgence of some newspaper reading (still via old-school print medium; someone has to pay for your free Internet browsing!), I’m at work between 9:30 and 10:00.

Online work—browsing news sites, researching topics, blogging, and answering email—takes up from one to two hours. Then comes some actual creative stuff.

I try to work on only a single project at a time. If a review assignment is on the docket, I might have to devote some time to reading the text for discussion, although a lot of the reading gets done at night. But otherwise I dive into the writing and finish by about 4:00 PM. Then I have to have a walk of an hour or two, to decompress and get some beneficial exercise and do chores.

It’s all rather like the lives of the math monks from Stephenson’s Anathem.

I used to follow the Bradburyian dictum of striving for 1000 words a day in my youth. Now I’m happy with anything upwards of 500. That still allows for 180,000 words a year. Probably more verbiage than any mortal should be allowed to produce. Although just a couple of years ago, I completed my Creature from the Black Lagoon novel—80,000 words—in 70 days.

Can you tell us about your first couple of sales and how your career developed from there?

My actual first sale, while I was still in college, was something of a fluke, to UnEarth magazine in 1977, the same venue that hosted the first stories of Rucker, Gibson, Blaylock, and others. It was a parody of Barry Malzberg’s work. I’m happy to report that after we became pals, Barry was kind enough not to hold this youthful offense against me.

Then I abandoned attempts to write for five years, until 1982, when I decided to push on seriously or perish trying. After nearly three years of constant rejection, I sold two pieces almost simultaneously: one to Ed Ferman at F&SF and one to Ted Klein at Twilight Zone Magazine. Those sales gave me the confidence and courage to soldier on, although rejections still outnumbered sales by a large margin for a long time thereafter.

This meant a succession of days jobs, until about 1993 or so. By then, I had learned how to cobble together any number of small sales to make a bare living. Getting my first book out in 1995 was another milestone and source of income, however small.

During all this, the fiscal and emotional and critical support of mate Deborah Newton made everything possible.

Nowadays, I’m pretty much guaranteed to place any short fiction I write, which makes me feel as if I’ve actually gotten a little better at this odd craft. Or maybe editorial standards have lowered!

For those unfamiliar with the term you coined, “ribofunk,” tell us about it and your fiction based on it.

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 ribosomes and the musical genre of “funk” and mashed them together, positing hot, passionate, sweaty fiction about speculative biology. I xeroxed a broadside touting this alleged genre and circulated it by mail, and it also appeared in a couple of fanzines.

Having done so, I began to believe my own humorous propaganda, seeing actual story potential therein, and begin to write stories that tried to live up to my prescription. Futuristic stories where the biological sciences are paramount, where human form is mutable, and human-animal hybrids form an underclass.

The movement as such never really materialized, but plenty of writers have seen similar potential in the themes and topics of ribofunk, even if by reinventing my particular wheel. I’d mention Peter Watts, Linda Nagata, and Mark Budz among others.

The titular story of your collection, Harsh Oases, is one of my favorites. In “Harsh Oases,” Thomas Equinas, a part horse “mosaic” or “splice,” is entrusted with the creature known as Swee’pee, who will contain all the genetic material of the mosaics that some humans want to eradicate. This is a wildly inventive story. Where did the inspiration for this piece come from?

After the muted success of Ribofunk the story collection, I always wanted to do a ribofunk novel, and so had been accumulating notes towards something vaguely known to myself alone as Harsh Oases. It was to be organized around a succession of strange terrestrial environments made possible by bioengineering. It occurred to me that one way of plausibly visiting all these environments was by having the protagonist being chased from one to another. But why? After I answered that question, the story fell into focus.

But I kept putting off the writing until I was asked to contribute an original work of fiction for my keynote speech at the Monstruous Bodies Symposium at Georgia Tech. At that point, I said, “Let’s be generous and work up all these ideas into novella form.” This type of ultra-concentrated, jam-packed idea story had always impressed me when Bruce Sterling or Rudy Rucker pulled it off, and I wanted a go at the mode. It does require more focus and invention than single-idea stories, though.

But having done a credible job, I think, of getting the rudiments of this scenario into fictional form, I don’t now feel motivated to expand it to novel-length, so the novel version of Harsh Oases will probably never come to be.

I won’t ask you the hackneyed question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Instead, has there been a bizarre or interesting occurrence in life that led to a story idea that just begged “Write me!”?

I got the idea for my story “Rare Firsts,” about a bookseller who encounters a miraculous library, in a dream, and such incidents are pretty rare for me, so that might qualify. But I’m not certain that the most bizarre things in my stories can be directly traced to real-life events. I use bits and pieces of real-life, like all writers. For instance, I heard of a person, via a friend, who was afraid to make left-hand turns because it meant cutting across scary oncoming traffic, and so that person always had to circle around to her destination, and I used that in Joe’s Liver.

I think you have to have lived Lucius Shepard’s life to have amassed really bizarre incidents that you can then fictionalize.

You seem to move from strength to strength in your fiction, mixing genres and tropes in unique ways, never repeating the same story twice. Do you think this has hurt you commercially, and could you describe how you’ve dealt with finding your own unique path in this field?

I alternate styles and genres simply because I can’t stand repeating myself unto boredom—boredom for me, boredom for the reader. I have to assume that an audience exists that will enjoy my core underlying voice in whatever surface manifestation it currently takes.

But having said that, I must admit that finding a certain limited field and plowing it repeatedly is a much surer and quicker path to success. Other writers such as Richard Lupoff have noted this phenomenon. But we butterfly types flit from one flower to another simply because we have no choice. I wouldn’t known how to write a trilogy if I studied from here till Armageddon!

I like to exhaust an idea in one go. Further exploration is thus foreclosed.

You’ve said that one of the biggest misconceptions about your work is that you only write humor. Yet considering the gonzo, humorous approach you often apply to your fiction, I find this one of your most compelling talents. What are your thoughts on humor in our field?

Humor is my baseline mode in fiction. I started out writing satirical essays for my high school newspaper, after all (almost getting expelled in the process; this was the 1960’s after all) and imprinting on the National Lampoon in its heyday, as well as an omnibus volume of the writings of Paul Krassner. Moreover, humor is my approach to daily life and world events. As someone once said, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.” God, if he or she exists, is the biggest humorist of all.

The SF field has had a fairly large number of great comic writers: Sheckley, Tenn, Rucker, Goulart, Laumer. But we’re in a distinct minority. As Woody Allen famously remarked, we’re perceived to be sitting at “the kids’ table.”

But because we’re in a minority, I think a humorous story stands out when found in the slushpile, and might actually get a better chance at being printed.

How do you perceive the use of irony in our field? Is it often misperceived by readers in your work or in the work of other authors?

Irony is dangerous and slippery. People with no radar for it misapprehend the writer’s motives and desired effects, frequently leading to a lynch-mob mentality. But then again, such folks are probably immune to any form of communication other than a two-by-four upside the head.

I think we must distinguish between “pure” irony, which always has a component of rueful empathy, and cruel snarky irony. I try to stick to the former.

You’ve been known to use pop culture media and show business tropes—50s TV and old movies, etc.—in your fiction for speculative extrapolation. What is it about these tropes that appeals to you?

As a boomer, I was raised during the explosive expansion of mass media into all niches of life. The sheer volume of music, TV, films, advertising, comics, etc., that poured into my life—and the lives of my generational peers—and which thrilled me means that when I’m casting about for a touchstone or narrative format, I often come upon pop culture items first.

The good part of this is that you can make an instant, shorthand connection with your audience—if they possess the same reference points. The bad part is that you can lose your audience if they don’t. And also, such shorthand allusions can make a writer lazy in developing his or her own descriptive or inventive powers. You rely too much on a consensual shared image created by someone else.

If you were stranded on a desert isle and only had a few books by one author as your literary diet, who would that be?

I would certainly have to select the complete oeuvre of Thomas Pynchon. He encapsulates good writing, a keen wit, and a probing dissection of history, character, and insanity in the twentieth century.

Name a few writers who have influenced you more than others as regard to craft and technique? How were you influenced?

Looking at my shelves, I see vast quantities of all the great SF writers of the twentieth century: Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, Robert Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Andre Norton, Clifford Simak, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, J. G. Ballard—dozens of others. I ingested their work at a rapid pace as a teen, internalizing story structures, styles, themes, tropes in a sponge-like fashion. I just knew from the start that I wanted to emulate these great writers, reproducing for my as-yet-unknown readers the same frissons the masters gave to me. Hopefully, I’ve distilled all their nectar into my own brand of honey.

Once in college, I glommed onto such luminaries as Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, J. P. Donleavy, Henry Thoreau, Charles Dickens, and Vladimir Nabokov, bringing their currents into my ocean of story. It’s hard now for me to discern individual motes from each writer. But I can only attest to the subconscious influence and psychic debt they have all left in me. It’s hard to imagine being a writer in a vacuum, 100% self-taught and self-created. I think that’s an impossibility, in fact.

How do you think short SF/F has changed over the last 25 years? For the better? For the worse?

As genre fiction has gained greater respect and technical chops, and begun to blend with the mainstream, it’s come to resemble the mainstream more. Less van Vogt and more Kelly Link. Also, the shapes of stories are less pruned and diagrammatic, more nebulous and shaggy. As critic John Clute told me, when I mentioned that the stories in Harry Harrison’s anniversary collection, 50 in 50, were ineluctably of another era: “The world is not narrated that way any more.”

SF’s pulp genes are becoming recessive, in both theme, content, form, and style. I guess we’re all adults now.

Tell us about Weird Universe.

Weird Universe is a new blog formed by me, Chuck Shepherd of News of the Weird fame, and Alex Boese, proprietor of the Museum of Hoaxes. Basically, we just strive to amuse and enlighten by presenting a daily mix of oddball news and cultural arcana. People seem to like us—assuming they’re as warped as we are!

Do you have any advice for younger writers trying to break into the field? Not only the business aspect, but as to learning craft and technique as well.

1) Read Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing.
2) Find and follow Heinlein’s five simple rules for the professional writer.
3) Read Jack Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.”
3) Be tough and compassionate, on yourself and others.
4) Don’t give up too soon.
5) Have fun.

What are you working on now?

I need to begin my long-delayed sequel to A Year in the Linear City, to be titled A Princess of the Linear Jungle. I think there’s enough idea-space left in this universe after the first book to merit one of my rare sequels, but I’ve still been hesitating because newer ideas beckon more alluringly. Charles Stross just blogged about how the book after the one you’re working on always is more appealing than the current project, and I think that’s true.

Then I need to pick up an as-yet fragmentary novel to be titled Up Around the Bend, a post-apocalyptic headtrip.

After that, all is grey churning fog of potentiality!

What’s are your plans for the future? Aspirations? Goals?

I’d like to write a book that would do honor to all my influences, and to the genre, and which would illuminate this inexplicable condition we call life, and which would make readers ecstatically happy and terminally sad, and which would make me rich!

The Weird Universe explores a human and natural cosmos that is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine. The usual suspects are Paul Di Filippo; Alex Boese, curator of the Museum of Hoaxes; and Chuck Shepherd, purveyor of News of the Weird.

Recent posts:

  • News of the Weird (January 22, 2017)
    News of the Weird Weirdnuz.M511, January 22, 2017 Copyright 2017 by Chuck Shepherd. All rights reserved. Lead Story Post-Truth Society: In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals finally pulled the plug on Orange County, Calif., social workers who had been arguing in court for 16 years that they were not guilty of lying under oath because, after all, they did not understand that lying under oath in court is wrong. The social workers had been sued for improperly removing children from homes and defended their actions by inventing "witnesses" to submit made-up testimony. Their lawyers had been arguing that the social workers' "due process" rights were violated in the lawsuit because in no previous case on record did a judge ever have occasion to explicitly spell out that creating fictional witness statements is not permitted. [OC Weekly, 1-6-2017] The Way The World Works Former elementary school teacher Maria Caya, who was allowed to resign quietly in 2013 from her Janesville, Wis., school after arriving drunk on a student field trip, actually made money on the incident. In November 2016, the city agreed to pay a $75,000 settlement--because the police had revealed her blood-alcohol level to the press in 2013 (allegedly, "private" medical information). The lawsuit against the police made no mention of Caya's having been drunk or passed out but only that she had "become ill." [Fox News, 10-26-2016] The Redneck Chronicles (1) John Bubar, 50, was arrested in Parsonsfield, Maine, in November after repeatedly lifting his son's mobile home with his front-end loader and dropping it. The father and son had been quarreling over rent payments and debris in the yard, and the father only eased up after realizing that his grandson was still inside the home. (2) Update: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reversed itself in December and allowed Mary Thorn of Lakeland to keep her 6-foot-long pet alligator ("Rambo") at home with her despite a regulation requiring that a gator that size needs a more spacious roaming area. Thorn and Rambo have been together for over a decade. [Associated Press via Yahoo News, 12-12-2016] [WFTV (Orlando), 12-21-2016] Unclear on the Concept "I'm [as] tired of hearing the word 'creep' as any black person or gay person is of hearing certain words," wrote Lucas Werner, 37, on his Facebook page in December after he was banned from a Starbucks in Spokane, Wash., for writing a polite dating request to a teenaged barista. Managers thought Werner was harassing the female, who is at least the age of consent, but Werner charged illegal "age discrimination" and made a "science" claim that "age gap love" makes healthier babies. [NWCN News (Seattle), 12-30-2016] Police Report Taylor Trupiano grudgingly paid his $128 "traffic" fine in December, issued by a Roseville, Mich., officer who caught his car warming up unattended--in his own driveway. Police routinely issue such tickets (5 to 10 each winter, based on a town ordinance) to send drivers like Trupiano a message that unattended cars are ripe for theft, which burdens Roseville's police department. (A police spokesman said the driverless warmups are illegal even for locked cars.) [WXYZ-TV (Detroit), 1-9-2017] Awwwwwww! (1) Jasper Fiorenza, 24, was arrested in St. Petersburg, Fla., in November and charged with breaking into a home in the middle of the night. The female resident said she awoke to see Fiorenza and screamed but that the man nonetheless delayed his getaway in order to pet the woman's cat lounging on her bed. (2) In December, Durham, Ontario, police officer Beth Richardson was set for disciplinary hearing ("discreditable conduct") because, earlier in 2016, after being called intervene at a drug user's home, she had noticed the resident's cat "cowering" in a corner and had taken her to a veterinarian, but without asking the owner's permission. [Tampa Bay Times, 12-1-2016] [CTV News (Toronto), 12-2-2016] Questionable Judgments David Martinez, 25, was shot in the stomach during a brawl in New York City in December. He had inadvertently initiated the chaos when, trying to park in Manhattan's East Village just after Saturday midnight, he moved an orange traffic cone that had obviously been placed to reserve the parking space. He apparently failed to realize that the parking spot was in front of the clubhouse of Hells Angels, whose members happened to take notice. [New York Daily News, 12-12-2016] The Entrepreneurial Spirit An unnamed pregnant woman convinced a reporter from Jacksonville, Fla., station WFOX-TV in December that the "positive" urine tests she was advertising on Craigslist were accurate and that she was putting herself through school by supplying them (making about $200 a day). The seller claimed that "many" pregnant women market their urine for tests--even though the main use of the test seems to be "negotiation" with boyfriends or husbands. [WFOX-TV, 12-16-2016] Perspective "You Have The Right To [Any Ol'] Attorney": While poor, often uneducated murder defendants in some states receive marginal, part-time legal representation by lawyers at the bottom of their profession (usually unable to keep their murder clients off of death row), "Boston Marathon" bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, convicted of three murders in the 2013 attack and facing a possible death sentence, once again will be represented for free by a team at the top of the profession--headed by the chief of the New York federal public defender office. Tsarnaev was previously represented by a team topped by the chief of the Boston federal public defender office. [Boston Herald, 1-3-2017] Least Competent Criminals (1) Matthew Bergstedt, 27, was charged with breaking into a house in Raleigh, N.C., in December, though he failed to anticipate that the resident was inside, stacking firewood (which he used to bloody Bergstedt's face for his mugshot). (2) On December 5th in New York City, a so-far-unidentified man made five separate attempts to rob banks in midtown Manhattan over a three-hour span, but all tellers refused his demands, and he slinked away each time. (Police said a man matching his description had successfully robbed a bank four days earlier.) [WNCN-TV (Raleigh), 12-27-2016] [WNBC-TV (New York), 12-6-2016] Recurring Themes The Return of Anger Relief: (1) What was billed as the UK's first "Rage Cage" opened in Nottingham, England, in December, allowing patrons to vent with crowbars, baseball bats, and hammers to smash crockery, electronics, and glassware--at prices ranging from about $15 to about $40. (2) In October, a bookstore in Cairo, Egypt, set aside a small, soundproof room where patrons could go scream at the top of their lungs for 10 minutes about whatever stresses them. The store owner pointed to an academic study demonstrating screaming's "positive effect" on the brain. (The prototype store is still Donna Alexander's Anger Room in downtown Dallas, thriving since 2011, offering a variety of bludgeoning weapons, and especially active this election season, with target mannequins gussied up to be "Trump" and "Clinton.") [TalkRadio.co.uk, 12-5-2016] [CNN, 10-27-2016] [New York Times, 11-26-2016] The Passing Parade (1) Two weeks after a Pakistani International Airlines crash killed all 47 on board, some employees of the company figured they needed to dispel the bad karma (for their own safety) and thus sacrificed a black goat on the tarmac at Islamabad airport next to an ATR-42 aircraft (the same model that crashed). (2) Badminton player Mads Pieler Kolding, in a January match in India's Premier Badminton League, returned a volley at a world's record for a shuttlecock--265 mph. [NPR, 12-19-2016] [Deadspin.com, 1-12-2017] A News of the Weird Classic (March 2013) Suspicions Confirmed: In January [2013], the National Hockey League labor dispute ended, and players returned to work, but as if on cue, some owners resumed their suspect claims that high player salaries were killing them financially. However, the Phoenix Business Journal reported in December 2012 that the NHL Phoenix Coyotes' bookkeeping methodology only allowed them to turn a profit for the season if the lockout had continued and wiped out all the games. In other words, based on the team’s bookkeeping, the only way for the Coyotes to make money was to never play. [Phoenix Business Journal, 12-26-2012] Thanks This Week to Gerald Sacks and to the News of the Weird Board of Editorial Advisors.
  • Butterflies in my stomach
    Ronald Taylor, a professor of pathology at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, was an early promoter of an insect-based diet. In the 1970s, he published two books on the topic: Butterflies in My Stomach: Insects in Human Nutrition (1975) and Entertaining With Insects, Or: The Original Guide to Insect Cookery (1976). Some of the recipes in the books included: Boiled cod with snail sauce Wasp grubs fried in the comb Moths sauteed in butter Braised beef with caterpillars New carrots with wireworm sauce Gooseberry cream with sawflies Devilled chafer grubs Stag beetle larvae on toast The full recipe for Peanut Butter Worm Cookies is below.
  • Mystery Illustration 37
    What horrors are causing the eyes of this Bride-of-Frankenstein lookalike to bug out? Answer after the jump.
  • Radium Cap
    I'm guessing that if this actually worked to cure headaches it was because of the placebo effect. Although radium does, of course, produce heat, which might help a headache. But if there was enough radium in the cap to feel noticeably warm, it must have been incredibly dangerous. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - June 11, 1937
  • St. Pancake Day
    The Dutch cartoonist Jan Kruis, recently deceased, was responsible for proclaiming November 29th of every year to be the "Sint Pannekoek-feest," and getting the whole country to play along. The main tradition is to wear a pancake on your head.
  • When Billboards Become Visible
    If you're in the billboard business you'd probably want to know exactly when a billboard becomes visible to drivers. So in 1953 research was conducted at the Iowa State College Experiment Station to get an answer to this question. The study involved having subjects watch miniature billboards slowly approach on a conveyor belt. Source: Duke University Libraries - Archives of the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. The Duke University blog also notes that in 1958 "The OAAA commissioned Jack Prince, a professor of ophthalmology at Ohio State University, to study the visual dynamics of outdoor advertising, resulting in the first legibility studies of ad copy." I'm not sure how these two studies related to each other. They sound suspiciously similar. And the 1958 studies obviously weren't the first given that the pictures below show research labeled as happening in 1953. Update: The researcher in the photos is probably Dr. A.R. Lauer of Iowa State's Department of Psychology, and he may have been studying the phenomenon of "Highway Hypnosis." In the early 1950s there was increasing criticism of the proliferation of billboards along the side of roads. People complained that they were ugly and possibly distracted drivers. So the OAAA sponsored Dr. Lauer to research the safety benefits of billboards, and specifically whether billboards distracted drivers. Lauer came up with the result that the billboards did distract drivers, but that this was a good thing because it saved them from Highway Hypnosis —entering a trance-like state as they stared at endless, monotonous roads. The OAAA then took out ads in newspapers promoting Lauer's research and the safety benefits of billboards. The Des Moines Register - Mar 23, 1958