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:

  • Slip Slidding Away
    Havana, Illinois has a bug problem. Not bed bugs or cockroaches, mayflies. Their bridge is covered in them and by covered I mean up to six inches deep. The resulting bug goo all over the bridge has caused a number of accidents, cars and motorcycles. A certain kind of water bug grows wings and swarms as mayflies before laying eggs. I am thinking there will be far fewer of the water bugs this season because so many got squished on the bridge before laying eggs.
  • Eels smelling alcohol
    Various sources report that the sense of smell of the eel is so acute, that if you were to pour a few drops of alcohol into the Great Lakes (or Lake Constance, according to who's telling the story), an eel would be able to smell it. From Consider the Eel, by Richard Schweid: "You can take one liter of a certain type of alcohol, pour it into the Great Lakes, and an eel will smell it," said Uwe Kils, a 48-year-old German oceanographer at the Rutgers Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences field station at Little Egg Harbor on the New Jersey coast. "The Great Lakes compose about 19 trillion liters, so you are talking about being able to smell something at one part per 19 trillion. That's a very acute sense of smell." And from The Eel, by F.W. Tesch & R.J. White: In painstaking conditioning experiments it was shown that the eel can perceive the scent of roses (β-phenylethyl alcohol) even when the latter is diluted by 1:2.857 X 1018. Such a degree of dilution corresponds to a solution of one ml of scent in a volume of water 58 times that of Lake Constance (Bodensee). The original source from which this info seems to come is a 1957 article in a German scientific journal: Teichmann, Harald. (January 1957), Das Riechvermögen des Aales (Anguilla anguilla L.). Naturwissenschafter 44(7), 242.
  • Bob “Bazooka” Burns
    Full story here.
  • Said no at altar
    I guess that's why it's posed as a question. You don't have to say "I do." Anyway, if you're 16, the correct response to a marriage request is 'No.' Unfortunately, it seems that Lois did end up getting married a week later, despite her initial reluctance. The Ottawa Journal - May 1, 1971 Girl Says 'No' At the Altar SIBSON, England (UPI) —Radiant and demure in white lace, Lois Elliott walked down the aisle on her father's arm as the organ intoned "Here Comes the Bride." "Wilt thou," said Rev. Frank Best, "take this man to be thy lawfully wedded husband, to love and to cherish 'til death do you part?" Lois, 16, smiled at Mr. Best, at her father and at the groom. "No," she said quietly. Then she turned and walked out of St. Botolph's Church. Lois offered no immediate explanation for her change of heart. But her father, Barry Elliott, said he thought a chance remark by one of the groom's relatives "may have upset her."
  • Skinny Suicides Survival Rate
    I had this post in the queue before Alex did his story about the woman jumping yesterday. Maybe this is the explanation for her miracle. Apparently, it's best to put on a few pounds before jumping from a high place, if you are serious about doing yourself in. Original article here.
  • News of the Weird (June 26, 2016)
    News of the Weird Weirdnuz.M481, June 26, 2016 Copyright 2016 by Chuck Shepherd. All rights reserved. Lead Story Getting Fannies in the Seats: The Bunyadi opened in London in June for a three-month run as the world's newest nude-dining experience, and now has a reservation waiting list of 40,000 (since it only seats 42). Besides the nakedness, the Bunyadi creates "true liberation" (said its founder) by serving only food "from nature," cooked over fire (no electricity). Waiters are nude, as well, except for minimal concessions to seated diners addressing standing servers. Tokyo's Amrita nude eatery, opening in July, is a bit more playful, with best-body male waiters and an optional floor show--and no "overweight" patrons allowed. Both restaurants provide some sort of derriere-cover for sitting, and all require diners to check their cellphones at the door. [The Guardian (London), 6-7-2016] [Mashable.com, 6-10-2016] Cultural Diversity Milwaukee's WITI-TV, in an on-the-scene report from Loretta, Wis. (in the state's northwest backwoods) in May, described the town's baffling fascination with "Wood Tick Racing," held annually, provided someone finds enough wood ticks to place in a circle so that townspeople can wager on which one hops out first. The "races" began 37 years ago, and this year "Howard" was declared the winner. (According to the organizers, at the end of the day, all contestants, except Howard, were to be smashed with a mallet.) [WITI-TV, 5-30-2016] Government in Action The Department of Veterans Affairs revealed in May that, between 2007 and last year, nearly 25,000 vets examined for Traumatic Brain Injury at 40 VA facilities were not seen by medical personnel qualified to render the diagnosis--which may account for the result that, according to veterans' activists, very few of them were ever referred for treatment. (TBI, of course, is the "signature wound" of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.) [WVEC-TV (Norfolk), 5-26-2016] The Entrepreneurial Spirit! Basking in its "record high" in venture-capital funding, the Chinese Jiedaibao website put its business model into practice recently: facilitating offerers of "jumbo" personal loans (two to five times the normal limit) to female students who submit nude photos. The student agrees that if the loan is not repaid on time (at exorbitant interest rates), the lender can release the photos online. (The business has been heavily criticized, but the company's headquarters said the privately-negotiated contracts are beyond its control.) [The Guardian (London), 6-15-2016] Awesome! For the last 17 months, Stan Larkin, of Ypsilanti, Mich., has gone about his business (even playing pick-up basketball) without a functional heart in his body--carrying around in a backpack the "organ" that life-savingly pumps his blood. Larkin, 25, was born with a dangerous heart arrhythmia, and was kept alive for a while with a defibrillator and then by hooking him up to a washing-machine-sized heart pump, leaving him barely mobile--but then came the miraculous SynCardia Freedom Total Artificial Heart, weighing 13 pounds and improving Larkin's quality of life as he endured the almost-interminable wait for a heart transplant (which he finally received in May). (An average of 22 people a day die awaiting organ transplants.) [Washington Post, 6-10-2016] An ordinary green tree frog recently injured in a "lawn-mowing accident" in Australia's Outback was flown about 600 miles from Mount Isa to the Cairns Frog Hospital. CFH president Deborah Pergolotti spoke despairingly to Australian Broadcasting Corp. News in June about how society underregards the poor frogs when it comes to rescue and rehab--suggesting that "there's almost a glass ceiling" between them and the cuter animals. [Australian Broadcasting Corp. News, 6-6-2016] News You Can Use: When they were starting out, the band Guns N' Roses practiced and "lived" in a storage unit in Los Angeles, according to a book-review essay in May 2016 Harper's magazine, and "became resourceful," wrote the essayist. Wrote bass player Duff McKagan in one of the books, "You could get dirt-cheap antibiotics--intended for use in aquariums--at pet stores. Turned out tetracycline wasn't just good for tail rot and gill disease. It also did great with syphilis." [Harper's, May 2016] Perspective News updates from Kim Jong-un's North Korea: In March, a South Korean ecology organization reported that the traditional winter migration of vultures from China was, unusually, skipping over North Korea, headed directly for the South--apparently because of the paucity of animal corpses (according to reports, a major food source for millions of North Koreans). And in June, the Global Nutrition Report (which criticized the U.S. and 13 other countries for alarming obesity rates) praised North Korea for its "progress" in having fewer adults with "body mass index" over 30). [Daily Telegraph (London), 3-25-2016] [New York Times, 6-13-2016] Recurring Themes The super-painful "Ilizarov procedure" enables petite women to make themselves taller. (A surgeon breaks bones in the shins or thighs, then adjusts special leg braces four times daily that pull the bones slightly apart, awaiting them to--slowly--grow back and fuse together, usually taking at least six months. As News of the Weird reported in 2002, a 5-foot-tall woman, aiming for 5-4, gushed about “a better job, a better boyfriend . . . a better husband. It’s a long-term investment.” Now, India's "medical tourism" industry offers Ilizarovs cut-rate--but (according to a May dispatch in The Guardian) unregulated and, so far, not yet even taught in India's medical schools. Leading practitioner Dr. Amar Sarin of Delhi (who claims "hundreds" of successes) admits there's a "madness" to patients' dissatisfactions with the way they look. [The Guardian (London), 5-8-2016] Least Competent Criminals: (1) Damian Shaw, 43, was sentenced in England's Chester Crown Court in June after an April raid revealed he had established a "sophisticated" cannabis-grow operation (160 plants) in a building about 50 yards from the front door of the Cheshire Police headquarters. (2) Northern Ireland's Belfast Telegraph reported in April that a man was hospitalized after throwing bricks at the front windows of a PIPS office (Public Initiative for Prevention of Suicide and Self Harm). As has happened to a few others in News of the Weird's reporting, he was injured by brick-bounceback, off the shatterproof glass. [Winsford Guardian, 6-3-2016] [Belfast Telegraph, 4-13-2016] No Longer Weird: Once again, this time around midnight in Redford Township, Mich., in June, police surrounded a suspect's home and shut down the neighborhood for the next 11 hours, fired tear gas canisters through windows, and used a robot to scope out the inside--and ultimately found that the house had been empty the whole time. (The domestic-violence suspect is still at large.) [WDIV-TV (Detroit), 6-11-2016] Armed and Clumsy (All-New!) More people (all are males, as usual) who accidentally shot themselves recently: Age 37, Augusta, Kan., while adjusting his "sock gun" at a high school graduation (May). Age 28, Panama City, Fla., a jail guard "preparing" for a job interview (May). An unidentified man in Union, S.C., who, emerging from a shower, sat on his gun (January). The sheriff of Des Moines County, Iowa, who shot his hand while cleaning his gun (Burlington, Iowa, December). A movie-goer adjusting in his seat in Salina, Kan., shot himself during the feature (October) (three months after acquiring a no-test-required concealed-carry permit). Age 43, Miami, Fla., demonstrating to a relative how to clean a gun (December). A teenager, Overland, Mo., trying to take a selfie holding a gun (June). (The last two people are no longer with us.) Augusta: [Wichita Eagle, 5-15-2016] Panama City: [Panama City News Herald, 5-9-2016] Union: [WYFF-TV (Greenville, S.C.), 12-29-2015] Burlington: [KCCI-TV (Des Moines), 12-17-2015] Salina: [Salina Journal, 10-17-2015] Miami: [WTVJ-TV (Miami), 12-23-2015] Overland: [St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 6-7-2016] News of the Weird Classic (June 2012) Collections of comically poor translations are legion, but the Beijing Municipal government, in sympathy with English-speaking restaurant-goers, published a helpful guidebook recently [2012] of what the restaurateurs were trying, though inartfully, to say. In an interview with the authors, NBC News learned the actual contents of "Hand Shredded A$$ Meat" [sic] (merely donkey meat) and other baffling dishes (all taken from actual menus), such as "Cowboy Leg," "Red-Burned Lion Head," "Blow-up Flatfish with No Result," and the very unhelpful "Strange Flavor Noodles" and "Tofu Made By Woman With Freckles." [MSNBC, 4-20-2012] Thanks This Time to Stan Kaplan and Gerald Sacks, and to the News of the Weird Board of Editorial Advisors.