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:

  • Unexpected
    It seems that BK's Halloween Whopper has an interesting side effect. It goes in with a black bun but it comes out green. Not just green, but GREEN!! If you are interested in how green there is a picture at the link if you scroll down and click on it.
  • The Wrist Twist Steering Wheel
    March 1965: The Lincoln-Mercury division of Ford Motor Co. began testing the "wrist twist" steering wheel at dealerships around the country. With this "no-wheel steering wheel," the driver controlled the car by means of two rotating plastic rings, five-inches in diameter. The rings turned simultaneously and could be turned with one or both hands. As the video below explains, the benefit of the "wrist twist" was that you could more easily rest your arms on armrests while driving. I guess the drawback was that you got carpal tunnel syndrome in your wrists by constantly having to twist them around. More info: Popular Science - Apr 1965
  • Follies of the Madmen #261
  • Toilet Sanitary Shield For Men
    Florida inventor Vladimir Laurent recently received a patent for a device which he describes as a "toilet sanitary shield for male genitalia." From his patent application: The toilet sanitary shield for male genitalia is a device that is placed in the toilet to prevent the male genitalia from touching the walls of the toilet while in use. The toilet sanitary shield for male genitalia comprises a shield, a securing device, and a ball and socket joint. Laurent told the South Florida Business Journal, "It's a home product and it's designed for a specific need, for something that I felt was needed, personally." He also said that he's spent "between $25,000 and $30,000" on developing the product. His patent included a line drawing (below) which illustrates his device being used. I've put a purple circle over the male dangly bit, in order to avoid any risk of offending that company which pays our web hosting bill (because that company is easily offended). You can see the unaltered patent image at the South Florida Biz Journal link above.
  • The Hideous Sun Demon
  • News of the Weird (October 4, 2015)
    News of the Weird Weirdnuz.M443, October 4, 2015 Copyright 2015 by Chuck Shepherd. All rights reserved. Lead Story However, PlayStations and Xboxes--State-of-the-Art: A New York University Center for Justice study released in September warned that, unless major upgrades are made quickly, 43 states will conduct 2016 elections on electronic voting machines at least 10 years old and woefully suspect. Those states use machines no longer made or poorly supported, and those in 14 states are more than 15 years old. There are apprehensions over antiquated security (risking miscounts, potential for hacking) but also fear of election-day breakdowns causing long lines at the polls, depressing turnout, and dampening confidence in the overall fairness of the process. The NYU Center estimated the costs of upgrading at greater than $1 billion. [Politico, 9-15-2015] Wait, What? In a “manifesto” to celebrate “personal choice and expression” in the standard of beauty--“in a society that already places too many harmful standards on women,” according to a July New York Times report, some now are dyeing their armpit hair. In the FreeYourPits website, and events like “pit-ins” in Seattle and Pensacola, Fla., envelope-pushing women offer justifications ranging from political resistance to, according to one, “want[ing] to freak out [her] in-laws.” Preferred colors are turquoise, hot pink, purple, and neon yellow. [New York Times, 7-16-2015] Actress Melissa Gilbert (a star of TV’s “Little House on the Prairie”), 51, announced in August that she would run for Congress from Michigan’s 8th Congressional District--even though she is currently on the hook to IRS and California for back taxes totaling $470,000. Gilbert, a former president of the Screen Actors Guild and member of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, promised that she (and her actor-husband) would pay off her tax bill--by the year 2024. [Detroit Free Press, 8-12-2015] Men Are Simple Update: Five years after News of the Weird mentioned it, Japan’s “Love Plus” virtual-girlfriend app is more popular than ever, serving a growing segment of the country’s lonely males--those beyond peak marital years and resigned to artificial “relationships.” “Love Plus” models (Rinko, Manaka, and Nene) are chosen mostly (and surprisingly) not for physical attributes, but for flirting and companionship. One user described his “girlfriend” (in a September Time magazine dispatch) as “someone to say good morning to in the morning and . . . goodnight to at night.” Said a Swedish observer, “You wouldn’t see [this phenomenon] in Europe or America.” One problem: Men can get stuck in a “love loop” waiting for the next app update--with, they hope, more “features.” [, 9-15-2015] “Odette Delacroix,” 25, of North Hollywood, Calif., is a petite (86-lb.) model who runs an adult fetish website in which people (i.e., men) pay to watch her tumble around, bikini-clad, with “plus-size” models squashing and nearly suffocating her, up to five at a time in “pigpiles.” “Odette” told London’s edition of Cosmopolitan that her PetiteVsPlump website has so far earned her about $100,000. [Cosmopolitan UK, 5-27-2015] The Job of the Researcher Scientists at North Carolina State and Wake Forest universities have developed a machine that vomits, realistically, enabling the study of “aerosolization” of dangerous norovirus. “Vomiting Larry” can replicate the process of retching including the pressure of how the particles are expelled (which, along with volume and “other vomit metrics,” can teach the extent of the virus’s threat in large populations). The researchers must use a harmless stand-in “bacteriophage” for the studies--because norovirus is highly infectious even in the laboratory. [NPR, 8-19-2015] Police Report Relentless Wannabes: (1) Authorities in Winter Haven, Fla., arrested James Garfield, 28, with the typical faux-police set-up-- Ford Crown Victoria with police lights, uniform with gold-star badge, video camera, Taser, and business cards printed with “Law Enforcement.” (Explained Garfield lamely, the “Law Enforcement” was just a “printing mistake.”) (2) In nearby Frostproof, Fla., Thomas Hook, 48, was also arrested in September, his 14th law-enforcement-impersonator arrest since 1992. His paraphernalia included the Crown Vic with a prisoner cage, scanner, spotlight, “private investigator” and “fugitive recovery” badges, and an equally-bogus card identifying him as a retired Marine Corps major. Hook’s one other connection to law enforcement: He is a registered sex offender. [Bright House News (Orlando), 9-21-2015][Tampa Tribune, 9-11-2015] Buddhists Acting Out (1) Police in Scotland’s Highlands were called in September when a Buddhist retreat participant, Raymond Storrie, became riled up that another, Robert Jenner, had stiffed him for boiling water for his tea. When Storrie vengefully snatched Jenner’s own hot water, Jenner punched him twice in the head, leading Storrie to threaten to kill Jenner (but also asking, plaintively, “Is this how you practice dharma?”). (2) A Buddhist monk from Louisiana, Khang Nguyen Le, was arrested in New York City in September and accused of embezzling nearly $400,000 from his temple to fuel his gambling habit (blackjack, mostly at a Lake Charles, La., casino). [The Scotsman (Edinburgh), 9-22-2015] [New York Daily News, 9-15-2015] Oops! An official of the Missouri Republican Party apologized in September for the “thoughtless” act of using an original Thomas Hart Benton mural in the state Capitol as a writing surface. Valinda Freed and a man were exchanging business cards, and Freed, needing to jot down information on the card, placed it directly on the mural to backstop her writing. [Associated Press via ABC News, 9-21-2015] During a break in a murder trial in Lima, Ohio, in September, a jailer apparently absent-mindedly locked inmate-“witness” Steven Upham in the same cell with the accused murderer he was about to testify against (Markelus Carter, 46). Upham was set to squeal that Carter had confessed the murder to him. Deputies soon rushed to the cell to break up Carter’s attempt, with his fists, to change Upham’s mind. (At press time, the jury was still deliberating.) [Lima News, 9-17-2015] Least Competent Criminals Police in South Union Township, Pa., say David Lee, 46, is the one who swiped a Straight Talk cell phone from a Walmart shelf on September 15th (but wound up in the hospital). After snatching the phone, Lee went to a different section of the store and tried to open the packaging with a knife but mishandled it and slashed his arm so severely that he had to be Med-Evac’ed to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh (and a HazMat crew had to be summoned to clean all of the blood Lee had splattered). [KDKA-TV (Pittsburgh), 9-15-2015] No Longer Weird Stories that were formerly weird but which now occur with such frequency that they must be permanently retired from circulation: (1) Once again, in July, despite being handcuffed (by a King County, Wash., sheriff’s deputy) and put into the back seat of a squad car, the prisoner managed to drive off alone. Teddy Bell, 26, was apprehended a while later with the help of K-9 officers. (2) And once again (in July in Bergen, Norway) the accused was convicted of murder based on a telltale Internet-search history. Police discovered about 250 computer queries such as “How do you poison someone without getting caught?” (Ultimately, the woman confessed that she killed her husband by lighting a charcoal grill in his bedroom while he slept.) [KOMO-TV (Seattle), 7-25-2015] [The Local (Oslo), 7-9-2015] A News of the Weird Classic (February 2009) Life Imitates the Three Stooges: In January [2009], inmates Regan Reti, 20, and Tiranara White, 21, who had been booked separately for different crimes on New Zealand's North Island and were handcuffed together for security at Hastings District Court, dashed out of the building and ran for their freedom. However, when they encountered a street lamp in front of the courthouse, one man went to the right of it, and the other to the left, and they slammed into each other, allowing jailers to catch up and re-arrest them. (A courthouse surveillance camera captured the moment, and the grainy video was a worldwide sensation.) [Fox News, 1-29-2009] Thanks This Week to Richard Player, Richard Judkins, Duane Knight, and Scott Lichtenberg, and to the News of the Weird Board of Editorial Advisors.