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:

  • Wearable Banana
    Dole Japan has developed what they call the "wearable banana" to be worn by marathon runners. BakeryAndSnacks.com explains: The gadget comprises wired electrical parts stuck to the inside of a banana skin, which is then sewn back together around the fruit and strapped to a runner's wrist — thereafter it shows their race time, heart rate and tweets from supporters, as well as when to eat the next banana. People have noticed the similarity (at least in name) between the 'wearable banana' and the 'wearable tomato project' (which I posted about last week). Is the one a rip-off of the other? Or is the similarity just an example of a simultaneous discovery of the concept of wearable fruit?
  • Dolphina at Bimbo’s 365 Club
    Bimbo's 365 Club is still an active music venue in San Francisco. But, according to news on their own website, they seem to have abandoned a long proud tradition: Dolphina, the miniature live nude woman who swims in a fishbowl with goldfish. How was this illusion achieved? When Dolphina was profiled in the NY TIMES in 2011, we learned: IT’S AN ILLUSION A catacomb of tunnels in the bowels of the club leads to a small room containing a rotating platform on which the live “mermaid” reclines, naked. A periscope with angled mirrors projects her image up into the fishbowl where it appears that a tiny mermaid, about six inches long, is floating in an underwater grotto. One at least hopes that the statue to an ideal Dolphina, erected in 1952 inside the club, still has a place of honor.
  • News of the Weird, March 1, 2015
    News of the Weird Weirdnuz.M412, March 1, 2015 Copyright 2015 by Chuck Shepherd. All rights reserved. Lead Story The Utah Court of Appeals ruled in February that Barbara Bagley has a legal right to sue herself for her own negligent driving that caused the death of her husband. Typically, in U.S. courts, a party cannot profit from its own negligence, but Bagley is the official “representative” administering her husband’s estate and has a duty to claim debts owed to the husband. Those debts would include “wrongful death” damages from a careless driver (actually, the careless driver’s insurance company), even if the careless driver was herself. Of course, if her lawsuit is successful, the monetary award would become part of the husband’s estate, a portion of which will likely go to her. [Salt Lake Tribune, 2-18-2015] Historical Weird Can’t Possibly Be True: For a brief period in 1951 and 1952, an educational kit, the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab, was for sale in the U.S. even though it came with testable samples of four types of uranium ore and three different radiation sources (alpha, beta, gamma). A surviving copy of the kit has been on display recently at the Ulster Museum in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but the radioactive materials had to be removed before the kit could be shipped to Belfast. (The kit had failed to sell well; kids apparently preferred the company’s erector sets.) [BBC News, 2-16-2015] In February, the Kansas Humanities Council, providing background to a current, traveling Smithsonian Institution exhibit, posted a description of a 1925 baseball game in Wichita in which the professional, all-black Wichita Monrovians took on members of the local Ku Klux Klan. (Historians guessed that the KKK risked the embarrassment of defeat only because it needed the exposure to overcome declining enrollments.) The Monrovians (champions of the “Colored Western League” the year before) won, 10-8, and the Klan shut down in Kansas two years later. [Kansas Humanities Council , 2-17-2015] Intelligent Design A 37-year-old Lancashire, England, businessman (identified in later news reports as Duane Walters), fearing surgery for suspected bladder cancer, was discovered to be cancer-free, but on the other hand, he was found to have a uterus, ovaries, and cervix--even though he has fully functioning exterior male genitalia. He was referred to Manchester University Hospital for a hysterectomy (to prevent the possibility of pregnancy)--and was counseled that he might eventually become menopausal. His condition, “persistent Mullerian duct syndrome,” is rare enough when diagnosed at birth but, according to experts cited by the Daily Telegraph, virtually unheard-of at age 37. Walters said he will continue living as a man. [Daily Telegraph, 2-7-2015] War Is Hell Least Competent Terrorists: (1) A recent YouTube-posted compilation of footage gleaned from, in some cases, unedited ISIS promotion videos, claimed to show jihadists accidentally killing themselves. Several fighters in a group photo appear to be blown up when one of them fumblingly detonates a captured bomb, and one man was killed when he apparently tried to re-load a mortar launcher too quickly. (2) London’s Daily Telegraph reported in January that the “Darkshadow” jihadists from Tunisia and Ivory Coast, who had proclaimed their website-hacking would disrupt international travel, wound up taking down a site consisting merely of bus timetables in Bristol, England. Darkshadow’s English translator also misspelled Muslim (“Muslum”). [Daily Mail (London), 2-6-2015] [Daily Telegraph, 1-2-2015] Perspective: ISIS’s very public recent executions of a Jordanian pilot and two Japanese citizens were met with starkly different reactions. In Jordan, King Abdullah II led his nation in a call for bloody revenge. In Japan (according to a February Associated Press dispatch from Tokyo) feelings were mixed because of “meiwaku”--Japan’s cultural feeling that the dead victims (and their families) were “causing trouble” by placing themselves in harm’s way. Said one man cited by the AP, “In the old days, their parents would have had to commit hara-kiri to apologize.” In fact, both victims’ families did repeatedly apologize for inconveniencing the government, which had warned citizens to stay away from the war zone. [Associated Press via Cortez Journal (Cortez, Colo.), 2-5-2015] The Continuing Crisis Point Taken: At a February meeting in New York of the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, regarding whether meetings should be open to the general public, the representative from Belarus expressed alarm because of potential problems for the security staff. “What if,” he asked (according to a Reuters report), “there were topless ladies screaming from the public gallery throwing bottles of mayonnaise?” (According to the official summary, the Mexican delegate apparently earnestly pointed out that some U.N. meetings were already open to the public but as yet there were no mayonnaise-droppings.) [Reuters, 2-11-2015] CSI Netherlands: Police in the Dutch town of Haarlem, near Amsterdam, raided an urban marijuana farm after a recent heavy snowfall. In photographs of the neighborhood, all streets, yards, and roofs of houses are blanketed in white--except for a certain portion of the roof of one home, on which the snow had completely melted. Police, deducing that the attic was likely an illegal hot marijuana greenhouse, made arrests. [Daily Mail (London), 2-9-2015] News You Can Use: If you’re in pain, shouting “Owww!” has measurable therapeutic value. Writing recently in the Journal of Pain, researchers from National University of Singapore hypothesize that the muscle movements in vocalizing somehow divert or confuse pain signals, which otherwise would go unimpeded to the brain. Of subjects who plunged their hands into extremely cold water, those who were allowed to vocalize kept their hands immersed for up to three minutes longer than those who were silent. (The “oww” sound is similar in many languages and is apparently instinctive, from birth.) [International Business Times (New York), 2-2-2015] First-World Problem Solved A company called AudioQuest believes there are serious music listeners sufficiently grossed out by the imperfect sound delivered by ordinary ethernet cables (typically, with plastic connectors on each end and selling for around $20) that relief is needed. The company recently introduced the Cat-6 Ethernet cable, whose connectors are made of silver. For those who require the reportedly richer sound, relief is only $10,500 away. [Slashgear.com, 2-12-2015] The Aristocrats! Police in Glendale, Ore., arrested a 27-year-old man and his 22-year-old girlfriend after their 7-week-old son died of starvation. The couple claimed to have been feeding the boy properly, but investigators found that the pair operated an online porn business in which the mother lactated onto various items while the paying customers watched--and believe that little of the mother’s milk remained for the baby. [KPIC-TV (Roseburg, Ore.), 2-19-2015] Promoting Their Brands (1) Robert Michael Phillips was arrested in West Palm Beach, Fla., in February and faces a series of charges after police witnessed him allegedly conducting drug transactions and found heroin in his pocket and crack cocaine in his vehicle. (His rap sheet includes seven convictions and a prison stint.) On his February police intake form, under “Occupation,” Phillips stated, “Drug dealer.” (2) John Balmer, 50, was arrested at a Kmart in Hudson, Fla., in January as he attempted to pass a bag (allegedly containing marijuana and methamphetamine) to another person in line. Balmer was wearing a t-shirt that read “Who needs drugs?” above lettering that read “No, seriously, I have drugs.” [Palm Beach Post, 2-6-2015] [Tampa Bay Times, 1-6-2015] A News of the Weird Classic (July 2011) People With Issues: Self-described Las Vegas "performer" Staysha Randall took 3,200 different piercings in her body during the same sitting on June 7th [2011] to break the Guinness Book world record by 100 prickings. (Veteran Las Vegas piercer Bill "Danger" Robinson did the honors.) Coincidentally, on the same day in Edinburgh, Scotland, the woman with the most lifetime piercings (6,925) got married. Elaine Davidson, 46, wore a full white ensemble that left bare only her face, which was decorated green and sported 192 of the piercings. The lucky guy was Davidson's longtime friend Douglas Watson, a balding, 60-something man with no piercings or tattoos. [Las Vegas Weekly, 6-8-2011] [Daily Telegraph (London), 6-8-2011] Thanks This Week to Larry Neer, David Nelson, Jan Linders, and Steve Dunn, and to the News of the Weird Board of Editorial Advisors.
  • Sushi Leggings
    Get yours here. via Cliff Pickover
  • The Strange Ones
  • Round Egg
    After 64 bids a round egg sold for £480 on EBay. Amazing considering its still just an egg.