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:

  • Inmate Escape Pod
    1980: Fred Caddedu escaped from Millhaven penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario by concealing himself inside an "escape pod" made out of a hollowed-out stack of dirty food trays. The food trays were loaded onto a truck and taken to the unguarded, off-site kitchen to be cleaned. Once there, Caddedu just walked away. He was caught and returned to prison several months later. His escape pod later became an exhibit in the Correctional Service of Canada Museum. Image source: Museopathy The Ottawa Journal - July 14, 1980
  • News of the Weird (March 26, 2017)
    News of the Weird Weirdnuz.M520, March 26, 2017 Copyright 2017 by Chuck Shepherd. All rights reserved. Lead Story A highlight of the recent upmarket surge of Brooklyn, N.Y., as a residential and retail favorite was the asking price for an ordinary parking space in the garage at 845 Union Street in the Park Slope neighborhood: $300,000 (also carrying a $240 a month condominium fee and $50 monthly taxes). That's similar to the price of actual one-bedroom apartments in less ritzy Brooklyn neighborhoods like Gravesend (a few miles away). [DNAInfo, 3-6-2017] Compelling Explanations Saginaw, Mich., defense lawyer Ed Czuprynski had beaten a felony DUI arrest in December but was sentenced to probation on a lesser charge in the incident, and among his restrictions was a prohibition on drinking alcohol--which Czuprynski acknowledged in March that he has since violated at least twice. However, at that hearing (which could have meant jail time for the violations), Czuprynski used the opportunity to beg the judge to remove the restriction altogether, arguing that he can't be "effective" as a lawyer unless he is able to have a drink now and then. (At press time, the judge was still undecided.) [MLive.com, 3-10-2017] Fine Points of the Law Residents in southern Humboldt County, Calif., will vote in May on a proposed property tax increase to fund a community hospital in Garberville to serve a web of small towns in the scenic, sparsely populated region, and thanks to a county judge's March ruling, the issue will be explained more colorfully. Opponent Scotty McClure was initially rebuffed by the registrar when he tried to distribute, as taxpayer-funded "special elections material," contempt for "Measure W" by including the phrase "(insert fart smell here)" in the description. The registrar decried the damage to election "integrity" by such "vulgarity," but Judge Timothy Cissna said state law gives him jurisdiction only over "false" or "misleading" electioneering language. [North Coast Journal (Eureka, Calif.), 3-7-2017] Can't Possibly Be True News of the Weird has written several times (as technology progressed) about Matt McMullen's "RealDoll" franchise--the San Marcos, Calif., engineer's richly-detailed flexible silicone mannequins that currently sell for $5,500 and up (more with premium custom features). Even before the recent success of the very humanish, artificially-intelligent (AI) android "hosts" on TV's "Westworld," McMullen revealed that his first AI doll, "Harmony," will soon be available with a choice of 12 "personalities" including "intellectualism" and "wit," to mimic an emotional bond to add to the sexual. A recent University of London conference previewed a near future when fake women routinely provide uncomplicated relationships for lonely (or disturbed) men. (Recently, in Barcelona, Spain, a brothel opened offering four RealDolls "disinfected after each customer"--though still recommending condoms.) [Forbes, 2-28-2017] Scientists at Columbia University and the New York Genome Center announced that they have digitally stored (and retrieved) a movie, an entire computer operating system, and a $50 gift card on a single drop of DNA. In theory, wrote the researchers in the journal Science, they might store, on one gram of DNA, 215 "petabytes" (i.e., 215 million gigabytes--enough to run, say, 10 million HD movies) and could reduce all the data housed in the Library of Congress to a small cube of crystals. [Wall Street Journal, 3-3-2017] An office in the New York City government, suspicious of a $5,000 payment to two men in the 2008 City Council election of Staten Island's Debi Rose, opened an investigation, which at $300 an hour for their "special prosecutor," has now cost the city $520,000, with his final bill still to come. Despite scant "evidence" and multiple opportunities to back off, the prosecutor relentlessly conducted months-long grand jury proceedings, fought several court appeals, had one 23-count indictment almost immediately crushed by judges, and enticed state and federal investigators to (fruitlessly) take on the Staten Island case. In March, the city's Office of Court Administration finally shrugged and closed the case. [New York Times, 3-8-2017] Ironies A chain reaction of fireworks in Tultepec, Mexico, in December had made the San Pablito pyro marketplace a scorched ruin, with more than three dozen dead and scores injured, leaving the town to grieve and, in March, to solemnly honor the victims--with even more fireworks. Tultepec is the center of Mexico's fireworks industry, with 30,000 people dependent on explosives for a living. Wrote The Guardian, "Gunpowder" is in "their blood." [The Guardian (London), 3-10-2017] Miscellaneous Economic Indicators (1) "Bentley" the cat went missing in Marina Del Rey, Calif., on February 26th and as of press time had not been located--despite a posted reward of $20,000. (A "wanted" photo is online, if you're interested.) (2) British snack food manufacturer Walkers advertised in February for a part-time professional chip taster, at the equivalent of $10.55 an hour. (3) An Australian state administrative tribunal approved a $90,000 settlement after a cold-calling telemarketer sold a farm couple 2,000 ink cartridges (for their one printer) by repeated pitches. [Fox News, 3-8-2017] [Leicester Mercury, 2-23-2017] [The Age (Melbourne), 3-9-2017] Perspective American chef Dan Barber staged a temporary "pop-up" restaurant in London in March at which he and other renowned chefs prepared the fanciest meals they could imagine using only food scraps donated from local eateries. A primary purpose was to chastise First World eaters (especially Americans) for wasting food, not only in the kitchen and on the plate but to satisfy our craving for meat (for example, requiring diversion of 80 percent of the world's corn and soy just to feed edible animals). Among Barber's March "WastED" dishes were a char-grilled meatless beetburger and pork braised in leftover fruit solids. [TreeHugger.com, 3-3-2017] Undignified Deaths (1) Smoking Kills: A 78-year-old man in Easton, Pa., died in February from injuries caused when he lit his cigarette but accidentally set afire his hooded sweatshirt. (2) Pornography Kills: A Mexico City man fell to his death recently in the city's San Antonio neighborhood when he climbed to turn off a highway video sign on the Periferico Sur highway that was showing a pornographic clip apparently placed by a hacker. [NJ.com, 2-28-2017] [Metro News (London), 3-6-2017] Least Competent Criminals Oops! An officer in Harrington, Del., approaching an illegally-parked driver at Liberty Plaza Shopping Center in March, had suspicions aroused when she gave him a name other than "Keyonna Waters" (which was the name on the employee name tag she was wearing). Properly ID'ed, she was arrested for driving with a suspended license. [WMDT-TV (Salisbury, Md.), 3-6-2017] The Passing Parade (1) In his third try of the year in January, Li Longlong of China surpassed his own Guinness Book record by climbing 36 stairs while headstanding (beating his previous "34"). (Among the Guinness regulations: no touching walls and no pausing more than five seconds per step.) (2) The online live-stream of the extremely pregnant giraffe "April" (at New York's Animal Adventure Park) has created such a frenzy (and exposed the tiny attention spans of viewers) that, as of March 3rd, they had spent a cumulative 1,036 years just watching. (Erin Dietrich of Myrtle Beach, S.C., 39 weeks pregnant herself, mocked the lunacy by livestreaming her own belly while wearing a giraffe mask.) (By press time, Erin had delivered; April, not.) [Huffington Post, 3-10-2017] [BBC News, 3-3-2017] A News of the Weird Classic (June 2013) Maryland state troopers stopped when they caught sight of a drummer working out all alone on the side of traffic-packed Interstate 695 near Windsor Mill Road in Baltimore on May 21st [2013], at about 10:30 a.m. As the troopers later reported, the man had run out of gas and, rather than just sit around in his car, had set up his full drum kit on the shoulder and practiced while he awaited assistance. After a utility truck arrived, with gasoline, the drummer packed up and went on his way. [Baltimore Sun, 5-21-2013] Thanks This Week to Kevin Corwin and Alyssa Grosso, and to the News of the Weird Senior Advisors (Jenny T. Beatty, Paul Di Filippo, Ginger Katz, Joe Littrell, Matt Mirapaul, Paul Music, Karl Olson, and Jim Sweeney) and Board of Editorial Advisors (Tom Barker, Paul Blumstein, Harry Farkas, Sam Gaines, Herb Jue, Emory Kimbrough, Scott Langill, Bob McCabe, Steve Miller, Christopher Nalty, Mark Neunder, Sandy Pearlman, Bob Pert, Larry Ellis Reed, Peter Smagorinsky, Rob Snyder, Stephen Taylor, Bruce Townley, and Jerry Whittle).
  • The Ford House of Aurora, Illinois
    1951 article here. Apparently still extant, according to this great set of current pics.
  • Jennifer Bornstein, collector
    In 1994, Jennifer Bornstein appeared on a local LA cable access program that featured ordinary people and their collections. Bornstein showed off her collection of zip-lock bags, coffee bar merchandise, fast-food containers, potato chips, and breath mints. She had carefully framed and archived all of it. It would have been funnier if it was a genuine collection, but I think it was actually intended as an artistic statement on how "any worthless mass-market products can be turned into coveted objects via absurd relations and vice versa" (according to Kadist.org). So she was essentially pranking the show. Although she looks quite young in the pictures, Bornstein was at the time a 24-year-old grad student at UCLA. And she's still an LA-based artist. More info (and image sources): Radcliffe, ingrum.org, Moscow Biennale, "Obsession, Compulsion, Collection."
  • The Glidden Tours
    At the start of the Automotive Age, merely driving from, say, Detroit to Kansas City was a challenge and endurance test. Thus the AAA-sponsored Glidden Tours. Here is a good write-up of the 1909 one.
  • 7 Clicks (March 24, 2017)
    7 Clicks A Weird Universe News Service March 24, 2017 Evangelist Lance Wallnau, emboldened in the current climate, told his 200,000 followers that he "heard about" (therefore: true) a born-again ex-hooker who baked a special cake so great it turned a gay man straight. Case closed. [Dallas Morning News] Nashvillians finally learned who "Fred Douglas" was (as in the city's "Fred Douglas Park"). (Hint: Think "Marty King.") [NPR] Spoiler: Texas A&M researchers, who know their peacocks, concluded via body cams that females do not choose mates based on erect plumage. [Austin America-Statesman] Least Competent Principal: Dude, it's a child's "water snake wiggly"--not a sex toy. Free (12-yr-old) Frances!! [WFTS-TV via WTMJ-TV] Meet Edgard Brito, DVM, Sao Paulo, the surgeon who does facelifts, nose jobs, and junk-dewrinkling--on dogs--making them so adorable that, in a crunch, the uglier pugs are sure to be put down first. [New York Post] Things That Must Be Quite a Sight: (1) "Expert witness" (describing "tests" he conducted) helping a doc on trial for rubbing his stuff against a patient, and (2) the in-development smartphone app (very accurate!) that measures sperm count (No, not from Pornhub, but that does raise the question of how . . ya hold the phone . . oh, never mind). [Global News] [New York Times] Thanks to Paul Music, Bob Stewart, and Joe Littrell.