Items Tagged: writing

by Paul di Filippo

(Originally published in the 2003 Readercon program book)

So Rudy and I are ambling through downtown Providence, having just debated the merits of visiting a nearby porn store to search for a sizzling tape of some Euro-starlet he’s especially keen on, a visit we reluctantly decide against, since it’s such a glorious winter’s day outside and we don’t want to immur ourselves in the bleachy windowless jerkoffitorium, and lo and behold, we come upon Providence’s outdoor skating rink, this bright noontide a-flow with the graceful and clumsy pirouettings of school-vacationing kids and their adult minders, and this California Boy–who, by the by, prior to his cross-continental journey to lecture at Dartmouth has dug out of his Los Gatos closet under the urgings of his beautiful and caring wife Sylvia and in preparation for the rigors of a New England winter an absurdly puffy Michelin Man down coat which I estimate was the height of fashion circa 1979–this California Boy (California Boy by way of Kentucky, upstate New York, Germany and Virginia, natch) gets a look of sheer delight on his amiable, beatific face and impulsively expresses his fondest wish at this exact moment in the spacetime continuum, which is to essay some cool-rockin’ ice-time after not having skated for umpty-ump years; and of course I, being the well-mannered accommodating host, cannot voice my doubts about how well Rudy’s putative proficiency on blades has endured the unchallenging years of Beach Blanket Bingo out in La-la Los Gatos, so all-atremble at the ghastly accusatory images of banner headlines in the next issue of Locus reading FOUNDING FATHER OF TRANSREAL LITERATURE SUFFERS CONCUSSION WHILE BEING HOSTED BY CARELESS CLOD; IN COMA, BUT LUCKILY WAS PREVIOUSLY UPLOADED TO MOLDY PLATFORM, I accompany Rudy to the skate-rental office (we in our excitement [his] and dread [mine] inadvertently bypass the ticket window and are shortly hauled up by the scruffs of our necks to pay the requisite entry fees), where Rudy swiftly selects and straps on skates then knife-walks wobble-ankled down the rubber trail to the rink, all the while I’m trailing behind like a weepy Lou Costello barely restraining my flubber-lipped moans and wailing solicitations to whatever gods watch out for ice-skating cyber-gonzo hacker mathenauts, and finally the moment of truth is here, the tips of Rudy’s blades hit the ice, and he’s launched out onto the glassy, skull-cracking expanse, amidst the squealing ten-year-olds and embracing adolescent lovers and cool-moving dudes and dudettes in spandex, and I grip the railing and close my eyes, opening them after an interminable agony of suspense to see –

The boy is SKATING! He’s no Sonja Henie, but he’s got some basic Hans Brinker moves! He cutting integral signs in the phase-transitioned water, inscribing calculations for the square roots of imaginary numbers into the rink’s surface. Astonished, I wave and cheer from the sidelines. Rudy acknowledges my boosterism with a humble British Royal hand-wag, all the while innocently grinning like the Cheshire Cat–if that Cat ever was costumed like a goosefeather-buffered refugee from the Great Blizzard of 1978. (And sure enough, as if in deference to Rudy’s choice of gear, the following day will usher in a snowstorm of near-blizzard proportions, cancelling Rudy’s flight to New Hampshire and diverting him instead onto an interstate bus, a “catastrophe” that would send most other travelers bughouse, but which in Rudy’s case only brings a blissed-out expression of awe at nature’s majesty.)

As I gradually relax enough to really enjoy Rudy’s playful, unselfconscious performance, a revelation–and a lesson–sweep over me. The revelation is: this impulsive, devil-may-care hurtling forward into a novel experience and the deriving of great joy from meeting the challenge (or even from honorable failure) is absolutely typical of the man. For him, the contemporary world–and by extension, the future–is not the scary, downbeat, menacing, dystopian landscape of deadly pitfalls it is for so many of us, SF writers or not. Rather, it’s a vista of possibility and potential, a realm of plastic playfulness, a buddha-field of likely enlightment. Samsara is nirvana, after all, and if we ever hope to experience satori, it’s got to arise out of the muck of daily living. For Rudy Rucker, life is the grandest mystical hack. And if you don’t play, you can’t complain.

This uncommonly sane and healthy and humorous attitude is instantly apprehendable across the whole range of his writing, implicit from his very first book to his latest. Whether in his several non-fiction volumes that explore the weirder frontiers of mathematics and information science and AI and consciousness studies and cosmology, or in his many novels which embody those same intellectual concepts in all-too-human personages, Rudy always expresses a sense that “the world is so full of a number of things, that I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.” (Robert Louis Stevenson, the famed source of that quote, once also wrote to a friend, “I believe in the ultimate decency of things,” and that sentiment, I think, also can be detected right below the surface buzz and glitter and absurdist, gnarly chaos of Rudy’s creations.)

But this core optimism and and upbeat bodhisattva acceptance-openness does not preclude a fine, rueful appreciation of life’s perpetual hand-delivered engraved invitation for dramatic fuckups. There is certainly no other body of SF by any major writer that features more bumbling, cack-handed screwed-up losers than Rudy’s oeuvre. (Okay, maybe the entire combined catalog of Robert Sheckley and William Tenn comes close.) Rudy’s protagonists are intimate with failure, humiliation and cosmic-emotional-social constraints. As a longtime afficionado and emulator of the Beats, Rudy knows deeply the bittersweet Kerouackian angst that accompanies even our highest successes. After all, this is the man who once said that if he possessed a time machine, his first action would not be to go back to the past and kill some famous inhuman monster of history, but rather go back into the past and kill himself! In the words of They Might Be Giants, “Everybody dies lonely and frustrated, and that is beautiful.” Somehow the balance tips towards grace and glory, even when standing amidst the wreckage of a life or a world.

So my revelation about and from Rudy Rucker, man and writer, is this: if you just open your eyes and mind, if you bravely look both higher and lower than the common individual typically does, with an open heart, across all the infinite fractal scales of existence, you will see that the cosmos is a wonderful place, “not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.” And as a unique individual, each of us must report back as faithfully as we can, sharing our insights in whatever artistic modes best suit us.

As for the practical lesson Rudy’s spin on the ice taught me, it was even simpler: Trust the Rudester, even when it does not appear he knows what he’s doing. When he tells you he’s going to write a historical novel about Breughel (As Above, So Below), don’t doubt that it will knock your socks off in the same manner as any one of his SF books. When he tells you that he’s going to write a non-fiction opus about UFO’s (Saucer Wisdom), don’t imagine that he’s turned into Whitley Streiber. Trusting the Rude Boy stood me in good stead recently, as I wrote my own novel, Fuzzy Dice, something of a Rucker homage. Whenever I got stuck, I just “twinked” Rudy (“to twink” is a coinage of Rudy’s, meaning “to run a mental simulation of an individual on your personal wetware”) and instantly all roadblocks vanished. I even tried to follow Rudy’s scheme of “transreally” incorporating bits and pieces of my autobiography into Fuzzy Dice. Transrealism being, in Rudy’s memorable phrase, “writing just like yourself, only more so.”

Just this year I had occasion to be in Rudy’s stomping grounds, the San Francisco Bay Area. (I didn’t spontaneously try hang-gliding or surfing or plastic surgery or any other West Coast recreation other than cable-car riding, perhaps proving that I haven’t yet fully internalized the Rucker Philosophy.) We met with a bunch of other folks at one of Rudy’s favorite restaurants, a tapas bar in the city. Rudy’s delight at introducing all his friends to the exotic cuisine of the place was palpable. Directing everyone to sample various dishes, he was like some Buddha maestro of Iberian good times. After we were all sated with grease-smeared faces, we paid the bill and exited out onto the darkened SF, CA, street. Rudy turned to me.

“I put this place into one of my books. Right in front of this restaurant, a pterodactyl swoops down and snatches up one of my characters.”

That’s my Rudy. He sees pterodactyls in urban landscapes where others see only rats or panhandlers (but he sees the rats and panhandlers too, and deems them equally vital).

Long may he be himself, only more so!

by Chris Bell for Words Shift Minds

(Originally published on the NZBC blog, Sunday 12 November 12 2006.)

He’s been described as having “irrepressible humour, a stand-back imagination, a wondrous facility and control of the English language”. Paul Di Filippo is the author of hundreds of short stories — some of which have been anthologised in The Steampunk Trilogy, Ribofunk, Fractal Paisleys, Lost Pages, Little Doors, Strange Trades, Babylon Sisters — and his novella, A Year in the Linear City. As well as his short stories, di Filippo has written a number of novels, including Ciphers, Joe’s Liver, Fuzzy Dice, A Mouthful of Tongues, and Spondulix. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, USA. In this interview, di Filippo describes his goal as “to be some weird mix of Flaubert and Gandhi”. It’s been a while since NZBC five-minuted anyone, so we ordered tall lattes, kicked back and asked the man who invented the word ‘ribofunk’ to tell us what it’s all about.

Di Filippo is the kind of guy other writers love to hate: as if his prodigious output were not enough, it is said that he managed to write five of his novels and many of his short stories on a Commodore 128 computer. He apparently regards himself a “quasi-Buddhist” and is a member of the Turkey City Writer’s Workshop, a peer-to-peer, professional science fiction writer’s workshop in Texas.

He coined the word ribofunk to describe the sub-genre of science fiction in which he specialises, and which uses elements of the hard-boiled detective novel, film noir and post-modernist prose. His manifesto defines the sub-genre thus:

“Speculative fiction which acknowledges, is informed by and illustrates the tenet that the next revolution — the only one that really matters — will be in the field of biology. To paraphrase Pope, ribofunk holds that: ‘The proper study of mankind is life.’ Forget physics and chemistry; they are only tools to probe living matter. Computers? Merely simulators and modellers for life. The cell is King!”

A search on ‘ribofunk’ generates around 20,000 Google hits.

Your biog says you’ve been a finalist for a lot of awards, but have you ever won any?

“I have indeed broken my loser’s streak just once, by winning a British SF Association Award for best short story for 1994’s The Double Felix. The story title was misspelled on the official ballot, and my name was misspelled on the official trophy, which arrived years later and looks like Monty Python’s Holy Grail. I currently use it to hold sticks of incense. All of which is not to negate my gratitude to BSFA.”

Rhode Island: Red state or Blue state, state of denial or state of fear?

“Well, with the recent election the whole country starts to resemble a more regal purple, sensibly blending red and blue. But RI remains more liberal than the average. The citizenry seems more hopeful than fearful, although we do live continuously under the dire threat of colonisation by rich Bostonians to our north.”

You once wrote an exposé of the frustrations involved in having work accepted by Wired, in spite of the magazine briefing its commissioned contributors in detail. Has Wired bought any more work from you since you wrote this article?

“I think a whole new regime has taken over the magazine since my experiences, and with any luck they wouldn’t hold my past outburst against me. And although I have not placed any long pieces with the magazine since that first ill-fated one, I did recently secure an entire page (!) in the November 2006 issue for my six-word short story, commissioned along with almost three dozen others: ‘Husband, transgenic mistress: wife, “You cow!”’”

You’re a prolific author of short stories, particularly of speculative fiction. Good, paying markets for short stories around the world are in decline. How does the market for your own work look in the States?

“The demise of magazines that pay a ‘living wage’ is not good news for me or any other writer whose focus is short fiction. I’m heartened by a prevalence of original anthologies, and classy small-press magazines, but it does become more difficult to sustain oneself by writing just at these lengths for such markets. And of course the invention of webzines is another cheerful development, although their mode of existence is yet shaky. A certain online monetary inflation calculator that I occasionally use indicates that the penny-a-word rate obtained by the pulp writers of the 1930s, once derided as chicken feed, should translate to twenty-cents-per-word in modern terms. So even the top mags that pay, say, ten-cents-a-word are paying half what used to be standard during the Depression!”

You’ve written a sequel to a comic by Alan Moore of Watchmen fame. Was this a daunting prospect, and did you get to meet or correspond with Moore during the course of the project?

“I had almost zero contact with Moore throughout the whole project. But he read my scripts, and I learned of his approval through my editor, Scott Dunbier. I also learned that Moore preferred that I not kill off his favourite character, as I had intended, and that I substitute an adoption scene for a woman getting pregnant by her canine husband and giving birth to some sort of doggy hybrid. Good calls, I say in retrospect, on his part!”

In your essay The Infantilisation, Electrification, Mechanisation and General Diminishment of King Kong, you posit that “seriously intentioned sequels and offshoots of the Original Tragedy … fumblingly recast or attempt to extend the material in such a manner as to rob it of all its archetypical force and resonance”, so what did you make of Peter Jackson’s retelling or, for that matter, Russell Hoban’s?

“Although I thought the Jackson remake was exciting and skilful, in the end it seemed superfluous. What really did it add? The Hoban piece, from what I see online, looks a bit more like a post-modern pastiche than a straight remake, so I have hopes for it, especially given Hoban’s talents.”

If visitors to NZBC only read one book this year, which book should it be?

“For sheer fun and pleasure, if you’re a ‘core SF’ reader, I’d have to recommend The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi. I’ve always been a sucker for Keith Laumer’s Retief series, and [Scalzi’s book] is like a supercharged refashioning of those tropes. But I haven’t yet gotten my hands on Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day…”

What’s on your iPod’s ‘On the go’ playlist at the moment, or are you an iPod refusenik?

“Although a huge music listener, I am an iPod refusenik, mainly because I don’t need portability of music. I take walks ranging from one to three hours every day — trying to do very little driving — and when I’m out and about I like to talk to people and hear birdsong and random conversations and even traffic noise. I don’t care to be insulated in a fake Hollywood soundtrack of my own devising. When I’m home, I like to listen to large blocks of music composed with a scheme by the creator: in other words, entire ‘albums’ or CDs. And actually, when I’m writing, I play the radio! WBRU, the college station associated with Brown University. That way, I get exposed to new music and also experience the serendipity of someone else’s choices.”

You’ve said that writing is a job that provides “no job security with seniority” and freelance writers are always “scrambling to stay afloat”. E-books would seem to dovetail naturally with the sci-fi genre and its fandom. Might technology, after all, be the writer’s life-raft?

“Certainly print-on-demand, as exemplified by Wildside Press and its imprint, has been a lifesaver for me, allowing publishers to take on books of mine with only marginal sales potential, such as my collection of humour columns, Plumage From Pegasus. I have little experience with e-books, but selling some reprint stories through Fictionwise was a good experience for me. I don’t think, despite all the headwork by such visionaries as Cory Doctorow, that we yet know the ultimate model for the vehicle that will connect writers and readers, to the profit of both!”

What do you use for note-taking, capturing ideas and tracking submissions? Are you a proponent of pencil and notebook; do you favour proprietary software; or is it open source everything for the man they call PDF?

“I am old-fashioned enough to still stick with pen and paper for my note-taking. I have a pocket notebook brand that I love, Oxford Memo Books, because it’s sewn together instead of employing a metal spiral, and so when you sit on it, it doesn’t imprint your butt like something out of a Re/Search tribal scarification volume.”

What are you working on right now, when is your next book due to be published and what will it be?

“I’ve just placed two books with PS Publishing: Harsh Oases, a story collection, and Roadside Bodhisattva, a (mainstream!) novel. I’m not even certain which one Pete Crowther intends to bring out first, but there will be one in 2007 and one in 2008. My current work in progress is a novel for the firm of Payseur & Schmidt to be titled either Cosmocopia or Cosmicopia (readers, help me decide!), with illustrations by Jim Woodring.”

(Originally published on the NZBC blog, Sunday 12 November 12 2006.)