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Authors: Paul Di Filippo

Strange Trades

Strange Trades

Paul Di Filippo
With An Introduction By Bruce Sterling

 

To my parents, Frank and Louise, who instilled good work habits in all their children.

 

To the memory of my grandmother, Catherine St. Amant, who worked hard all her life.

 

And to Deborah, who makes work easy.

 

 

 

Introduction by Bruce Sterling

 

 

I have the same strange trade as the author of this book.

Reading these pieces gives me a powerful feeling of literary kinship. There’s a mirrorball herky-jerkiness going on in these stories, unnatural yet bright, all frazzled, antic and bizarre, yet somehow very much of a piece. All the light they give comes from reality’s dark corners.

Not that this work is “difficult” or “metafictional” or anything—it’s very folksy and street-level. It’s got that loose, dance-floor “ribofunk” rhythm, “ribofunk” being a nice word that Paul made up to give himself an excuse to write this sort of thing.

The typical ribofunk story sounds like it wants to be a pop song: we’re gonna have three minutes of verse-verse-chorus and something we can get-down and boogie to. Then you realize that those truly strange bits inside pop songs: that funny lurch during the breakbeat, the grinding hiss in the sample, the weird squeaking that the frets make between the actual “music”… that is the stuff that Paul Di Filippo considers the “good part.” Paul wants lots of that kind of stuff. So when his ribofunk wall of sound gets to be all bulging and dented, he turns the amps up to eleven and he puts in a whole bunch more.

* * *

No matter how boggled we may feel by his peculiarly recombinant constructions, Paul is always
getting at something
. He clearly has some definite
agenda
, even if that agenda itself is not entirely, uhm, clear. Paul is by no means precious, recondite or recherché. On the contrary, Paul is touchingly eager for us to know exactly what’s on his mind. When he sits at the keyboard, he quotes revealing lyrics for us from the cool stuff that’s playing on his Sony Walkman. When he writes a pastiche of a J. G. Ballard story, there’s a guy at the bar who is reading some J. G. Ballard.

Most science fiction characters would never be caught dead reading science fiction stories. That’s because they’re way too busy being chrome-plated power fantasies. They’d never put their shiny space-boots up on the Goodwill couch to peruse some Lem, Dick, or Delany.

Paul Di Filippo, on the other hand, genuinely respects these writers. He considers them life-giving cultural influences and true icons of philosophical and literary hospitality. So Paul’s characters have no trouble whatsoever being science fiction characters living inside science fiction stories. Quite commonly this seems to be a real
step up
for them. They seem genuinely liberated by the prospect, they are really
enjoying it
.

 

Before the advent of Paul Di Filippo, the best-known science fiction writer from his hometown of Providence was H. P. Lovecraft. This Providence business explains a lot about Paul. Lovecraft’s work is seriously and irretrievably freaky, but if you read Lovecraft’s personal letters or the work that he did for his fanzines, you soon see that, for a career sci-fi writer, Lovecraft was a surprisingly levelheaded and sensible Yankee guy. Mr. Lovecraft’s problem was that his family had cracked up from venereal disease and bankruptcy. The Lovecraft clan had lost its genteel pretences. So Lovecraft considered himself a pathetic, outdated relic. He had plenty of smarts and talent, but he had quite a hard time working up enough raw enthusiasm to stay alive.

Mr. Lovecraft was particularly upset that the future of Providence so clearly belonged to sleazy, immigrant Italians. Paul Di Filippo, however, is the future of H. P. Lovecraft’s Providence. Instead of being cranky, morose and malign, his work is funny, fertile, and forward-looking. Even the darkest, weirdest Di Filippo scenario seems to offer the potential of a decent cup of coffee, maybe a good meatball sandwich down at the diner. It’s very rare to see Paul shudder instinctively at anything whatsoever. If his neighborhood was a gruesome Lovecraftian slum (featuring hideous miscegenation with occasional advents of cosmic rupture), there’s little doubt that Paul would be hanging around at the corner newsstand, calmly compiling some notes.

There’s scarcely a female character to be found in Lovecraft’s work. That’s part of his cosmic bleakness, his sense of desperate loss. Paul Di Filippo is a genuine philogynist. The women in Di Filippo’s science fiction tend to be more-or-less actual women. His work is remarkably free of galactic princesses, femmes fatale, gothic vampiresses, madonnas, whores, and even love interests and sex objects. Nor do these women feel politically compelled to strut across their landscape loudly shattering the gender barriers. The women are just around, occupying space and time, pretty much like everybody else in town. If anything, they come across as centered, thoughtful, calming influences. They’re holding up half the sky. Maybe, if truth be told, they’re lugging a little extra sky.

 

“As usual, the inside of my trailer could have served to illustrate a doctoral thesis in chaos theory.” This line, with its common-or- garden mutant mix of sleaze and erudition, may be the ultimate Paul Di Filippo sentence. You might have to visit Paul’s actual house in his hometown to fully get it about this sentence. I did that, so now I do.

Paul is a bookstore-lurking autodidact of the deepest Lovecraftian dye. He is a self-educated American genre loon who ranks with sci-fi’s masters of ascended guruship: Avram Davidson, Philip K. Dick, Tim Powers, Robert Anton Wilson. His pad is full of classically Di Filipponian magazines: ancient flaking issues of
Bivalve Monthly
and
Hangman’s Semiquarterly
, that sort of thing. Much like Lovecraft, Paul carries out a huge paper correspondence, a fizzing vent for his many inspirations, which merely conventional publishing can never fully assuage. Paul has even been known to print his own fanzine, named after a particularly astral street in his Providence neighborhood.

As someone who does quite a lot of this myself, I have to consider zine writing the true mark of the SF adept. It’s not the mark of a pro, mind you, because a professional has an economic role to fulfil, takes that responsibility seriously, and works for pay. The adept does this work because he knows that there is something miraculously arbitrary about all forms of consensus reality. Everything about “reality” is a put-up job, most especially, as in the wonderful story “Spondulix,” the money. Money is lines on paper. It’s all lines on paper, folks. No, “really.” It just plain is.

 

You never know when you might find some magic verbal key to turn the cosmos on its ear. “A single syllable spoken at the right moment could topple empires.” Right on, brother Paul. I’m with you all the way, you major dude, you. Astounding wonder could be anywhere at all, in a sandwich shop, in a trailer park, in a flophouse, even in a place as utterly boring and devoid of potential as New York City. “The fabulous gemmed cliffs of Manhattan, remote as the mirage of some Arabian seraglio.”

 

It’s a funny job, science fiction, but somebody’s gotta do it. Paul can do the job. If this book contains a single true fabulous gem, a kind of Di Filipponian Golconda, it’s Paul’s story “The Boredom Factory.” It’s short, but entirely to my point. The Boredom Factory is what we sci-fi writers are looking at when you see us standing flat-footed in the streets, staring into thin air and darkly muttering to ourselves. When we’re looking most like Lovecraft, at our cobwebbiest, our spookiest, our most alienated, pathetic and estranged, it’s because we’re looking at the very same reality that everybody else is, but we’re seeing something like
that
. Yet we somehow found a back way out of the ennui machine! Really, we did! You just sit on the couch and turn pages! Yeah man! Strange trades indeed.

Bruce Sterling

January 2001

 

 

 

Strange Trades

 

 

“Kid Charlemagne” owes its existence to my long-standing love affair with J. G. Ballard’s Vermilion Sands. The Hesperides, my insular resort (I had in mind California’s Catalina Island), was meant to replicate the decadent territory so fascinatingly explored by Ballard during the sixties. In this homage, I was also preceded by Michael Coney, Ed Bryant and Lee Killough, all of whom have worked similar venues. (A theme anthology in the making!) I wrote two sequels to “Kid,” neither of which sold. And of course, this story marked one of my first shameless co-optings of the title of a great pop song into another medium.

 

Kid Charlemagne

 

 

The Hesperides. how far away and unreal those islands seem now. A place out of time, cushioned and insulated by wealth, where the whims of the rich collided with the unpredictable passions of their playthings—and the lesser of those two forces gave way, with results often merely ludicrous, but sometimes all too tragic.

The Hesperides. Sun, money, tailored bodies, hot and violent emotions, whispers in the night. It all runs together in my memory now, a blurred spectrum like those caused by the oil slicks from the hydrofoils in the Bay, shifting, mutable, impossible to grasp. A moiré on the silk covering a woman’s haunch.

A few incidents stand out starkly, though. And these are the ones I would most forget.

The Hesperides. Once I called them home.

 

Behind the bar in La Pomme d’Or, I counted bottles. Scotch, tequila, vodka, retsina (hard to acquire since the coup in Greece), a nauseating peach liqueur which was all the rage that year. Whenever I found I was running low on a particular item, I would key in an order code and quantity on the submicro hanging from my belt. Eventually, I’d squirt the whole order over the fiber-optic line to the mainland. With luck, the shipment would arrive on tomorrow morning’s ’foil.

The big windows onto the veranda were deopaqued. Morning sunlight poured in, giving the interior of La Pomme an oddly wholesome look. With the bi-O-lites off, the air empty of smoke and perfume, the nuglass chairs resting upside down atop the ceramic tables, the stage bare, my club looked innocent and untainted, holding no hint of the sordid dramas enacted there nightly.

I liked it best at this brief hour, but the night came all too quickly.

When I reached the middle of the bar, I flicked on the radio to catch the news.

“—murder. In other news, a delegation of ASEAN diplomats will ride an ESA Hermes shuttle to an orbital meeting with President Kennedy, who is occupying the High Frontier White House this month. The delegation is hoping to spur an investigation into the recent tragedy in Singapore. On a lighter note, fashion followers will be glad to hear—”

I filtered out the unimportant babble as I continued the count.

My head must have been below the bar when he walked in. I always left the door open in the morning so the salt-freighted breeze could wash the stale indoor smells away, although I didn’t start business till one.

In any case, when I popped up, I found myself confronting him.

He was a slim fellow of twenty-two, or thereabouts—young enough to be my son. His features were very delicate, yet with nothing androgynous or feminine about them: simply finely chiseled. His skin was the color of a polished chestnut; his eyes, a luminous blue. He wore a patched and salt-stained khaki shirt and denim cutoffs. Across his chest ran a bandolier, holding something concealed against his back.

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