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Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans
Paul Di Filippo
Prime Books, 323 pages

Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans
Paul Di Filippo
Paul Di Filippo lives in Providence, Rhode Island. He is the author of five story collections, Destroy All Brains, The Steampunk Trilogy, Ribofunk, Fractal Paisleys, and Lost Pages. Paul Di Filippo's first novel, Ciphers, was published by Cambrian Publications and Permeable Press. Cambrian Publications plans to publish two more of his novels: Joe's Liver and Spondulix.

Paul Di Filippo Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Little Doors
SF Site Review: A Mouthful of Tongues: Her Totipotent Tropicanalia
SF Site Review: A Year in the Linear City
SF Site Review: Strange Trades
SF Site Review: Strange Trades
SF Site Review: Lost Pages
SF Site Review: Ribofunk
SF Site Review: Fractal Paisleys
SF Site Review: The Steampunk Trilogy

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jayme Lynn Blaschke

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Sometimes I think Paul Di Filippo is too clever for his own good. It's almost like he pushes too hard to live up to his reputation as a speculative fiction writer who is totally unpredictable. Well, not totally -- any reader that has encountered his brand of writing knows to expect the unexpected.

With that in mind, Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans encompasses both the best and worst of Di Filippo's stylistic quirks. Here is a writer that effortlessly evokes envy one moment, only to prompt curses the next for some literary shenanigan he has perpetrated.

What could elicit such bipolar responses from otherwise mild-mattered readers? Case in point: "The Reluctant Book." This story is, plain and simple, a fascinating piece. In the future, books are not printed, but mated and bred. Through the miracles of genetic engineering, trees are no longer pulped to bring us reading pleasure, but instead are living, intelligent creatures with enormous cranial capacity, acting as repositories of the world's great literary works. These creatures, with no rights of their own, nevertheless have hopes and dreams and aspirations. When the owner of one particular collection dies, the library is bought at fire sale prices by a ruthless collector who plans to erase his newly-acquired collection and overwrite it with works he feels more worthy. Thus prompts the ensuing revolt by the horrified books. A marvelous story thus far. Witty and original, the imagination on display here is unsurpassed. And then, just as it's getting really fascinating, it comes to a crashing halt with an unfortunately woeful pun. Curse you, Di Filippo!

Other stories here suffer from twist endings that are far too obvious. In "Stone Lives," an street-level Joe in a society of absolute wealth and absolute poverty is plucked from the slums and granted a suspicious pass into the world of the affluent. The familial relationship between him and his benefactor comes as no surprise to anyone but the protagonist. Likewise, "Gravitons" opens with a fascinating premise but soon becomes yet another "if you could really see, you would certainly go insane" story.

The obvious plot direction also rears its ugly head to undermine two of the strongest pieces here, the related "A Thief in Babylon" and the title story, "Babylon Sisters." Di Filippo is a fool if he doesn't set a novel in this lush, richly-detailed future universe he's created. The characters are vivid and the premise -- the self-aware AI Commensality in the city of Babylon, where information is king and infinitely available, along with an anything-goes society -- is as grand as science fiction gets. Unfortunately, the former story bogs itself down with a trite brother-against-brother conflict that resolves with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and the latter tale bends over backwards with an unsatisfying the-end-is-the-beginning recursiveness that reduces an otherwise engrossing adventure to the status of "so what?"

But even when plot fails him, Di Filippo is a pleasure to read for the sheer joy he brings to the page, and when he's firing on all cylinders, watching him juggling words and phrases like so many Faberge Eggs is dazzling and breathtaking. "Otto and Toto in the Oort" is a hilarious romp, a gleeful thumbing-of-the-nose at the genre's revered hard SF tropes. Imagine the nincompoops from Dumb and Dumber given god-like powers and then set loose amidst Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time and you've got some small idea of what to expect here. In "Angelmakers," the concept of guardian angels is taken to extreme, and the results are distressing -- if no one could ever come to harm, would that in itself be harmful? "The Scab's Progress," a bio-punk romp written with Bruce Sterling, plasters over all the well-worn cyberpunk set pieces and replaces them with biotech window dressing. If you're familiar with cyberpunk, the globe-trotting adventures here will come as no surprise, but the authors tackle the subject matter with such glee, throwing in seemingly every idea they have, that the reader can't help but be caught up by all the enthusiasm. Any story that features a genetically-engineered pig named Weeble as a major supporting character has earned my admiration.

The strongest piece here is also the most subtle. "Life Sentence" isn't so much a story as it is a complex character study of a convicted murderer who is literally given a second chance. Determined by the powers that be to be a candidate for rehabilitation, the killer is offered the opportunity to change places with a terminally ill man, to take that person's place in society, assuming his surrogate's identity down to raising the dead man's son, sleeping with the dead man's wife. For anyone else, the temptation to veer into farce and satire would be too great to resist. Di Filippo resists. He plays it straight. The former killer struggles to make his new life work, but the challenges are overwhelming -- from the aloofness of his new wife to the hostility of his new co-workers, his new identity and determination crumble at an alarming rate. Along the way, Di Filippo raises somber questions about our society and justice system, none of which have easy answers.

Ultimately, Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans is a mixed bag. There are some mighty fine stories in these pages, and some mighty boneheaded ones as well. Be that as it may, even when Di Filippo isn't at the top of his game, he's still a pleasure to read, and there aren't many writers out there that I can say that about.

Copyright © 2003 Jayme Lynn Blaschke

Jayme Lynn Blaschke graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in journalism. He writes science fiction and fantasy as well as related non-fiction, and serves as fiction editor for RevolutionSF.com. His website can be found at http://www.exoticdeer.org/jayme.html


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