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Shuteye for the Timebroker
Paul Di Filippo
Thunder's Mouth Press, 320 pages

Shuteye for the Timebroker
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: Babylon Sisters and Other Posthumans
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 Paul Kincaid

You are a writer who has carved out a quirky but distinguished place in the field, been close to winning a few awards, built up a loyal fan following. You are putting together another short story collection. Do you choose to lead off with two related stories that are not only 20 years old, but which were rejected when first written and have not since seen the light of day?

That is what Paul Di Filippo has chosen to do. "Captain Jill" and "Billy Budd" are the last two in a sequence of four stories set in the weird New England town of Blackwood Beach. They are humorous fantasies of the sort where every fantastical cliché is presented as part of normal life, and the moment the premise is laid out you know how it is all inevitably going to end. If Di Filippo were to bring out a slim volume of the four Blackwood Beach stories there might be some point in resurrecting them, but as the opening for a brand new collection? Frankly I'm with the editor who turned them down all those years ago.

Let's now jump ahead to the end of the collection. The last piece here is "The Farthest Schorr," 32 very short stories (most of them are only about a page long) inspired by the paintings of Todd Schorr. At such short length you don't expect much in the way of characterisation, context or plot, and you certainly don't get any of that. Instead you get something that moves with the illogic of dream, often towards a weak joke or a weaker pun. Without any of the relevant pictures, which might provide some resonance to help us appreciate these vignettes, these seem feeble little exercises which bring the collection to a clunky, discordant end.

Fortunately, sandwiched between this uninteresting opening and uninspired close, there are 12 other stories which are, in the main, considerably better. Di Filippo is a writer who likes to shift restlessly between styles and manners, though his most common mode is the humorous. Not outright comedy, but the sort of thing that leaves you smiling without necessarily understanding why. It's the sort of trick that writers like R.A. Lafferty and Howard Waldrop pull of with aplomb. Di Filippo is not quite so adept, every so often he will try to be straightforwardly funny, as in "The Secret Sutras of Sally Strumpet" in which a writer finds his own reality becoming tenuous as his fictional creation takes on flesh. The trouble is, when he's trying to be funny is when he's most likely to be predictable. The story of Sally Strumpet may not exactly be the same as a dozen others you've read, but it feels like it. Considerably better is the title story (in which Di Filippo does pay homage to Lafferty) set in a world in which drugs allow us to remain awake 24 hours a day. Cast as a tragedy, in which a high-flyer in this world gradually loses status until he is ejected into the underworld of the sleepers, it still maintains a sly, wry tone which is perhaps the best combination of drama and comedy in the book.

When he is not trying to be humorous, his touch is better. There is an effective little horror story set on the New York subway, "Underground"; an elegantly recursive story about writing a science fiction story, "Distances"; a pleasing fable, "Walking the Great Road", which ends up similarly recursive. A couple of the tales have neat premises which don't really pay off as a neat story: "Slowhand and Little Sister" about a meeting that never happened between Eric Clapton and Janis Joplin doesn't actually go anywhere; and "We"re All in this Alone," a collaboration with Michael Bishop, starts as a wonderfully intriguing thriller about murders tied to bizarre snippets in a local paper, but descends into the surreal as if the authors could think of no satisfactory way to end the story they began.

In other words, what this collection demonstrates is a wayward talent. Though one of the more intriguing aspects of Di Filippo's ability to put on and discard voices at will is his occasionally ability to write well in the tones of someone else. "Distances" has the same tonal quality as Frederik Pohl's "Day Million," while two of the stories gathered here are more overtly written in another manner. "The Days of Other Light" is an updating of a fragment by Edgar Allen Poe. In Poe's original, if I remember aright, we see the effects of loneliness on the mind of a man at a remote lighthouse. Di Filippo's story takes him to a strange alien building on an otherwise deserted world where a lens opens him up to the experience of other creatures across the universe. The murky, fervid quality of Poe's story sits oddly in a science fiction setting, but still the story works. Even better is "The Mysterious Iowans," Di Filippo's take on Jules Verne. The castaways of The Mysterious Island have now returned and transformed Iowa into an independent state of immense scientific and social progress. Di Filippo captures perfectly Verne's breathless utopian vision of scientific wonder, but as his journalist hero begins to uncover tensions within this perfect state, Di Filippo effortlessly brings Captain Nemo and Robur the Conqueror into the mix. It is, by some way, the best story in a decidedly patchy collection.

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.

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