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Strange Trades
Paul Di Filippo
Golden Gryphon Press, 343 pages

Strange Trades
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: 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 Rich Horton

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Strange Trades, Paul Di Filippo's fifth collection of short fiction, is one of the most satisfying SF single-author collections I have read in some time. As the title announces, the stories are concerned with people at work. Di Filippo explores a variety of science-fictional jobs, some strange due to technological advances, others due to marginal or experimental economics, others because they're set in unusual milieus.

One of Di Filippo's favourite themes is people living on the edges of society, or in the cracks. In several stories in this book, he depicts, with sympathy, a cooperative economy built in those "cracks." One story, "Harlem Nova," mentions Levi-Strauss' term bricoleurs, for "a class of people who live as scavengers, living on the odds and ends the rest of society discards." And the heroes of "Harlem Nova," "Spondulix," "Karuna, Inc." and maybe even "Conspiracy of Noise," four of the best stories in the book, are to one extent or another bricoleurs. "Harlem Nova" looks straightforwardly at the clash between the utopian impulse and the wishes of people who really don't function well in society, as the project leader of an urban renewal effort in what appears to be a very positive future encounters some people he will be forced to evict. "Conspiracy of Noise" is a bit odder, featuring a shiftless young man who gets a job working for a mysterious company. The secret is in what the company is working towards, hinted at nicely by a series of misreadings of simple messages as the story proceeds. Ultimately, the message here is that a truly healthy economy must have a chaotic, or at least noisy, element, though in this story the message is rather ambiguous in nature. "Spondulix" is a rather sunny story of a 40ish man, the owner of a small sandwich shop, who gets involved in an extended scheme to create an economy based on scrip. And "Karuna, Inc.", one of my favourite stories of the year 2001, is, as Di Filippo says, a "dark cousin" to "Spondulix": dark because of some real tragedy, and because it features some truly (even cartoonishly) evil villains. But it's also an optimistic story, in its view of basic human nature, and in the depiction of the title corporation, with its mission:

"the creation of environmentally responsible, non-exploitive, domestic-based, maximally creative jobs... the primary goal of the subsidiaries shall always be the full employment of all workers... it is to be hoped that the delivery of high-quality goods and services will be a byproduct..."

Di Filippo also indulges in some classical SFnal extrapolation. "Agents" looks at computer-based personality simulations which handle interactions in the "net," and at what might happen if one such "agent" became autonomous. "Skintwister" and "Fleshflowers" follow the career of Dr. Strode, a very talented "peeker": a man who uses psychokinetic powers to heal people by manipulating them at the cellular level. The first story deals with a crisis in his career as, basically, a plastic surgeon; the second with his subsequent time on Mars dealing with an alien infestation. "SUITs" is a mordant and effective fable about robotic security personnel.

The other stories are perhaps less easy to fit into categories. "Kid Charlemagne," as the author acknowledges, is a story strongly influenced by J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands stories: it's set in an isolated lush resort, and features the inevitably doomed romance of a mysterious musician and a spoiled rich girl. "The Boredom Factory" is a cynical fable that is pretty well described by its title. And "The Mill" -- well, for one thing, "The Mill" is my favourite story in this book: I read it and loved it in Amazing Stories back in 1991, and I loved it as much on rereading it just now. It's a long story that in some ways seems reminiscent of Jack Vance. It follows, sometimes indirectly, the life of a man named Charlie Cairncross, as he grows up in the valley of the Mill. The Mill is a series of factory buildings devoted to producing "luxcloth," which is bought by the immortal Factor for interstellar distribution. In the background are such nice SFnal ideas as the interstellar milieu into which this colony planet obscurely fits, the true nature of the Factor, the "luxcloth," and so on. But the centre of the story is the close depiction of the circumscribed society of the factory villages. This society seems real, and its eventual fate is well-portrayed, the characters are sympathetic and worth reading about, and the concluding scene is truly moving. You couldn't call this story ignored -- it did for example make the Locus Reader's Poll list of Best Novellas of 1991, but it does seem under-appreciated (perhaps because of its publication in Amazing: at that time a beautiful large-format magazine which published some striking material, but which never really achieved much success as far as circulation is concerned).

I recommend this collection of stories very highly. Di Filippo is a compulsively engaging writer -- witty and imaginative, and fond of his characters, so that they are fun to spend time with, and fun to root for (mostly!). This book delivers on its implicit thematic promise, offering a nice distribution of SFnal explorations of people at work, even while collecting stories from all phases of the author's career. Excellent stuff.

Copyright © 2001 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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