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Paul Di Filippo
Four Walls Eight Windows, 295 pages

Paul Di Filippo
Paul Di Filippo lives in Providence, Rhode Island. He is the author of four story collections, Destroy All Brains, The Steampunk Trilogy, Ribofunk, Fractal Paisleys (and a fifth called Lost Pages due out this year). 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 (mid-1998) and Spondulix (second half of 1998 or early 1999).

Paul Di Filippo Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

In a Wired magazine interview (November 1996), Paul Di Filippo explained the title of this thematically-related collection:

"It's a neologism of my own inventing that I hope spreads like a memetic virus throughout the intellectual community. Ribo comes from the word ribosome, which I use as a shorthand for all biology, and funk indicates a stylistic component derived mostly from funk music... a hot, skittery style in contrast to the more laid back, cerebral style that you might find in some cyberpunk..."
Ribofunk is also, of course, a riff on cyberpunk. One hallmark of cyberpunk is the portrayal of technology as neither inherently good nor bad (in contrast to the Faustian themes typical of the Cold War-era), but just part of the landscape, even possibly a source of personal transcendence when humans neurally merge with the network.

Similarly, Di Filippo dismisses current debates about the ethics of cloning and gene manipulation in presenting a humanity populated by so many recombinant strains that it's hard to recognize anything discernibly "human" as we consider it today. Di Filippo is not saying this is an awful thing; he's just saying it offers extremely interesting possibilities that radically expand notions of diversity. In Ribofunk, a human is defined as a creature that has at least 51% human genes. The rest could be derived from anything ranging from a chimp to a dog to an insect. Those whose genetic constitution has fewer (or no) human genes are called "splices," which the "humans" seem to consider inferior and are often employed as servants.

Whether this represents a literary movement akin to the cyberpunks remains to be seen. Thematically, I'd shelve Di Filippo next to Rudy Rucker, but I can't think of anyone else who is quite as, well, weird.

Although most of the Ribofunk tales were previously published as separate stories, I think it helps to have them collected together because they share a language that repeated reading sometimes clarifies -- a term I didn't quite get in one story became apparent by its use in another. Part of Di Filippo's schtick, in fact, is to open a story with a barrage of idiosyncratic slang that may only make sense once you've read the ending. Case in point is the opening piece, "One Night in Television City":

"I'm frictionless, molars, so don't point those flashlights at me. I ain't going nowhere, you can see that clear as hubble. Just like superwire, I got no resistance, so why don't you gimme some slack?"
While these pieces share similar referents -- the Sons of Dixie, 'eft, kibes, tropes and Turing Levels to name just a few -- except for a trilogy involving a nameless private investigator who joins the Protein Police, the characters are different. And I mean really different -- a "waste gipsy" (an itinerant toxic clean-up worker) wounded in a "cockfight," a wolverine "splice" that has a potentially fatal crush on her master, a transgenic servant of a Virtuality Poet and part-time "gigaload gigolo," and the "Urb" that absorbs all genetic material into a collective consciousness. The reader is definitely not in Kansas anymore.

Di Filippo's strength is as a stylist; his wonderful evocation of the Ribofunk universe takes interesting and oftentimes hilarious angles on the age-old SF question of what it means to be human (particularly if your DNA is derived from non-human sources). This is what makes compelling ordinarily banal plot lines, such as adolescents trying to fit-in with their peers or a soldier caught up as a tool in a war machine.

Still, many of these stories fail to rise above the level of vignette. More often than not, just when a story seems to be gaining some momentum, it thuds to a quickie end. "Up The Lazy River," for example, starts out promisingly in depicting a River Master on a mission to reverse "greenpeacer" sabotage of a biologically-sentient river, but the resolution is gimmicky, the sort of thing you'd expect from an Outer Limits television episode. More successful as stories are "McGregor," which features a chain-smoking Peter Rabbit set to liberate the "splices" in you-know-who's garden, and "Blankie," which ends on a suggestion of tolerance for the more peculiar forms of genetic mutation and, by implication, some of humanity's stranger peccadilloes.

Di Filippo has been compared to William Burroughs (an association also made with the cyberpunks), and the connection I see is the emphasis upon depicting an unsettling reality over developing a traditional storyline. If you're looking for a few uncomfortable laughs in a quick-but-stylish read, this would be a most excellent choice.

Copyright © 1998 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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