Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Paul Di Filippo
by Darrell Schweitzer
SCHWEITZER: Let's start in the middle . . . I wonder if you have any comments
on why we're having a second big wave of Steampunk just now. It's so 20th
century, something that happened in the late '80s, but now it's happening again.
Di FILIPPO: It's funny, Darrell, that you would bring that up, because that was
the topic of a panel, last night, here at Boskone. I think it's an extra-literary
phenomenon. There's that aspect of it, where it's become a cultural lifestyle thing
that has summoned a whole flock of people. I think it's almost the reverse order.
They enter the lifestyle and then start looking for the fiction that originally sparked
that lifestyle. So I think that a lot of it is that people feel that there is an audience
out there of people who are attracted to the superficial trappings, the costumes and
gadgets of Steampunk. Maybe writers feel that they can wean those people off that,
or transfer their affections from all those tchotchkes to the literary aspect of it.
But I think the whole genre does answer a certain need that we feel here in the 21st
century, where we are distant from our shiny gadgets. They're impenetrable.
Nobody knows what goes on inside an iPod. It's all a mystery. But you know what
goes on inside a steam engine or a brass telescope. So I think that's part of the
appeal of the genre, that the characters within the Steampunk stories can be very
hands-on and proactive with their technology and not just at the mercy of it.
SCHWEITZER: And here I thought it was sort of like Goth, only they dress
Di FILIPPO: Well, there is that. [Laughs.] There is the style element. You don't
have to wear so much black eyeliner. It's probably better for the health of your
eyes. But, on the panel last night, we had a very neat crowd. We had Lev
Grossman, Michael Swanwick, myself and Everett Soares, who has done a
Steampunk comic. Michael Swanwick made a very important point about
Steampunk, which I think ties in to what may be seen of the malaise of science
fiction, which is that Steampunk is generally fun. We've heard in recent years that
science fiction has concentrated too heavily on dystopias, and there are no more
bright and shiny futures to allure readers, and Steampunk offers that, even if it's
dystopian Steampunk like The Difference Engine. You note that The Difference
Engine is in a minority in terms of the kind of Steampunk that it is. I think
Steampunk offers some of the old allure that Science Fiction in the Golden Age
used to have, a future or an alternate reality that you would actually want to live in.
SCHWEITZER: It's more of an alternate past than a future.
Di FILIPPO: Right, an alternate past. But it's kind of hard to say with some
Steampunk. I am thinking of Stephen Hunt, who did two books, The Kingdom
Beneath the Waves, and there was a sequel out recently. In those books you're not
quite sure if it's the past or an alternate continuum or our future. I think, yeah,
generally Steampunk seems to be a retro thing, where it takes place in Victorian
England or even further back. It's not the future, but it is an alternate timestream
that possesses a certain romantic allure that readers find attractive.
SCHWEITZER: What seems to have happened here is an interesting interplay
between the culture and the literature, as if the original literature created the culture
and now the culture is re-stimulating the literature.
Di FILIPPO: Exactly. That's what I was trying to say. There's a feedback loop,
because it began as a literary movement, and then it was adopted by people who
felt they could use it almost in the way the SCA people use medieval times as a
weekend recreational thing, or even a 24-7 recreational thing if they incorporate it
that fully into their lives. So that built up and then the authors, seeing that
phenomenon, realized how they could utilize some of the aspects of it to ramp up
their own fiction, or write their own fiction differently. So I think there is a very
interesting feedback loop between the people who are the hardcore fans and writers
and the people who are on the edges of it as a lifestyle.
SCHWEITZER: We haven't really seen second-wave Cyberpunk. Or have we?
The literature had an enormous impact on the culture, but I am not sure it fed back
into the literature.
Di FILIPPO: Right, very accurate. There were generations of cyberpunk writers,
as we know. There were people who came after Gibson and Sterling. I am thinking
of someone like Simon Ings, a British writer who did some great stuff. He was
chronologically younger than us old Baby Boomers, like in his thirties where we
were in our forties when we were writing Cyberpunk. So there were writers who
came after that Gibson/Sterling wave, but they didn't really expand it or take it in
vastly new directions. They amped up bits and pieces of it, but you could see that it
was basically a straight line continuation of what the first generation Cyberpunks
had done. So, yeah, it hasn't really mutated into anything that is like the mutant
offspring of Cyberpunk. I don't think we've seen that yet.
SCHWEITZER: Maybe the difference was that Cyberpunk was really trying to
address the future and even the real world of present, whereas most Steampunk
takes place in a never-neverland.
Di FILIPPO: We talked on the panel about the escapist nature of Steampunk,
whether it was good escapism to focus on the Victorian era instead of our current
problems, whether that was good, because it gave us a perspective on the roots of
our current culture, or whether it was just bad escapism like hiding your head in the
sand. Certainly there is that didactic, forward-looking impulse that we found in
Cyberpunk is, I think, missing from Steampunk, to a large degree.
SCHWEITZER: Doesn't any writer have to develop beyond these movements
anyway? Surely the most superficial of all literary values, not to mention careers
strategies, involves getting on someone else's bandwagon. It must wear thin rather
Di FILIPPO: I was affiliated with the Cyberpunks, to whatever degree. I wrote
The Steampunk Trilogy, so I dipped my toe into that movement. I've even done
some stuff which could be classified as New Weird, which of course is a fairly
recent phenomenon and quasi-movement, although it is leaderless and diffuse.
Personally, I don't like to follow any one pattern of writing or school of writing for
very long before lighting out for the territories and looking out for something new;
but I think it can hurt a writer's career to be too much identified with one
movement. Eventually Steampunk is going to jump the shark and seem passé, and
then what do you do if that's all you're known for writing? You can't really
conceive of writing anything else.
SCHWEITZER: I noticed that after Gibson and Sterling and so on, there were
indeed a lot of little Gibsons and imitation Gibsons, and most of those have faded
away, whereas Gibson and Sterling themselves are doing just fine. I will venture a
prediction, that you may agree with or not, that fairly soon the New Weird
movement is going to crash and burn, but when it's all over Jeff Vandermeer and
China Mieville and people like that will be doing as well as ever. It's their
imitators who will be in trouble.
Di FILIPPO: Consider M. John Harrison, a name highly central to the whole New
Weird phenomenon. His career is just so vast. He started in the New Wave and he
wrote a number of different types of books down the past several decades and his
involvement with the New Weird, I think, indicates that he is one of the writers
who will persevere beyond this current craze for any kind of surreal, slipstream
type literature. So, yeah, I do think those writers you identified, Jeff and China,
will have long careers after this whole thing has faded.
SCHWEITZER: Are these really movements, or publicity stunts? I become
suspicious when someone declares a "movement." Don't you?
Di FILIPPO: A think a true literary movement has to have an organic genesis and
arise out of a vision, either an individual vision or a shared vision, of what could be
in the literature, how the literature could do things differently. I don't think either
of us would deny that there have been genuine literary movements. People of like
mind found themselves banding together, thinking along the same lines. They work
out a certain synergy. You could relate the output of certain writers to each other
and against each other. So the history of literature is full of genuine organic
movements that have sprung up. Whether some of these that we are seeing today
are more factitious, more contrived, I think you have to gauge each one and study
the history of it. Use your hype meter too, your bullshit meter and see if it seems to
be just dedicated to furthering careers or if it actually represents a genuine response
to a deficiency in the literature.
SCHWEITZER: I wonder if charting movements isn't a job for the critics, and
the writers should just leave it alone and go on writing.
Di FILIPPO: I would have to agree. A lot of these things happen in retrospect.
People look backwards or they just freeze a moment in time and try to analyze
what's happening amongst a variety of writers who might not even be necessarily
connected personally or on any kind of actual working level. So, yes, critics
obviously play a huge part. Editors also. Look at how instrumental Ellen Datlow
and Gardner Dozois were in the Cyberpunk movement. They played as big a role
as some of the writers did.
SCHWEITZER: If you were to start a movement now . . . what in contemporary
science fiction dissatisfies you, which you as a writer would like to address?
Di FILIPPO: I did try to start a movement in a very jokey way, back in the heyday
of Cyberpunk. I called it Ribofunk. That word, I invented. I took the ribo prefix
from ribosomes, from biology, and I took funk as the music, as opposed to punk. I
jammed them together and created a neologism, and I wrote a little mock manifesto
to go along with it, and then, when I was done being satirical, I looked at what I
had created and I said, "You know, this actually has some potential," and I wrote a
number of stories according to my own imaginary dictates, and they were
eventually collected in a volume called Ribofunk. Now, if you Google it, you get
ten thousand hits for the word I created. A lot of them are duplicates. They're just
references to my book on eBay or whatever, but still it's kind of awesome to think
that I created that neologism and it's out there. There's another term, "Biopunk." If
you type that into Wikipedia, it says, "Another term for this is ribofunk." So my
term has now become a subsidiary to Biopunk, which I think has more actual
precedence in the critical terminology.
So at one point I did address what I thought was a defect in the Cyberpunk
movement, that it was all about hardware. It was about silicon and turning yourself
into software, and I thought that we were neglecting the organic side of our
heritage, and the bodily side, and bio-engineering. I felt we should concentrate
more on that.
I think that since then there have been any number of responses to that, whether it
was in direct response to me or just other people seeing the same perceived defects.
So if you go to that Biopunk entry on Wikipedia, you will see a whole list of great
books, like maybe Kathleen Goonan's Queen City Jazz series. Rudy Rucker has
dealt a little with the topic, as has Peter Watts. So that is something I think still
needs to be explored. To me the reason that ten thousand years of literature is still
intelligible to us is because basically we are the same human organism that we
were, with the same mental capacities and physical capacities. We haven't grown
four arms or we haven't added extra lobes to our brains. A lot of superficial things
have changed, but our brain/body system has remained consistent for that whole
period of time, and so we can mentally and emotionally grok Shakespeare and
Plato and anybody else as far back as you want to go.
But the prospect of bio-engineering the human organism, that to me is something
that needs to be explored more in science fiction. When you change the baseline
human, you put an iron curtain down between the new organism and our past, our
SCHWEITZER: The term "Biopunk" to me suggests outlaw, underground, sleazy
uses of biotechnology.
Di FILIPPO: Yes, exactly.
SCHWEITZER: Rather like Larry Niven's "Organlegger."
Di FILIPPO: Yes, that's a very good precedent for that type of literature. If you
look at something like Star Trek. I don't know, canonically, how far in the future
Star Trek is supposed to happen, how their Star Dates relate to our Christian
SCHWEITZER: About A.D. 2300, something like that.
Di FILIPPO: So it's like 300 years in the future, and there have been no changes
in the human baseline condition. They haven't amped up their reflexes -
SCHWEITZER: Yes, they have, but it's illegal. There are a couple episodes about
that. At one point on Deep Space 9 there was a big scandal because Dr. Bashir was
discovered to be a bio-enhanced person.
Di FILIPPO: So I am not up on the full canon then and I am deficient in a lot of
the spin-off viewing. But when you have a space opera set hundreds of years in the
future and you don't acknowledge these changes, it seems unconvincing. Even
now, with smart drugs, people are using - what is it? - Provigil, the anti-sleep
drug. They're using it to stay awake extra periods and hone their reflexes and so
on. There has just got to be more of that depicted in the future. You can't just have
these starships populated with regular 21st century people. I just don't think it's
going to be a reality.
SCHWEITZER: If you say the word "Singularity" and point a microphone at
Vernor Vinge, you're set for the next two hours, but we are approaching that topic.
If people are going to be all that much different in the future, how do we write
about them comprehensibly?
Di FILIPPO: You're right. The Singularity is a huge practical and intellectual
stumbling block, because if you endorse the notion that there is an iron curtain
waiting up ahead of us, beyond which we cannot see, then that effectively limits
your story space and your potential for examining the future of mankind. There
have been a lot of solutions, each one more or less contrived or awkward. One
solution that Vinge himself proposed was different shells within the universe
where the Singularity was not permitted to happen within a certain shell of the
cosmos. So he could tell stories within that shell because they were within that
physical domain, because they were the old, familiar stories that we knew, just
within futuristic settings. Then as you moved up his kind of cosmic ladder, things
became more and more incomprehensible. So that was one way that he found
I've set stories on an Earth that is more or left deserted, and it's filled with the
people who got left behind. The Singularity, as we know, is often called "The
Rapture of the Nerds," so this is a kind of post-Rapture story where people are left
behind. They weren't subsumed in the Singularity, so you get their story. But once
again, as I say, these solutions are kludgy and awkward and they don't really
address the problem. It's like showing a human genius, or a human artist of superb
talent. When you depict them, you have to depict their stream-of-consciousness or
the works they produce. You have to give some sample of it and convince the
reader that this really is a genius or an artist of superior powers. How do you do
that, because you can only write up to the peak of your own artistry? It's hard to
depict a genius on the page. You can show everybody worshipping him, but at
some point you have to adduce what he has done to actually be worthy of that.
That's the same thing with the Singularity. You've got this entity out there. How
do you depict it or make people believe that it's actually superhuman?
SCHWEITZER: I think it's the same way you depict gods or demi-gods or the
like. I can't go into great detail here, but one reason I have always been dissatisfied
with Stranger in a Strange Land is that you have to take everybody's word for it
that Valentine Michael Smith is all that special. You can't feel it.
Di FILIPPO: That's the problem I'm talking about.
SCHWEITZER: Now, Gore Vidal in his novel Messiah solved this problem very
quickly. He wrote about the creation of a new religion, but got his messiah out of
the picture quickly, then wrote about all the quarrelling disciples. So what you do
is write about the other people reacting to the genius, rather than about the genius.
Di FILIPPO: The thing about the Singularity is not to say that it is the only
feature of the future universe. Say it comes into being locally, on a planet or in
space, or whatever. There is still the rest of the universe to write about. The
Singularity can be something like a black hole. It can be something that every other
character, the rest of the universe has not ramped up to yet, so they are viewing the
Singularity from the outside. Plotwise it can figure either negligibly or to a large
degree, depending on your needs. So the Singularity can almost function like an
astronomical black hole. It's there. You can't get at it. It has an effect if you get too
close, but you can tell stories around it, at a distance.
SCHWEITZER: To bring up Star Trek again for a second, aren't the Borg the
people who have passed the Singularity?
Di FILIPPO: There you go. [Laughs.] The Borg are probably not the model we
want for ourselves. Or you could always deny it. The Singularity is just a theory.
It's not a law of the universe. It's a theory with some justification behind it, or
some line of logic behind it, so you could always deny the Singularity and say it's
not possible and that human consciousness or machine consciousness will never
reach these dimensions so that they become unfathomable.
SCHWEITZER: Or it may that once it happens everyone will take it for granted.
One of the great science fiction stories on this subject is "The Shape of Things
That Came" by Richard Deming. Have you ever read it?
Di FILIPPO: No.
SCHWEITZER: Most of us when we were kids got a two-volume Groff Conklin
set from the Book Club, A Treasury of Great Science Fiction.
Di FILIPPO: Yeah, of course.
SCHWEITZER: In that there is a quite short story, first published in 1951, about
a man from Victorian times who invents the "time-nightshirt" and goes to see the
future, then returns to his own time and writes about 1950, where they have cars
and airplanes and telephones, and so on. His editor back in 1890 says, "This is very
imaginative and wonderful extrapolation, but what I can't believe is that anyone
would ever take these things for granted."
Di FILIPPO: That's wonderful. We are living, as a lot of people have noticed, in a
science fiction world. It has crept up on us. It hasn't assumed the full dimensions
of jet packs and food pills and so on that was present in a lot of Golden Age SF,
but like the frog in boiling water, we have succumbed to this future without quite
realizing that it is a science-fictional future. Try explaining much of what we take
for granted to someone from, even, 1960. I think they would just look at you as if
you were insane. It's an ongoing process. We are inventing the future day-by-day,
and assimilating it almost as quickly, I think.
SCHWEITZER: You ask a sixteen-year-old to explain to someone who is fifty
what that little thing they're operating with their thumbs is.
Di FILIPPO: This brings up another whole point, which Charles Stross has
brought up on his blog. He did a post about the impossibility or near-impossibility
of writing short-term future SF. That is what he is currently working on. He is
working on a sequel to his novel Halting State. That was near-future SF. It took
place like, whenever - five, seven, twelve years into the future, and involved theft
of virtual currency. That was the McGuffin at the heart of it. There was this gaming
world like Second Life and someone broke into the virtual bank and stole the
virtual money. The straight cops who had no idea what this was all about and were
just baffled. Is this a real crime? Can we prosecute? How do we go about solving
it? So within months of the publication of Halting State, that actually happened.
There have been several robberies of virtual banks. So Charles Stross said, "Well,
my novel was outmoded six months after it came out. Now I've got to write the
sequel, and I am just stumped, because two weeks later I am still in the middle of
the novel and the thing put in chapter one has come true." So he had an interesting
post about this, which you can easily find if you go to his blog, claiming that the
pace of change is accelerating so fast that it makes it very hard for the SF writer
who wants to deal realistically with current trends. It is impossible to stay abreast
of it, given the year-long cycle of manuscript to published book.
SCHWEITZER: This is not a new thing. Some books just ride past that sort of
problem without any difficulty. The example that comes to my mind is Tom
Disch's Camp Concentration which is set in 1975. It was published first serially in
1967, but certainly by the time most people had read the book it was "obsolete." I
don't think this slowed it down much.
Di FILIPPO: Well great art will hold up, for sheer narrative value. That is why we
still can read with pleasure the Golden Age SF which has been superseded. We
read about some hypothetical Moon-landing, and we know it doesn't match reality,
but we still enjoy the story for the sake of story. Think of the Hal Clement story,
"Dust," in which the moondust sticks to the visor. We know that didn't happen, but
it's still a suspenseful and intriguing puzzle story.
So, yeah, great works of art still give us pleasure on many levels even if their
predictive elements have fallen short. Charlie may be angsting a little too much,
because, as you say, it has always been an issue. I always remember that great
anecdote about the Asimov story, in which the reason that mankind could never get
to the top of Mt. Everest is that there was an alien base on top. The story saw print
in a magazine the same month that Hilary reached the summit of Mt. Everest, so
Isaac said that he was very disappointed that his timing had been off on that one.
SCHWEITZER: It could have been worse. It could have been printed a month
later. But today we'd say it was all part of a conspiracy cover-up. But we approach
a serious subject here. All this stuff about the Singularity and the inability to cope
with the near future is turning into a consensus in science fiction, and if we have a
consensus about what the future is going to be like, it might be science fiction that
comes grinding to a halt. So maybe the task of the writer is to subvert the whole
Di FILIPPO: That's a very important point, Darrell. Any consensus should be
distrusted. It's like that bumper-sticker, SUBVERT THE DOMINANT
PARADIGM. What was that French critic, who back in the '60s and '70s argued
that science fiction was wasting its energies writing all these separate futures and
we needed to get together and establish a consensus future? It was Jacques Sadoul
. . .?
SCHWEITZER: Someone brought up that idea in American fandom in the 1940s
and it was very sensibly laughed down.
Di FILIPPO: Yeah, so that notion that science fiction could be made much
stronger and do a better job if it narrowed its options seems to me insane. What
you want is to let a thousand flowers bloom. That's the whole point of science
fiction, that the alternatives that it can propose are endless and boundless, so you
get that hybrid vigor as the different scenarios interfertilize. If you narrow it down
to where, yes, the Singularity must occur and I have to acknowledge it in my
fiction, you're right. It's a lack of diversity of possibility.
SCHWEITZER: Given the infinite number of possibilities, why do so many
science fiction writers of late seem to be shying away from the future? Some have
suggested that the whole alternate history thing is simply a way to avoid writing
about the future.
Di FILIPPO: That is a major defect in the current marketplace, or the marketplace
of ideas, maybe. The old style - let's use Heinlein as the main exponent of it - that
old Heinlein style of SF has disappeared. I think writers succumb to despair and
they are absorbing the cultural malaise that we're in, and that should not be their
job, I think that especially in science fiction we need to be a counterforce to
counterbalance the gloom and doom and cultural malaise that's out there. But you
know what it is. . . . There is probably a term for this in philosophy, or in physics
for all I know. This has always struck me. The universe has a very narrow set of
conditions for most things to go right, whereas the conditions for things to go
wrong are almost infinite. If you have a teacup, there is basically only one way to
keep it safe on the shelf. There are a million ways for it to get broken. That
unfortunately is the way the universe is set up. I often think about the multiplier
effect of this too. You take that fellow who violated airport terminal security in
New York. It was the young Asian man who wanted to say goodbye to his
girlfriend, and so he ducked under the security rope. Now his little action of
ducking under that security rope shut down the terminal. It has a multi-million-dollar consequence, and it impacted the lives of literally thousands of people. What
simple action could you or I take which would have a beneficial effect of that
nature? How could we duck under a rope and instantly add millions of dollars to
the Gross National Product and benefit the lives of thousands of people? It's just
not possible. The universe is a perverse entity where simple actions can cause
tremendous damage, but the same simple actions generally cannot cause
This is a long, round-about way of saying that it is always easier to envision the
gloom-and-doom scenario when you are sitting down to write the story than it is to
envision the positive one. I think that is a natural human failing which explains
why dystopias are easier to write.
SCHWEITZER: If you could figure out, even satirically, what that beneficial
action would be, you'd have a great story.
Di FILIPPO: There's one little story that I think about. It's a Mack Reynolds story
called "Depression or Bust." [Published in Analog August 1967 - DS]. I think of it
in the current economic conditions too, because it's very relevant. We follow Joe
Q. Public. He's coming home from his job. He looks at a display of televisions in
the store, and he says, "My television is on the way out. I'd like to buy a new one,
but I didn't get that raise, so I'm not going to buy the television." Then it cuts from
him to the store owner, who says, "Gee, I didn't sell twelve televisions this month.
I only sold eight. I've got to lay off a worker." Then Mack Reynolds builds this
cascade where, by the time it is done, the economy is in shambles. There's a world-wide depression. So all the scientists and politicians get together and say, "What
the hell caused this depression? We were humming along great." That track it back
to the man who didn't buy the TV. They go to his house. They give him $200 and
say, "Go buy yourself a new TV." Then it cascades in the reverse direction and all
of the sudden the global economy is humming again. So, yeah, you wonder, are
there hidden tai chi pressure points in the world. You're right, it would be a
wonderful story, and it might be more fantasy than science fiction, though you
could put a science-fictional spin on it, where someone discovers psychohistory
only it's not psychohistory. You'd have to come up with some great scientific term
for it. But someone discovers the pressure points of the universe. It you can touch
it just right, something great happens.
SCHWEITZER: You write it.
Di FILIPPO: I think I will. You've inspired me.
SCHWEITZER: I guess we should talk about what you are writing now or about
Di FILIPPO: I have two books coming out from PS Publishing, Pete Crowther's
wonderful UK small press. They're coming out this year. The first one is called
Roadside Bodhisattva, and it's a totally mimetic, naturalistic novel. I am very
proud to have him publish it. He's done a little straight crime stuff with Ed
Gorman's books, but he doesn't do mimetic novels, so I have a feeling that he
liked this one and thought it was worth doing. I've written a couple of previous
novels which have contemporary settings, but the events are so absurd and
surrealistic that even though there's nothing supernatural of fantastical, to me they
always read like fantasies. This earlier books are Joe's Liver and Spondulix. The
events were over-the-top and outrageous and postmodern. But I wanted to sit down
and see if I could actually meet the goal that everybody tells us is so great, and
write a literary novel. It's not super-literary, Thomas Pynchon or anything. But I
wanted to try to write a strictly naturalistic novel, and I think I did a pretty good
job. But it did feel like having one hand continuously tied behind my back. Every
time I had an impulse to put something fantastical on the page, I had to stop
So that's coming out, and the second book from Pete's firm is my sequel to A Year
in the Linear City. That's one of my best-received books. It got onto a couple
award ballots and people have been asking me for a sequel for a long time. I kind
of resisted, because I don't do sequels, in general. But I finally got a way to wrap
my mind around doing a sequel. So this one is called A Princess of the Linear
Jungle. It's kind of Burroughsian, which I think might appeal to a lot of readers,
but at the same time it's a kind of New Weird, science-fictional mishmash that I
hope will take off.
Those two are coming out, and I've a picked up a novel that I'd put aside called Up
Around the Bend. It's named after that great Creedance Clearwater Revival song.
It's kind of a post-apocalyptic thing, but with a lot of surreal, timeslip elements in
it. That's pretty much my major project right now.
SCHWEITZER: Thanks very much, Paul.