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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 better.

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 quickly.

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 entire history.

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 numbering -

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 around it.

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?


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 thing.

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 tremendous benefit.

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 to publish.

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 myself.

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.

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