|Paul Di Filippo|
|Born||October 29, 1954
Woonsocket, Rhode Island
It's a heartening fact about the human race that utopian fiction precedes dystopian fiction in the evolution of literature.
More than we sleep, play, or make love, we work. Yet despite – or perhaps because of – this dominant daily grind, much of our literature is biased toward other pursuits.
The way I was educated, maybe from just inhaling something in the air back then, I grew up believing that E. B. White occupied the apex of essay writing.
Sometimes magnificent visual art takes root in the humblest of soils. Advertisements painted on old barns, tattoos, fruit crate labels, hot rod embellishments – all these media and many other non-galleried forms have hosted and fostered esthetic delights that satisfy any rigorous definition of art.
Any debut novel is usually a case of spitting into the wind – or, just maybe, casting your bread upon the waters. Without an established audience in place, first-time authors have to hope for resonant word of mouth and a receptive reviewer or three.
Science fiction is a literary field crowded with strong opinions, and no SF novelist delivered himself more memorably of his views – on politics, sexuality, religion, and many other contentious topics – than Robert Heinlein.
Consensus wisdom has it that all modern commercial fantasy novels fall into two camps: those derived from J.R.R. Tolkien and those derived from Mervyn Peake. The 'Lord of the Rings' template or the 'Gormenghast' mold.
Critics, at least generally, want to regard works of fiction as independent entities, whose virtues and failures must be reckoned apart from the circumstances of their creation, and even apart from the intentions of their creator.
It was not until the appearance of cyberpunk in the 1980s that SF began to grapple in a broadly meaningful way with the reality of computers as something other than giant mainframes tended by crewcut IBM nerds.
Of the birth of subgenres, there is no end. They arise like bubbles full of miraculous hopes and potentials from the Planckian foam of the canon, inspiring writers new and established alike.
For every reader and writer of steampunk fiction, there are probably hundreds or thousands of other activists who gleefully embrace some non-written manifestation of the steampunk ethos.
The SF genre, of course, is really an organically evolved, marketplace-determined, idiosyncratic grab bag of themes and signifiers and characters and icons and gadgets, some of which hew to the realistic parameters and paradigms embraced by science, others of which partake more of fantasy and magic.
I think humanity is not wise enough to know what genotype or somatype is going to be the most successful or the most fit – simply because we're not fully in control of our environment.
I suspect that authors who start their careers writing for an adult audience – and who eventually produce a young adult novel or two – are more common than authors who begin by writing for young adults and who then gravitate toward composing something for an adult audience.
The impossibility of a sequel ever recapturing everything – or anything – about its ancestor never stopped legions of writers from trying, or hordes of readers and publishers from demanding more of what they previously enjoyed.
Every new generation of SF writers remakes cyberpunk – a genre often laced with dystopian subtexts – in its own image.
War has always been a part of science fiction. Even before the birth of SF as a standalone genre in 1926, speculative novels such as 'The Battle of Dorking' from 1871 showed how SF's trademark 'what if' scenarios could easily encompass warfare.
Generally speaking, by the time a subculture such as steampunk secures the attention of major media, resulting in extensive coverage of the craze, said phenomenon is already on the way out.
'James and the Giant Peach' magnificently starts out Dahl's career as a blithe and droll Bad Uncle corrupter and affirmer of youth. Its influence can be subsequently traced down the decades in everything from Maurice Sendak to Lemony Snicket to J. K. Rowling.
One posthumous measure of a person's life is how often you imagine his impossible return to deal with some event he never lived to encounter. You picture his reactions, his advice, his sage commentary and humorous asides. For instance, I think about Mark Twain's hypothetical take on current events several times a week.
The three touchstones that woke Buddha up – sickness, old age, and death – are a pretty good place to start when crafting a tragic tale. And if we need to get more specific: heartbreak, destruction, miscomprehension, natural disasters, betrayal, and the waste of human potential.
The advent of AIDS circa 1980 has really forced medicine and biology to take enormous steps just for sheer survival. The same way war propels hard technology, AIDS has created wartime conditions in the field of biology that will have all sorts of spin-offs.
Writing one's first novel, getting it sold, and shepherding it through the labyrinths of editing, production, marketing, journalism, and social media is an arduous and nerve-wracking process.
Roald Dahl pioneered a new kind of literature for youngsters, one that dispensed with cant and solemnity, favoring anarchy and joy over duty and humbuggery while acknowledging that oftentimes no good deed goes unpunished. But ultimately, it was his sheer joie de vivre that carried the day.
Writers begin changing the instant they append 'The End' to a novel. Readers begin changing the moment they encounter that same phrase. And even the novels themselves, through the strange transmutations of time and shifting tastes and mores, exhibit changes as we look backward upon them, acquiring retroactive meanings and tonalities.
Jeff VanderMeer's fiction has always been entrancingly, engagingly, enthusiastically weird, a winning combination of mimesis and the fantastical that privileges neither component: perhaps the very definition of that mode categorized as the 'New Weird' and exemplified most famously by the groundbreaking work of China Mieville.
It is truly bracing and instructive to contemplate the End Times – at least at safe remove, in the pages of fiction – especially as the world beyond our hearths churns and convulses unknowably, yet perhaps just short of ultimate disaster.
Thomas Pynchon surely inaugurated or crystallized a new genre in 1963 when he published 'V.' The seriocomic mystery or thriller with one foot set in the present and one in various historical eras received its postmodern baptism from Pynchon.
Just as our solar system has a certain idiosyncratic assortment of planets and moons, different from any neighboring system yet categorically equivalent, so each distinct period of human history might have special qualities and individuals, characteristics and events, yet still be essentially akin beneath the surface to all the others.
Quite often, intent on conveying how things can go wrong for a culture (science fiction) or an individual (horror) or all of magical creation (fantasy), works of fantastika often preclude comedy, because humor gets in the way of messages of doom or struggle.
Science offers no brief for the telekinetic powers of Darth Vader and hardly any greater justification for the faster-than-light travel that makes his empire possible. And yet what is 'Star Wars' if not pure quill SF?
Ribofunk indicates a focus on biology as the upcoming big science in the way that physics was for the last 50 or 100 years. If you look for a biological thread throughout science fiction, you can find it, but it's a very small percentage of the total. That's been changing in the last few years.
Blending consensus historical events and personages with imaginary occult forces is a strong recipe for counterfactual storytelling goodness that combines the best of two worlds: resonant history with wild-eyed fantasy.
Everyone can guess what 'Corn Flakes' tastes like, even if you've never had them. But what, pray tell, does 'High School Musical' or 'Spider-Man' cereal possibly taste like? In this late era, we have reached the ultimate deracination between product image and what actually sits on our spoon.
Steampunk, the repurposing of Victorian culture and technology for contemporary fun and profit, is so ubiquitous – in media, books, fashion, music, cosplay, and maker culture – that we tend to imagine its superficial aspects are all that define it.
Generational change within a genre is hard to parse while it's happening. Only in retrospect can the passing of the baton from ancestors to progeny be clearly discerned.
Certainly the highest posthumous praise that can be conferred upon any writer is the assertion that his or her writing permanently altered the literary landscape for the better, opening new textual doors and engaging new readers. That the author's oeuvre was essential and irreplaceable and transformative.
The entire Internet, as well as the types of devices represented by the desktop computer, the laptop computer, the iPhone, the iPod, and the iPad, are a continuing inescapable embarrassment to science fiction, and an object lesson in the fallibility of genre writers and their vaunted predictive abilities.
The sentient beast has long been a staple of fantasy fiction and its antecedents in myth and folktale.
Stephen King consummately honors several traditions with his rare paperback original, 'Joyland.' He addresses the novel of carny life and sideshows, where the midway serves as microcosm, such as in those famous books by Ray Bradbury, Charles Finney and William Lindsay Gresham.
It's certainly a cliche to remark that a nonfiction book 'reads just like a novel,' but in the case of Jonathan Eig's 'The Birth of the Pill,' I have no other recourse, since his narrative is full of larger-than-life characters sharply limned and embarked on fascinating doings, their story told in sprightly visual fashion.
The term 'steampunk' itself, now a badge of honor, began as a putdown, a joke. But like 'Big Bang' in cosmology, the diss became the standard.
The lives of most authors – even, or perhaps especially, the great ones – are necessarily a catalogue of tedious inwardness and cloistered composition. Globe-trotting Hemingways and brawling Christopher Marlowes are the exception, not the rule.
The science-fictional motif of lethal, infectious information – bad memes – is a fascinating one, with an extended history. One of the earliest instances is Robert W. Chambers's 'The King in Yellow' from 1895. Chambers's conceit is a malevolent play: read beyond Act II, and you go mad.
The juggernaut that is steampunk, like Dr. Loveless's giant mechanical spider in the 1999 film version of 'The Wild, Wild West,' seems capable of crushing all naysayers.
Once anthropology and geology had opened up the pre-recordkeeping darkness of humanity's long, slow, sustained infancy as suitable grounds for speculation, writers began trying to imagine human existence as it must have been with only stone-age technology.
You could engineer a human to survive the greenhouse effect because you think that's what's going to happen, and then all of a sudden the glaciers are creeping down on you.
There must be a rule of thumb in pop-culture archaeology that states that the allure of any topic is inversely related to its assigned importance in the affairs of humanity. The more trivial the subject, the dearer it is to most of its partisans and the more worthy of scholarship. The smallest things in life often mean the most to people.
Technically and logically speaking, actual Victorian science fiction writers cannot be dubbed 'steampunks.' Although they utilized many of the same tropes and touchstones employed later by twenty-first-century writers of steampunk, in their contemporary hands these devices represented state-of-the-art speculation.
Only a minority of science fiction dystopias attempt to plumb the real existential roots of oppression, the flaws in humanity's nature that undermine our best attempts at organizing ourselves into social units.
The constituents of tragedy may be universally acknowledged, easily invoked and deeply felt, but the elements of comedy are, I think, more widely variable from person to person.