As any good son of Providence, Rhode Island who grew up reading sci-fi, survived the '70s and the '80s, and then turned to Buddhism should, Paul Di Filippo writes stories that embrace postmodernism, pastiche, pop music, and display a taste for what Eric Cartman would describe as "tree-hugging hippy crap." Like his closest genre cousins, Howard Waldrop and Kim Newman, he is also adept at including in-jokes and side references to '60s and '70s pop culture and the entirety of the history of science fiction, while bringing a sometimes startling level of erudition to his work. Strange Trades, Di Filippo's fifth short story collection, which gathers together eleven stories written between 1987 and 2001 ostensibly based around the theme of work, stands as something of a testimony to that erudition.
The collection opens with a trio of stories that, considered together, make for as strong a beginning to a collection as I've seen in some time. "Kid Charlemagne," a 1988 Nebula nominee, gives a firm nod to Ballard's Vermilion Sands, as Di Filippo deftly sketches in the decadent island resort of Hesperides where the bartender at La Pomme d'Or hires a young immigrant musician who walks into the bar having swum from California. Charlie Maine quickly becomes the biggest drawcard on the island, seducing and being seduced by the damaged daughter of a wealthy Afrikaner scion. However, just as in the Steely Dan song from which the story takes its title, things end badly for Kid Charlemagne. Two of Di Filippo's most common themes, the folly of ambition and the serendipity of life, recur in novella "Spondulix," one of the best and most delightful stories in Strange Trades. Too few of Uncle Sam's duly authorized dollars are coming through the front door of New Jersey sandwich emporium Honeyman's Heroes for proprietor [Rory] Honeyman to be able to pay his virtuoso sandwich maker Nerfball. In a moment of desperate inspiration, Honeyman offers to pay Nerfball in coupons for sandwiches that will be redeemable at the store. These "spondulix," with the aid of one of Nerfball's fellow Beer Nuts, quickly become a widely accepted counter-currency, while Honeyman becomes more and more concerned about how he will ever redeem all of the coupons. The moment when it's suggested that the spondulix be disconnected from the so-called "sandwich standard" is hilarious, but doesn't undercut what is a perceptive look at the possibilities of a barter economy, and Di Filippo manages to endow the whole enterprise with a certain inevitable logic. Di Filippo's offbeat erudition is most evident in "Conspiracy of Noise," a story about a messenger hired by The United Illuminating Company to deliver messages at disturbingly prescient moments. The story is peppered with quotes from everyone from David Lee Roth (The bad news is, we may be lost; but the good news is, we're way ahead of schedule.) to David Gergen (He who controls the agenda controls the outcome.) that, alongside a series of misread street signs and messages, give the story a threatening, dark quality. As a consideration of information, misinformation, and communications overload, it is simultaneously perceptive, funny, and disturbing.
In "Harlem Nova," an homage to Samuel Delany's 1968 classic "We, In Some Strange Power's Employ, Move On a Rigorous Line," Di Filippo shows us a near future where the world has moved on from Cordon Gecko's 1980s and a radicalized sense of social responsibility temporarily dominates. Volunteer programs like the Urban Conservation Corps have enlistment rates 50% higher than that of the Armed Services, and are working towards renewing America's decayed urban centres. One UCC team encounters unexpected difficulties while working on a project to build a new housing project on the site of a Harlem slum when their team leader finds a group of squatters living in the last building slated for demolition. As the squatters and the team workers party at night under the light of a star that has gone nova in the constellation of Cassiopeia, the team leader comes to appreciate the achievements of the squatters, and to suspect that there are more ways to renew a city than he might expect. While it's tempting to dismiss it all as unrealistic, Di Filippo makes a convincing case.
"Karuna, Inc.," the most recent story collected here, is, as Di Filippo says in his introduction, the dark cousin to "Spondulix." Shenda Moore is an energetic, optimistic young woman who has taken an inheritance and turned it into a burgeoning business empire based on "the creation of environmentally responsible, non-exploitive, domestic-based, maximally creative jobs" for employees working in a company where "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 by-product." It creates a happy, sprawling family based around the Karuna Koffeehouse, Moore, and her canary yellow bulldog. However, dark economic forces threaten in the person of Marmaduke Twigg and the mysterious Phineas Gage League. On one hand, "Karuna, Inc." is almost cartoonish, especially in the portrayal of the differences between Moore and her opponents, yet somehow Di Filippo makes this homage to Philip K. Dick work, and work well.
The highlight of the book, though, is "The Mill." Set in a valley dominated by a Dickensian textile mill, it is the story of a young man growing up to work in the mill that his father and his father's father have worked in. Setting aside any genre trappings, "The Mill" works powerfully as a straightforward look at the overwhelming costs of tradition-bound manual labour. The town is bound to the mill, and its menfolk live their lives working for it. Di Filippo plainly respects the sacrifice these people make, while questioning the necessity for it.
Strange Trades is the kind of rare treat that you spend hours in a bookstore hoping to find. Rich, dark, funny, and powerful, it makes for a wonderful introduction to an author who, although he has been writing professionally since 1977, has been easy to overlook. I, for one, won't make that mistake again.
—Jonathan Strahan, Locus, October 2001