Strange Trades, Paul Di Filippo (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-05-3, $24.95, 320pp, hc) October 2001. Cover by Frank Kelly Freas. [Order from Golden Gryphon, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802]
After two novels (Ciphers, Joe's Liver) and four collections of shorter work (among them the World Fantasy Award-nominated Fractal Paisleys), Paul Di Filippo comes into his own with Strange Trades, a formidable new collection that deals—sometimes tangentially, more often centrally—with a fundamental aspect of the human condition: making a living. The eponymous trades examined herein range from the mundane (sandwich making, blue collar factory work) to the exotic (genetic restructuring), while the tone of the stories ranges from the satirical to the deadly serious. The cumulative result of all this is a varied, idiosyncratic collection of tales that no one else could have written.
Distinctive though they generally are, a number of the stories gathered here owe clearly acknowledged debts to some prominent practitioners of 20th Century SF. "Kid Charlemagne," for instance, is an affecting account of love, death, and addiction set in a fictional island resort deliberately reminiscent of J. G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands. "Harlem Nova," whose title reflects its obvious homage to Samuel R. Delany, concerns an urban reconstructionist forced by professional circumstances into a painful, ultimately tragic, confrontation. "Conspiracy of Noise" is a quintessential examination of the power of information, and tells the story of a Manhattan-based messenger whose employer, The United Illuminating Company, disseminates the data that helps to shape an increasingly chaotic world. This one calls to mind the archetypal conspiracy narratives of Robert Anton Wilson and Thomas Pynchon.
Norman Spinrad's "Carcinoma Angels" helped inspire two installments in an apparently aborted series. "Skintwisters" is a tale of belated vengeance featuring Dr. Strode, a "biosculptor" specializing in the radical restructuring of the human face. He is an artist, of sorts, and is driven by implacable self-interest and by his abiding belief that "all is vanity and mutability, flash and eternal change." In "Skintwister," Strode enters into a near lethal battle with a murderous figure from his forgotten past. In "Fleshflowers," the sequel, he finds himself exiled to a pioneer colony on Mars, where he wins his freedom—and secures his passage back to Earth—by using his talents to overcome a tenacious alien virus. In his story notes, Di Filippo states that he has abandoned the Strode sequence due to a general lack of readerly support. I think that's a shame. These two stories, with their caustic portraits of a chameleon-like society in which "Fashion is Truth and Truth Fashion" are well-constructed and thoroughly imagined, and deserve to find an audience.
Elsewhere in the collection, Di Filippo moves with deceptive ease through an impressive assortment of themes, scenes, and moods. "Agents" uses Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics as the starting point for a speculative portrait of the digital future, a future in which anthropomorphic software agents serve as intermediaries between human "overseers" and "the metamedium," a Di Fillipovian riff on William Gibson's cyberspace. Two short, pointed stories offer complementary commentaries on the escalating soullessness of corporate life. In "SUITs," an army of headless, bodiless SUITs (Sensory Units for Internal Telemonitoring) begin by serving as automated office staff and gradually proliferate, eventually dominating the urban landscape of America. "The Boredom Factory" is a dark, heartfelt fable—Di Filippo meets Kafka—in which the protagonist, known only as P, yields to the voices endlessly urging him to get a job, and is subsumed into the surreal, circular nightmare of The Boredom Factory, an outpost of industrial hell which generates nothing—literally nothing—but boredom and despair. Di Filippo's attitude toward the modern workplace finds its clearest, most succinct expression in this bleak, uncompromising vignette.
The three longest stories are also, to my mind, the best. "Spondulix" is a self-contained novella that serves as the basis for a completed but still-unpublished novel. "Spondulix" tells the story of Rory Honeyman, a former Olympic diver now operating a marginalized sandwich shop in Hoboken, New Jersey. Unable to pay his one full-time employee in cash, Honeyman cobbles together a crudely designed coupon redeemable for sandwiches at Honeyman's own shop. This home-grown currency—popularly known as spondulix—permeates the local economy with astonishing speed, briefly challenging the primacy of the traditional dollar. Written with wit, warmth, and a compelling internal logic, "Spondulix" demonstrates that money is, after all, only an idea, and that ideas can, under the proper circumstances, alter the nature of the world.
"The Mill," which Di Filippo calls his most autobiographical story to date, powerfully evokes the early days of the Industrial Revolution, offering a complex portrait of a gigantic textile Mill—itself comprising numerous smaller mills—and of the insular community that has taken shape around it. By setting this familiar, Dickensian material on a remote planet visited occasionally by a godlike, technologically advanced entity known as the Factor, Di Filippo turns the story on its head, giving us an authoritative portrait of working class life that evolves, by the end, into a dramatic account of rebellion, revelation, and conceptual breakthrough.
"Karuna, Inc.," my own personal favorite, concerns a damaged, dysfunctional Gulf War veteran who finds his personal salvation in Karuna, Inc., a visionary conglomerate of small businesses with one common goal: providing its employees with a sense of purpose and a sane, humane working environment. The story assembles itself out of a wide variety of elements—secret societies, governmental malfeasance, ancient Voudun rituals—but is dominated by its obvious affection for the outcasts of the world, and by its sympathetic treatment of a radical Utopian experiment.
In many respects, "Karuna, Inc.," with its unlikely vision of a benign business ethic in which kindness and good will are far more important than the bottom line, stands at the thematic center of this unique, intensely focused collection. Taken all together, these 11 stories and novellas provide a cogent commentary on the present and future possibilities of life on the job, and are the clear product of a gifted writer with a powerful—and deeply empathetic—imagination.
—Bill Sheehan, Locus, November 2001