I think it’s fair to say the name Paul Di Filippo is known to the majority of modern science fiction and fantasy connoisseurs but by few readers from the genre’s mainstream. Experimental stylistically, imaginatively unlimited, in dialogue with genre, sophisticated presentation, and often ahead of his time, there is a genre radar, and Di Filippo flies under it for most of fandom. Exhibiting these talents is his wild 1996 collection Ribofunk. As abstract as can be, it is the off the wall science fiction written in dynamic prose that vacillates between poetic, experimental, and straight-forward narratives to present a biopunked worldview of the future.
Like randomly hopping trains at every station, Ribofunk is a loosely connected series of stories that are definitely going somewhere but the destination is not important. It’s the view along the way that counts for Di Filippo. Characters and settings not the main linkages, the possibilities of human/animal biology coupled with neuroscience are the ideas cohering the collection. And the possibilities are untamed. “Little Worker” is the story of a human-imal servant, gene spliced sex toys, a prime minister, and southern rebels—bizarreness that works its way to a satisfactory ending. “One Night in Television City” is that of a city boy who goes looking for drugs one night. Getting what he wants, it takes him to the highest of highs. But how to get down? “McGregor”, which is Beatrix Potter’s tale of Peter Rabbit flipped on its head, spun in circles, then induced into a round or two of cartwheels is the story of how Peter looks for revenge on the farmer. Along with the three blind mice and Flopsy, he works to free the other barnyard animals from the farmer. With Peter puffing cigs and hanging a leary eye on Flopsy, this is not the children’s story you remember.
And ‘facile’ does not begin to describe the stories linguistically. ‘Lyrically gymnastic’ seems a better descriptor, as seen in the following apparent homage to A Clockwork Orange:
“ Just a few short hours ago it was six o’clock on a Saturday night like any other, and I was sitting in a metamilk bar called the Slak Shak, feeling sorry for myself for a number of good and sufficient reasons. I was down so low there wasn’t an angstrom’s worth of difference between me and a microbe. You see, I had no sleeve, I had no set, I had no eft. Chances were I wasn’t gonna get any of ’em anytime soon, either. The prospect was enough to make me wanna float away on whatever latest toxic corewipe the Shak was offering.
I asked the table for the barlist. It was all the usual bugjuice and horsesweat, except for a new item called Needlestrength-Nine. I ordered a dose, and it came in a cup of cold frothy milk sprinkled with cinnamon. I downed it all in two gulps, the whole nasty mess of transporter proteins and neurotropins, a stew of long-chain molecules that were some konky biobrujo’s idea of blister-packed heaven.
All it did was make me feel like I had a cavity behind my eyes filled with shuttle-fuel. My personal sitspecs still looked as lousy as a rat’s shaved ass.” (1)
And the linguistic gymnastics extend in varying forms to other stories. Told partially in prosaic rhyme (yes, prosaic rhyme), “Big Eater” is the story of a young man with family problems who saves Chicago from destruction at the hands of—well, you’ll have to read for yourself. Nearly a romp in Alice in Wonderland, it’s to be enjoyed for language more than plotting. One of the more sobering stories in the collection (perhaps the only one), “Brain Wars” also has its share of imaginative patois. A future soldier in a Short War, after being hit by a neuro-chem bomb, proceeds to suffer from numerous iterations of brain ailments as army doctors try to correct what was damaged. Memory loss, missing nouns, dyslexia—it turns out letters home to mom from the front lines can have more to report than ‘same shit, different day’ . “Streetlife” is the story of another human-imal biocreature, this time sent on a drug delivery thorugh the ‘libertarian quarter’ of the city. It’s fair to say he has the night of his life at the hands of others but gets his in the end.
Stuck in the middle of Ribofunk is a trio of stories featuring the same private eye. “The Boot” tells the story of a commission wherein a woman requests to have her data-stealing husband given the boot—yes, like a car with too many parking tickets, but less metal. “Blankie” is an investigation into an improbably homicidal blanket and the baby it killed. And “The Bad Splice” is the story of a lab creation gone wrong. The three stories’ aims are simple from a plot point of view, but go a long way toward laying down the slightly more complex, common backdrop to the collection: the near infinite limits of biomodification. It’s a bonus that with the light noir atmosphere, Di Filippo continues creating witty neologisms.
If there’s any dark side to the collection, it’s that Di Filippo never truly digs into the material. Superficially there is a smorgasbord of imagery and linguistic play, and even suggestions as to the deeper implications of biotech advances and possibilities in the human and animal arena. But at a deeper level, none of the moral, personal, or social aspects are engaged with significantly or meaningfully. “Up the Lazy River”, the collection’s environmental story, is a very interesting look at how cells, molecules, etc. may be altered unnaturally to provide a certain result—and indeed Di Filippo splashes images on the mind’s eye—but the idea is not taken further. “Cockfight” is the story of a team of toxic waste cleaners for hire. Working internationally, when one of them gets in trouble at a strip club, all hell breaks loose, but no further comments on class are made, the imagery enough. Teen pregnancy? Drug use? Hanging out with the wrong crowd? Piff-paff. In “Afterschool Special “ Di Filippo proves teenagers of the future could have even more worrying concerns then any parent today could ever dream of. The story of a teen who wants to get ‘spiked’, it’s kind of like body piercing, but not exactly... “Distributed Mind” is the final story in the collection. Attempting to be the “big reveal”, i.e. what all the biomods mean, it is the meta-story content-wise, but given the bizarreness of all the collection as a whole, has difficulty having impact as such.
In the end, Ribofunk, is a widly imagined collection of vignettes on a future where biotech is as malleable as info currently is. Bizarre the only word to describe the scenes and scenarios imagined, readers should expect stories that work within a range of standard genre to absurdism, Weird, and at times even what seems a parody of cyberpunk itself. Linguistically, Di Filippo writes up not down to his readers. (This, in my opinion, is one of the key reasons he is on the outside looking in to mainstream genre readers). If you do not possess an imaginative mind for making whip-snap relationships between signs and signifiers in a futuristic world, the collection may not be for you. Di Filippo spoon feeds nothing. Conversations are a buzz of futuristic slang and contextualized neologisms. A baton Charles Stross would later take and run full tilt with, Ribofunk is madly inventive. Yet it retains a drop of humanism, and for this bears more in common with James Patrick Kelly, Bruce Sterling, Walter Jon Williams, or Michael Swanwick. One may wish Di Filippo had dug a little further into his story material, but as it stands, there may be more than enough to stand on. Before the term ‘biopunk’ ever reached the mainstream, it was brewing in Di Filippo’s uncanny mind, and Ribofunk is that collection.
Published between 1989 and 1996, the following is the table of contents for the collection:
One Night in Television City
The Bad Splice
Up the Lazy River