Friday, July 31, 2015

Review of Lost Pages by Paul Di Filippo

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Harlan Ellison’s “The Deathbird”, Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death, Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, C.M. Kornbluth’s “MS Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie”, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen—on and on goes the list of works interacting with the idea of fiction while being fiction.  Each with their own vector to how speculative fiction might be meta’d, none to date, however, have engaged with the spectrum of the genre’s roots in the same fashion as Paul Di Filippo’s 1998 collection Lost Pages.  Kafka as super hero, PKD as a paranoid hardware salesman, Dr. Strangelove and his souped up Cadillac—and many other pieces of speculative fiction’s history flash through this collection of short stories that transcend the page and touch upon the real world.  Chris Brown calling Di Filippo “Mixmaster of the Cranial Museum”, Lost Pages is an exemplary text.

Fiction about fiction a potentially pretentious undertaking, Lost Pages is anything but.  Di Filippo as knowledgeable of the genre’s history as he is a part of it, the collection is wholly in respectful yet mischievous dialogue with the field. Bouncing amongst a variety of touch points, the stories play with the lives and works of known science fiction authors, by turns intelligently, interestingly, poignantly, and always enjoyably.  Rather than merely inverting norms or switching out simple aspects of history, Di Filippo engages with the writers, their works, and their biographies to produce complex stories with more than one level of conception.  Thus, it’s best to get the caveat out of the way: if you are interested in reading Di Filippo but have little knowledge of science fiction beyond the past decade, don’t waste your time.  Lost Pages is for the genre connoisseur.  (There are other good places to delve into Di Filippo for the unsaturated—aka non sf nerd—e.g. Ribofunk, The Steampunk Trilogy, and Cosmocopia.)

Setting the tone for the collection, things kick off with a fictional, tongue-in-cheek essay detailing how Star Trek killed science fiction.  Just when the genre was soaring on the literary heights of the New Wave, along came Captain Dirk and his bevy of poor episode writers—pissing in the genre punch, as it were, sf falling into disgrace thereafter.  What follows are nine stories exploring differing points in science fiction’s history from alternate perspectives. “Mairzy Doats” features a pulp writer named Carter Burrows hired by President Heinlein to do some work on the moon.  Burrows, however, has the rug pulled out form under his feet—just like many fans of Heinlein’s early work when encountering his later novels.  “The Happy Valley at the End of the World” takes the real life aviatory exploits of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and mixes them into an H.G. Wells vision.  A young Jimmy Ballard flies wingman, but the ending is a subtle touch of The Little Prince.  In “Anne”, Anne Frank escapes her fate in Amsterdam and becomes a Hollywood movie star, “The Wizard of Oz” one of her starring roles.

Likewise incorporating musical interests of the past, “Instability” (penned with Rudy Rucker) sees Neil Young and Jack Kerouac have a madhouse run-in with Dr. Strangelove (portrayed by von Neumann), cannabis, Cadillacs, and yes, an atomic bomb.  “Linda and Phil” dips into the stormy relationship of Linda Ronstadt and Philip K. Dick—paranoia the hanging chad.  Oh, and there’s a strange little girl wielding a laser-shooting rubber ducky…

Di Filippo seeming at odds with himself, one of the stories tries to work out the value (or lack thereof) of pulp vs. literary speculative fiction.  “The Jackdaw’s Last Case” puts Kakfa in a superman role (complete with a “Lois Lane”), battling his own inner demons as well as the Black Beetle (who else?).  Everyone knows that J. Campbell was the editor of the sf magazine Astounding, yes?   Di Filippo plays with the first initial, transforming John into Joseph, making the renowned mythologist, editor.  Joseph applying the power of myth and the hero’s tale for good in the world, the result is a light-hearted story with profound undertones.  The most powerful work in the collection saved for last, “Alice, Alfie, Ted, and the Aliens” is a semi-schizoid take on James Tiptree Jr.’s real identity, with Alfred Bester, Ursula Le Guin, Theodore Sturgeon, and yes, aliens weaving in and out of her tale. 

In the end, Lost Pages is a collection of short stories humorously, intelligently, and fittingly interacting with many key waypoints in the spectrum of speculative fiction’s history.  Di Filippo playing with the pieces beyond a mere game, the alternate intersections produce layers of meaning rather than just one.  Interactive in other ways, Di Filippo artfully switches between modes of diction.  Fully metafiction, readers who do not have at least a passing knowledge of writers Burroughs to Heinlein, Bester to Dick, Ballard to Kafka, Le Guin to Sheldon/Tiptree will probably fall flat.  But the genre connoisseur will read with a smile playing perpetually at the corners of the mouth in appreciation of Di Filippo’s raw insight.

Table of contents for Lost Pages:

“Introduction: ‘What Killed Science Fiction?’” (by Di Filippo)
“The Jackdaw's Last Case”
“The Happy Valley at the End of the World”
“Mairzy Doats”
“Campbell's World”
“Instability” (with Rudy Rucker)
“World Wars III”
“Linda and Phil”
“Alice, Alfie, Ted, and the Aliens”

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