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Strange Trades
Paul Di Filippo: SF's Rock 'n' Roll Magician
Reviewed by Jeff Topham, © 2002

Format: Book
By:   Paul di Filippo
Genre:   Science Fiction
Released:   October 2001
Review Date:   May 09, 2002
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

He's in love with rock 'n' roll (whoah!)
He's in love with getting stoned (whoah!)
He's in love with Janie Jones (whoah!)
He don't like his boring job (No!)
(The Clash, 'Janie Jones')

There's no one quite like Paul Di Filippo. His fiction is a psychedelicized, rock 'n' roll dragster with the pedal to the floor, and it'll whisk you to some of the strangest imaginative territory you'll ever visit. That bump you felt? That was the driver barreling over the speed limit sign on your way out of town.

The stories in Strange Trades are everything that Di Filippo aficionados have come to expect. They're wonderfully unpredictable and unselfconsciously eccentric, full of striking images and deftly realized characters, and imbued with a comic sensibility that's not likely to be mistaken for anyone else's. There's really only one way to describe these stories, and that's to say they're pure Di Filippo. And yes, in case you've never hitched a ride with him before, that's very high praise indeed.

Di Filippo is often pegged as a comic writer. Fair enough; he's probably one of the best we have, and I dare you to read "Spondulix" or the lighter sections of "Karuna, Inc." without at least cracking a smile. Strange Trades, however, assembles a group of stories that, collectively, find the author in an uncharacteristically somber mood. What emerges with renewed clarity from this collection is that Di Filippo is not only an exceptionally skilled comic writer, but also a deeply humane writer, one whose compassion for a suffering humanity and whose fondness for underdogs, misfits, and outsiders finds its way into nearly every story in this collection.

Like Di Filippo's past collections, Strange Trades adheres to a loose conceptual framework, and all of the stories here deal to some degree with that conjoined blessing / curse of adulthood: work. Some of these stories present work as the unpleasantly surreal and soul-sucking exercise it can sometimes be, and wage slaves and cubicle dwellers will find the nightmarish visions of "SUITs" and "The Boredom Factory" immediately recognizable. In the former, an office worker finds his colleagues slowly replaced by empty suits who eerily mimic human behavior. In the latter, the bemused protagonist P. finds employment at a company whose only product seems to be the wretchedness and tedium of its own employees.

If these stories summed up the whole attitude of Strange Trades, it would be a jaundiced collection indeed. Di Filippo, however, is also interested in telling stories about how work can be meaningful, enriching, and (dare I say it?) even fun. Several of the finest stories here revolve around jobs of just this kind, although (tellingly) all of them are located outside of the traditional confines of consumer capitalism. These stories concern communes, coops, and alternative economies, enterprises whose values place them in opposition to the dominant corporate culture. There is a distinctly counter-cultural spirit running through the collection, although these stories don't reject capitalism so much as investigate how it might be different if it were based on values of compassion and respect. The result is a quietly subversive vision of men and women existing within a free market economy without being defined by it or allowing it to determine the nature of their relationships.

This is one of the primary concerns of "Karuna, Inc.," a story built around a wonderfully imagined alternative enterprise. Shenda Moore's Karuna, Inc., is something of an anomaly in a capitalist economy: a business whose primary objective is not product or profit, but "the creation of environmentally responsible, non-exploitive, domestic based, maximally creative jobs." Shenda, like many of Di Filippo's protagonists, makes her living by bucking the system, but this time the system is represented by Marmaduke Twigg, a pathological, amoral killer who is the embodiment of the mindless appetite and spiritual vacancy at the heart of contemporary American capitalism. "Karuna, Inc." showcases Di Filippo's ability to move effortlessly from comedy to tragedy and to weave both into a story that is finely written and deeply moving.

The idea of alternative economies is also at the heart of "Harlem Nova," a story about culture's urge to impose an order that is neat and tidy, clean and brightly lit. That order comes in the form of the Urban Conservation Corps, whose well-intentioned urban renewal project hits a snag when it encounters the intractable Sledge and his small community. Sledge's group has no wish to join the mainstream and is happy living quietly in the cultural margins, cobbling together a meaningful existence from the cast-off pieces of an economy built on planned obsolescence. Those margins, however, are just what the UCC is out to eliminate. It's an impasse with no clear solution, and the story's conclusion is as inevitable as it is tragic.

"Spondulix" takes the idea of alternative economies to outrageous extremes. The story is a rare gem even by Di Filippo standards, a clever, playful, and hilarious story in which a struggling sandwich shop owner inadvertently creates an alternate form of currency. Unable to pay his one employee, disgraced Olympic diver and struggling sandwich shop owner Rory Honeyman comes up with the idea of spondulix in a moment of desperation. Spondulix are initially coupons redeemable for sandwiches, but Rory's ersatz notes quickly take on a life of their own, circulating through series of increasingly complex exchanges. The funniest moment of the story comes when one of Rory's friends proposes to divorce spondulix from sandwiches. "I won't stand for it!" shouts the enraged Rory. "They'll become nothing but . . . but money!" It's a point that's been made before (that currency is little more than a collective fiction) but seldom with as much ingenuity and wit. Worth, as they say, the price of admission.

"The Mill" is probably the greatest departure from Di Filippo's modus operandi. The story is a bittersweet pastoral that is about both the dangerous attractions of the past and the inevitability of change. "The Mill" is told primarily through the viewpoint of Charley Cairncross, a young boy about to embark upon a lifetime career at the Mill, a sprawling series of textile factories that dominate the social and economic life of the communities surrounding it. The Mill is Charley's world, and its confines provide unchanging boundaries to both his opportunity and experience. Those boundaries remain largely unquestioned, but in the end Di Filippo reveals that the forces that have kept this community in stasis are not natural but (quite literally) artificial. It's a rich and complex story, and even as Di Filippo evokes sweetly bucolic scenes of after-work picnics and ball games he is also revealing the ways in which the Mill's owners distract their workers from acknowledging their own weariness and despair.

In his discussion of Strange Trades on Locus Online, Nick Gevers points out that Di Filippo's work has always had an uneasy relationship with SF proper, which has seemed unsure quite what to make of him. Strange Trades, however, makes it clear that Di Filippo was one of the major writers of the last decade, and a flurry of forthcoming work demonstrates that he will continue to be a force into the next. Strange Trades, I hope, will garner this talented, versatile, and wonderfully uncategorizable writer the attention he so richly deserves.


Jeff Topham has worked as a teacher, house painter, landscaper, and book editor. He currently lives with his wife and two daughters in Louisville, Kentucky. He doesn't wear a tie to work.

 
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