Paul Di Filippo. Babylon Sisters and other Posthumans.

Di Filippo is one of the foremost short story writers in SF, and has to date produced several small press collections, often with a loose theme holding the collection together.

Babylon Sisters is no exception, with, as the subtitle indicates posthumanity being the theme. It is of credit to di Filippo that he has written so many good stories, and has been doing so since the mid-1980s on a theme which I feel is probably the most important one to Science Fiction, whilst others churn out fairly bog-standard space fayre. Consider the many stories in the likes of Asimovs (a little) and Analog (the most guilty) which are set millenia hence but which features humans little different from working joes (and janes) of today.

So let’s get our teeth into this volume….

Stone Lives
Originally in :The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1985.

The setting: The Bungle, aka The Bronx Jungle, one of the poorer Free Enterprise Zones in the USA. Stone, blind and barefoot. The nickname Stone because, as a child, having his eyes gouged out on account of seeing something he shouldn’t have, he had made no sound.

Out of the blue a chance to get out of the existence that passes for life. And to get back his sight. Not his eyes, but improved vision.

Having received his implants and restored his long-lost vision, his benefactoress hoves into view – one Alice Citrine. The billionairess has a job for him, to be done in return for what she had done for him. But it is not a high-risk job – she merely seeks a fresh pair of eyes (literally!) to study the modern world, the world which she has had a major role in creating. Halfway through her second century, and nearing the end of her life, she has to know if it has been all worthwhile.

And who better than someone was has seen nothing, and experienced only the lowest reaches of society.

As Stone studies the market economy-driven society, he gets to know Citrine. Until a commercial rival launches an attack on the Citrine HQ, leaving her dead. And leaving Stone aware of who he is, and what his role is to be.

Only the second published story by di Filippo, its vivid vision of a near-future USA shows promise whilst the plot is a little compressed, and would be better at greater length, and the di Filippo style is a little forced at times.

A Short Course in Art Appreciation
Originally in :The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1988.

I read this sometime in the early 1990s, in its appearance in ‘The Orbit SF Yearbook 2’, a short-lived (three volume) annual collection published in the UK, and recall being impressed.

Di Filippo posits the taking of drugs to enable people to ‘see’ the world as if through the eyes of great artists of the past. Two dilettante lovers embrace Vermeer to start with, and then experiment with other artists. However, the woman wants to experience more and more different perspectives, whilst her lover wishes a more leisurely approach. And her desire for a more rapid change finally separates them.

An eloquent short story.

Phylogenesis
Originally in :Synergy, 1988.

The most post of post-human stories! Humanity, threatened by aliens, has had to resort to life amongst the stars in a form which is part human, part animal, and viral in form. But no matter how deep in the vast darkness of space, the essence of humanity, of love and partnership, of a continuing cycle of life, continues to survive, despite the almost impossible obstacles.

A Thief in Babylon
Originally in :Amazing, 1989.

Babylon is an enclosed habitation, circling a gas giant. The Hanging Gardens float across the habitation, and are the means of escape for our erstwhile hero, a man called Meat. His thievery is more difficult than it would otherwise be on account of TAP, the AI which controls Babylon, and to which all can connect for information exchange and communication.

A xenosexual encounter with an alien, a Godhorse (with overtones of homosexuality) rounds of a successful day for Meat. Until, that is, he is stopped by an agent of TAP.

There are two rival socio-politcal groupings – the Conservancy, and the Commensality. The former, a conservative, reactionary people who oppose the liberties that the laissex-faire, hedonistic Commensality are taking with the human form and with society in general.

Meat, caught in the act by the AI, is cajoled into taking a job: terminating a Conservancy diplomat who has arrived on Babylon.

The deed is done, and it transpires that the diplomat is none other than Meat’s twin brother.

An intriguing background and setting, although the story doesn’t quite match it. As with ‘Stone Lives’ it could have benefitted greater length – or being a novel?

Solitons
Originally in :Semmiotext(e) SF, 1990

A small ship is searching for a monopole – an elusive element which originates from the beginning of time. Marl, badly injured in an attack by his rival Sanger, has tricked his ex-lover, Anna, into piloting the mission. The third, and most crucial, member of the mission is the blind androgyne Clete, a hired tiresias. It is her ‘scrying’ ability, which enables her to see into the past and to find the monopole, which brings them to their destination.

Clete is at one with him/herself (di Filippo handles the androgyny by referring to s/he as heesh and to him/her as herm) when they find the monopole.

Marl is beside himself (with rage) as the monopole is at the heart of a star. He vents his anger on Clete brutally, and takes control of the ship in order to fly into the sun. Anna escapes to the ship of the following Sanger.

Another inventive setting, although again the plot is a bare bones one.

Gravitions
Originally in :Hardware, 1990

A more traditional plot-line (see Greg Egan’s ‘Blood Music’). Alex Chilton is a scientist who is in a race with a Russian scientist to publish with regard to element 131. Will it be known as ‘Chiltonium’ or as ‘Zabgorodnium’?

We are presented with Chilton’s journal, which describes his experimenation – injecting himself with the element. Will he, as he thinks, be able to ‘see’ gravity.

In a compact story we accompany Chilton on a journey as he finds (to his cost) that he is succesful beyond his wildest dreams. And his perception becomes more and more sensitive, he finds that not only is he perceiving more than he anticipated – he is actually communicating with a far greater intelligence.

Any Major Dude
Originally in :New Worlds, 1991

If the previous story had echoes of Egan, this has echoes of Lucius Shepard. Taylor is in Algeciras, and the Mediterranean in July is hot and humid. He is en route to Africa to take back his runaway wife.

Or, to be more precise, he is off to Maxwell’s Land. For the man who stole his wife has also changed part of Africa beyond recognition, through nano-technology to the nth degree.

When finally confronting his wife and Holt, her new lover, Taylor finds himself unable to kill them as planned, the effects of the nano-tech preventing his gun from firing.

Di Filippo creates a palpable sense of the heat and the tension in the main protagonist, and of a world being slowly but inexorably turned upside down.

Mud Puppy Goes Uptown
Originally in :Back Brain Recluse, 1994

An intriguing, original short story.

A simple mud-dwelling amphibian leaps through several evolutionary changes, but with an unexplained human perception.

When he finally evolves into a human being we are let into the conceit. A human landing party had crashed onto a mountain, which has a strange tiered approach to evolution based on the altitude of the mountain (morphic gradients). By climbing these gradiants the main character becomes a human, Quintero, and is amongst other humans, all descended/ascended in a similar way.

But this Quintero is made of stronger stuff than they, and is able to find a further morphic gradient to pass through.

A quite original story.

Otto and Toto in the Oort
Originally in :Science Fiction Age, 1995

A gonzo yarn involving Otto and Toto and Buffo the frog. Otto and Toto are post-Singularity posthumans, in bear form. In the post-Vingean singularity, godlike humanity is freed by AI to do what they want. Sadly what humanity appears to want to do is to prat around in space.

Their dispute as to who is the original and who is the simulacrum is interruped by Goldie Liddle, a stacked babe, whom they rescue on their ship the Grigori Bearford.

Once Goldie has sampled these two big bears things go bad for her on account of her licking Buffo the frog, then they get better, and finally, after the two bears disappear Goldie meets up with the third tiny-weeny bear. And they all live happily ever after.

Life Sentence
Originally in :Interzone, 1996.

There have been several stories of late attempting closure after 9/11, and prior to that, most notably, Terry Bisson’s ‘macs’ had a good do at the Oklahoma bombing by positing clones of the bombers being given to families of victims to revenge themselves.

Di Filippo suggests a mind-swap, in which a killer is reprieved from the death penalty by having a surrogate take his place. The surrogate is a terminally ill man, doomed to shortly die. By having an execution the victims’ famillies are appeased. The killer is then put back into society in the place of the person who took on his punishment. With inhibitors in place to prevent further violence, the killer can in theory fill the place that would have been left when the terminally ill peopson had died.

In this story the killer struggles with the role of husband, father and worker, and is finally driven to seek the opportunity to break the shackles of the role he is fulfilling. However, in the end, he concludes that those shackles are ones that he has to bear.

The least post-human of the stories in the collection, which makes it stand out somewhat. It is also the least di Fillipean of the stories, and suffers similarly on account of this.

Angelmakers
Originally in :Interzone, 1999.

Humanity now knows immortality thanks to the intervention of an alien species which rescues and resuscitates those who would otherwise die. A group of youngsters deliberately call upon the services of the angels, by means of a staged drowning.

We follow the lives of four of the children, two male and two female, in their adolescence (free love dude, and sex lessons!) and their adulthood. One girl, hugely affected by the drowning, seeks a career path that leads her to being one of the few humans who ‘become’ an angel. Her three friends witness her undertake the transformation, feeling a huge loss.

And at the end, a cataclysmic disaster enables them to call upon her services. However, one of the three is too far gone to be resuscitated.

The Reluctant Book
Originally in :Science Fiction Age, 2000.

A most charming, and original story, particularly welcomed by this librarian.

Following the death of Master Biobiblioplexist Vincent Holbrook, his collection of books is bought on the cheap by a fellow collector. MB Kratchko Stallkamp is a singularly unpleasant fellow, who cares nothing for the feelings of the books that he has bought. I say ‘feelings’ as books in the future in which the story is set, boast intelligences. But Kratchko cares nothing for his charges, to the extent of being willing to wipe them clean, in order to maximise storage capacity. What will the books do?

Babylon Sisters
Originally in :Interzone, 2001.

A further story set on Babylon. When reviewing it in its original magazine appearance I wrote:

    Classy stuff from Di Filippo in a well written (as you would expect) and nicely tongue in cheek hard SF romp very much in the style of UK(ish) writers Iain M. Banks and more latterly Alastair Reynolds. The son of a diplomat flees off-world, disorientated at the ease and speed at which he is able to find himself in an entirely different environment. He enters Babylon (by way of an organic sphincter!) and falls into the company of two chimeric babes who take him under their wings (this metaphor not entirely the most appropriate as they are more equine than avian). The pair are information pirates and…. – well you will just have to read the story itself. Most recommended, and just the right kind of humorous touch!

I actually read the story again, and again enjoyed it. Di Filippo uses the chimeric twins to full (erotic) effect in the story, and manages to structure the story through the main character relating the story with only occassional interruptions from his new friends.

The Scab’s Progress (with Bruce Sterling)
Originally in :SCI FICTION, 2001. and still online

Di Filippo and Sterling have more fun that two guys can have outside of a bath-house in an gonzo romp featuring a bewildering array of characters and technologies.

Two hapless men head off to Africa, seeking more fame and fortune in the media-world in which they are minor stars. They come up against more than they anticipated, and are only saved from being fed into a Panspecific Mycoblastula living in Prince Kissy Metal’s 2015 Volkswagen Beetle. ‘nuf said. Enjoy.

Conclusion.

If you as a rule like di Filippo then this book is a must for your bookshelf. If you generally like di Filippo then this book is a probably for your bookshelf. If you don’t like di Filippo then head off to your local bookstore where you will find shelf after shelf of nondescript, unchallenging SF.

For the record, di Filippo’s other collections are:

  • The Steampunk Trilogy, 1995, amazon.com. ‘Steampunk’ novellas: Victoria, Hottentots, Walt and Emily.
  • Destroy All Brains, 1996, amazon.com.
  • RiboFunk, 1996, amazon.com. ‘Biotechnological hard SF’: – stories: One Night in Television City, Little Worker, Cockfight, Big Eater, The Boot, Blankie, The Bad Splice, McGregor,Brain Wars, Streetlife, Afterschool Special, Up the Lazy River, Distributed Mind
  • Fractal Paisleys, 1997, amazon.com – ‘trailer park science fiction’ – contents: Master Blaster and Whammer Jammer Meet the Groove Thang, Fractal Paisleys, Do You Believe in Magic, Lennon Spex, Mamma Told Me Not To Come, The Double Felix, Earth Shoes, Flying the Flannel, Queen of the Pixies King of the Imps, The Cobain Sweater
  • Lost Pages, 1998, amazon.com. Alternate/future SF writers
  • Strange Trades, 2001, amazon.com.
  • Little Doors, 2002, amazon.com.

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