Paul Di Filippo,
The Emperor of Gondwanaland
& Other Stories

(Thunder's Mouth, 2005)

The Emperor of Gondwanaland & Other Stories is one of the best short-story collections I've read in the past few years. I don't say this because I loved every story contained in the book. But each story was a revelation, each was surprising, each was masterfully constructed, even those I enjoyed least.

Paul Di Filippo is a writer with incredible range. His writing is constantly challenging the reader to indulge in a tasty new writing style. And the short story form is the perfect platform for his stylistic gymnastics. In "Science Fiction," the story of a bizarre case of writer's block, he's paying tribute to mainstream author J.P. Donleavy: "Twenty years now. Two decades of writing science fiction. And before that, naturally. Two prior decades. Of reading it. Subsisting in youth on an exclusive diet. Of pulp adventures. Sophisticated extrapolations. Space operas, dystopias, and technological fantasies. Millions of words that shaped his worldview. Ineluctably. Like so many hands molding raw clay into an awkward shape. And baked him. In a kiln fueled by paraliterature. So that ever afterwards no other kind of fiction would make any real impress. On the pottery of his mind."

This computer's grammar check is having an absolute fit with that quote. And I'll admit I found it a difficult style to relax into. But once I managed to do so, the story grabbed hold in a manner it likely could not have done via a more transparent stylistic approach.

Di Filippo's own style, while not nearly as attention-seeking as Donleavy's, is still showier than that of most SF writers. He's a wordsmith. And his obvious love for language is infectious. His sentences deserve to be rolled around in the mind. In fact, one wants to speak them aloud in order to more fully savor them, on the tongue.

And the concepts at the heart of Di Filippo's stories are equally exotic and delicious. We are presented with alternate histories in which Africa, rather than America, has become the world's economic powerhouse, a story of Robert Frost, horror writer, a tale of how humanity was presented with world-changing technological advances by a certain Hypmogoogoopizin' Man.

Or, imagine a world in which everyday household objects -- your toaster, your vacuum cleaner -- have so much built-in computing power that they can sometimes link up together to become autonomous, semi-aware, potentially dangerous, artificial life forms ("And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon"). Or how about a future in which a woman whose brain has been computationally augmented runs the world's stock markets with near-perfection until her system is given a tremendous jolt ("Bare Market")?

I can't think of more than a handful of SF authors with both the audacity and the skills to tackle future economics as a theme for a short story and make it quite so sexy. But Di Filippo isn't your ordinary SF author. He's an adventurer, always striking off in new and intriguing directions, going where others, not so much fear to tread, as fail to even conceive of treading. As the author states in his introduction to this collection, "Fantastical, realistic, surrealistic, speculative -- this book's a regular foot-long banana-split, with three kinds of sauce, nuts, cherries, whipped cream, and at least one flavor of ice cream you're guaranteed to love."

The Emperor of Gondwanaland & Other Stories. Dig in!

by Gregg Thurlbeck
3 February 2007

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