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Emperor Of Gondwanaland And Other Stories
Paul Di Filippo
Thunder's Mouth paperback $16.95
review by Duncan Lawie
The Emperor Of Gondwanaland And Other Stories is, as the author says in his introduction, a sampling of everything he does. The result is an excellent career overview but not an unalloyed pleasure.
I have read a fair amount of Paul Di Filippo's fiction over the last ten years; gradually moving from annoyance at his handling of anything he touched to considerable enjoyment of some of his most recent work. Given this, I was a little surprised to discover that the earliest work present, Anselmo Merino, was one of the best. It is Herman Melville as SF, but Di Filippo moves the setting to another planet rather than into space. The result is a clever little planetary romance. After this bright beginning, however, the going quickly becomes more difficult. Much of the material in the book has no apparent point. My Adventures With The SPCA is amusing but doesn't add up to the sum of its parts whilst Observable Things is the worst kind of pastiche. Between these is The Emperor Of Gondwanaland, which is well chosen as the title piece. Here, Di Filippo's whimsy is balanced by a sense of feeling for the characters. The ending is a little predictable, but well told nevertheless.
All of the stories in this collection are highly imaginative while grounding the characters through incidental detail. Even so, some of them are beyond suspension of disbelief. This is principally because the emotional impact implicit in a story tends to be diffused by a sense of distance. It is as if the narrator cannot quite believe in his subjects, or that they need to be protected from strong emotions. The creatures in Clouds And Cold Fires make life-changing decisions carelessly, whilst in Ailoura the protagonist's response to the death of his father is virtually unrecorded although the events are carefully described. In the latter case, this lack of affect thins an otherwise excellent story.
A number of the stories are simply playing. The central third of the book is made up of tales that are wrapped up in impossibility and surrealism. Items such as Pulp Alibis, and Beyond Mao (written with Barry Malzberg), are barely able to inform themselves, though some items use the same technique more successfully. Your Gold Teeth, Pt 2 (written with Don Webb) is reminiscent of Lem's Solaris while Science Fiction slingshots out of its silliness to speak 'True Words'. Sisyphus And The Stranger builds a sense of lethargy and ennui; for a few brief pages, the author's presence fades. The counterfactuals present are, otherwise, no worse than anybody else's in their combination of re-purposing of famous characters and use of unlikely scenarios. The last three stories are classic science fiction scenarios, light and fluffy in Di Filippo's hands.
Paul Di Filippo is a competent, confident writer, but his protagonists tend to play the same character. Read sparingly, The Emperor Of Gondawanaland is quite an enjoyable collection.
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