Galactic Empires Are Getting a Little Old

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Paul Di Filippo is the author of many science fiction books, including The Steampunk Trilogy, Ribofunk, and WikiWorld. His new novel The Summer Thieves is a picaresque adventure modeled on the work of Jack Vance.

“I like to always challenge myself with new arenas of fiction writing,” Di Filippo says in Episode 480 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I realized I had never really done a traditional space opera, so that was the mode that I decided to try.”

Di Filippo is fond of classic space opera, but feels that it has a tendency to fall into a rut. “In most space operas, you either have a very retro setup, like the famous Imperial setup of Star Wars, or you have the Star Trek setup, where it’s modern liberalism spread across the stars,” he says. “I understand why people stick to those, because they are kind of iconic, archetypal means of organization. But it seems to me that if you’re going to speculate, you should try to break new ground.”

In The Summer Thieves, Di Filippo imagines a galaxy ruled by the Quinary, a group of organizations that control five vital industries—information technology, biotechnology, nanotechnology, real estate, and security. “Quinary is a word that exists, but I’ve repurposed it,” he says. “It’s not quite a government, it’s not quite a series of NGOs, it’s not quite corporations. It’s a body that kind of blends all of those.”

Di Filippo finds the Quinary pretty believable, given the extent to which the modern world seems controlled by just five companies—Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. But he says that readers will have to judge his worldbuilding for themselves. “I have no degrees in poli-sci or economics or any of those wonderful, abstruse disciplines,” he says. “I’m an unrepentant English major, so this is all out of my reading and out of my own head and experience. So we’ll see if people buy it as plausible.”

Listen to the complete interview with Paul Di Filppo in Episode 480 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Paul Di Filippo on the Mirrorshades anthology:

“There were 11 or 12 of us in the Mirrorshades anthology, and one fellow, Tom Maddox, has dropped out. He doesn’t write fiction anymore, and we’ve lost contact with him. But I would have intermittent communications with my fellows, as the need arose. But then I said, ‘We never all converse anymore,’ and we had this shared past, and we achieved something. So I put together a CC list, and every once in a while I or someone else will see a relevant article and we’ll just broadcast it to the 10 or 11 of us who are still on the right side of the soil here. … We all still have careers of a sort and are all still writing. John Shirley’s new book Stormland was excellent. Bruce Sterling just had a story collection come out this year. And William Gibson, of course nobody needs to be informed of his achievements. So I think we all hang together just out of sheer wonderment that we survived the last 40 years and are still being productive.”

Paul Di Filippo on “Ribofunk: The Manifesto”:

“I said, ‘Let me do this half serious, half tongue-in-cheek polemical broadsheet, and circulate it, and see what people think.’ So off I went to Kinko’s—after producing this on my dot matrix [printer], and literally cutting and pasting in a couple illustrations—and xeroxed 100 copies and mailed them out to various people. It was reprinted contemporaneously in a few sources, and it seemed to touch the instincts of a few people, because there was a small flourishing of such fiction after that broadside. If you look in Wikipedia under ‘biopunk’—which is the name that’s come to dominate this subgenre of science fiction—I think they have a line that says something like, ‘Paul Di Filippo tried to get everyone to call it “ribofunk,” but nobody did.’ So it was not a 100 percent successful revolution.”

Paul Di Filippo on deplatforming:

“I am not a fan of [deplatforming]. I’m the old school ‘the cure for bad speech is more speech.’ That’s a classic belief that’s informed our country since the beginning. To me, a multiplicity of voices will be the best technique for drowning out the insane or bad or destructive voices. Squelching never works. You try to silence something and you drive it underground, and it becomes stronger by the persecution. So to me, the kind of deplatforming that we experience nowadays is not a good thing. … There’s blowback and there’s fallout from any such interventions, and we really have to use them very sparingly, and with a little more wisdom than we have in the past.”

Paul Di Filippo on the Internet of Things:

“In my story ‘The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon,’ based on the famous nursery rhyme, I looked at the Internet of Things, and how there might be hacking challenges involved with this notion of making a smart refrigerator talk to a smart washing machine, and what might happen in those circumstances. My thinking on this was inspired by the great Robert Sheckley, a name that’s not on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days, but Sheckley was a major, major writer in the ’50s and ’60s. … His fiction always included a lot of devices that had gotten too smart for their own good—much in the manner of Philip K. Dick, where the robotic taxicab is arguing with you about where you want to go. So you can see it’s that kind of lineage of ideas that just persists. Here I am, 50 years after these guys, still trying to make sense of these ideas.”


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