The Farthest Shore
SHUTEYE FOR THE TIMEBROKER
By Paul Di Filippo
Thunder's Mouth. 312 pp. Paperback, $15.95
No matter what the genre, the momentum of a good story is inescapable. In its thrall, a reader can overlook any number of errors in the telling. Sadly, in Paul Di Filippo's latest collection, Shuteye for the Timebroker , the reader has too much time to ponder his prose and its shortcomings.
Di Filippo, twice a Nebula Award finalist and a long-running columnist for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, doesn't lack for rich ideas. The 15 short stories collected here all have nuggets of wild-eyed originality buried within them -- from "The Mysterious Iowans," a tale that swims around Jules Verne's oeuvre, to "Going Abo," which imagines a hot new trend in vacations, and "The Days of Other Light," which ponders the source of inspiration. Di Filippo's glee in the act of writing bounds across the page even when the subject matter is grim, as in "Shadowboxer," a rage-fueled tale about assassination. While the ideas behind the stories are generally interesting, Di Filippo infrequently moves beyond them to create something more than just a nifty thought.
When he does push a story beyond a one-note idea -- as he does in "We're All in This Alone" (co-written with Michael Bishop) and the sprightly "The Secret Sutras of Sally Strumpet" -- Di Filippo proves that he knows what he's doing. But this collection has jammed those two masterly stories together with 13 others that range from dull ("Distances") to irritating (the title story, whose central premise -- that a technological advance freeing humans from sleep leads to the rise of folks who barter time on commission -- makes almost no sense). "The Farthest Schorr," a collection of vignettes inspired by the surrealist paintings of Todd Schorr, would work if published with photographs of his trippy art, but the story lacks the necessary referent without them.
Di Filippo tries to hide the weakness of some stories with the writerly equivalent of shiny trinkets to distract us from the lack of momentum. "Captain Jill" is a tour of Roget's thesaurus, with "gaucherie," "puissant," "hoi polloi" and "rachitic" all making an appearance. This over-reliance on multisyllabic words is not only artlessly dense but also makes the characters in most of the stories sound exactly the same and exactly like the author's voice in his introductions to each.
The collection is also undermined by stories that rely on the "Well, Jim . . ." device, a "Star Trek"-inspired nickname in the speculative-fiction field for clunky expository passages designed to catch readers up on, say, quantum physics. In the two shorts that open the collection, extended paragraphs of crucial backstory all but hang neon signs on their "Well, Jim-ness."
Still, Timebroker does have moments of brilliance that almost make up for the slack in the bulk of the stories. Descriptions such as "A rain of golf balls -- Titleists -- fell and bounced down the hilly streets, as if Mr. Moose had finally decided to kill Captain Kangaroo" capture both a mood and moment. But these flashes are too few to sustain the collection as a whole, leaving the reader too much time to ponder the absence of narrative force. ·
Adrienne Martini, whose first book, "Hillbilly Gothic," has just been published, is a columnist at Bookslut.com.