Thirty or so years after it’s inception the ‘cyberpunk’ genre has spawned an innumerable number of offshoots. Most of these offshoots (except maybe for steampunk) haven’t had quite the commercial and critical success that cyberpunk has had over the years. However, as their ad-hoc, stunningly unimaginative monikers (dieselpunk, biopunk) might suggest they all have their own distinctive identity. Ribofunk, written by Paul Di Filippo, is a collection of 11 or so short stories that could be roughly categorized as ‘biopunk’. The short-stories are by and large standalone entities, but they are based on a single universe where complex genetic modifications are the order of the day, and where the line between human and non-human ‘animal’ is increasingly blurred due to the cocktail of genetic modifications at every man, woman and child’s disposal.
In Di Filippo’s universe, humans are any creatures which contain greater than 50% original ‘human’ DNA. The technical complexity of the Ribofunk universe bleeds into the prose as well. Obscure, difficult-to-parse terms are thrown at the reader with such gusto that it’s difficult to keep track of what everything is (kibe? poqetpal? raster?). As the collection progresses, nebulous slang terms that might’ve been difficult to digest initially gradually become clearer but there’s always still a lingering WTF feeling that colors each paragraph.
One Night In Television City: Di Filippo’s first story is clearly inspired by Gibson. The writing style, plot and even name of the story is reminiscent of Gibson’s earlier short stories, particularly, Johnny Mnemonic. It’s derivative aspects do not detract anything from the story, however. It’s a sound piece of work, and a worthy genesis to the collection. 4/5.
Little Worker: In Little Worker, Di Filippo’s Ribofunk universe gets some much needed fleshing out. Here we’re introduced to Little Worker, who’s a splice (in Ribofunk splices are organisms with less than 50% human DNA who serve a chattel-like purpose to the presiding humans). Ironically, marital issues, probably the most human of concerns are brought to the forefront early on in the story. Through Little Worker’s eyes the reader gets to observe the problems plaguing the master and his wife’s sexual life. While the master and his wife, are legally married, they live very separate, isolated lives. So isolated, in fact, that they lead separate sex-lives, having each purchased their own special splices bred specifically to satisfy their sexual urges. Of course, these splices are little more than slaves, and their presence alone adds a shade of melancholy and tyranny to Di Filippo’s otherwise cheerful world. The household’s peculiar situation becomes a rank breeding ground of hate and envy, and Little Worker takes it upon herself to rid the the master and his wife of these two obnoxious presences. As is the case with most of Di Filippo’s stories, the ending was rather abrupt. 4/5.
Cockfight: Cockfight introduces us to one of the many occupations present in Di Filippo’s strange universe, the ‘Waste Gipsy’. Waste Gypsies are for all intents and purposes janitors. The protagonist of Cockfight is – unsurprisingly – a Waste Gipsy. Through his pointed, and honest comments, the reader is to believe that, even in the future, being a janitor is a fairly undesirable job. Cockfight is also the reader’s first introduction into the rampant discrimination present in Di Filippo’s bio-engineered world of the future. Splices are looked down upon as sub-human. A preposterously crass dart is thrown towards one of the protagonist’s ‘colored’ co-workers. Like Little Worker, the ending for Cockfight is pretty abrupt, and from the perspective of the protagonist, unfortunate. The protagonist’s manifest unlike-ability, however, makes it difficult for readers to relate. 3/5.
Big Eater: The bio-engineered world of the future described in Ribofunk results in a lot of antagonism between the organisms higher up in the sentient life-form hierarchy. Full-on humans occupy the top of this hierarchy and the pitiful, unintelligent splices occupy the bottom. In a bid to retaliate for what is a perceived injustice on the part of humans, splices living in Chicago (or at least what goes for Chicago in the future) attempt to flood the entire the city. The only person who’s aware of the plot, and is even able to stop it, is a detective going by the name of Corby who is something of a permanent fixture in this universe (as you trudge along the collection you will encounter him again and again). 4/5.
The Boot: Ribofunk’s sleuth of choice, Corby, trails Jurgen Von Bulow, a gambling addict, in this short thriller. Corby’s services are solicited by the sensational and voluptuous Mrs Bulow, Jurgen Von Bulow’s wife. As Corby tries to fit in all the pieces of the puzzle, the stakes are raised. This one will have you hanging off the edge of your seat. In all, a very satisfying story. 5/5.
Blankie: Story three of the Ribofunk’s most active detective, Corby, has him investigating the actions of a deranged genetically altered blanket, going by the name of ‘blankie’. Brief but entertaining. 5/5.
The Bad Splice: Krazy Kat, the most wanted splice in Di Filippo’s universe, is at large, engaging in wanton destruction, and in all, just being a thorn in humanity’s back. Corby – the detective we were introduced to in The Boot – is after him. This ia a combination that is ripe for spectacle, and spectacle it delivers in spades. One of Ribofunk’s high-points. 5/5.
McGregor: Following on the heels of The Bad Splice is McGregor, a story that serves to document the many storied successes and violent reprisals of the Splice Resistance Movement. The star of McGregor is, like Krazy Kat, another ‘Bad Splice’. He goes by the name of Peter. The twists and turns in McGregor are not as exciting as The Bad Splice, but they do make for an enjoyable 40-min read. 4/5.
Brain Wars: The story in Brain Wars is conveyed in a very interesting way. It’s done via letters. The protagonist, whose name is never shared, sends numerous letters to his mother and in the process documents a vicious, presumably intractable pandemic. Brain Wars does not end on a high note, but somehow this is sufficient. 5/5.
Streetlife: Here, we’re introduced to a mistreated, timid splice going by the name of Coney. Coney, gets coerced into (well not really, but technically, yes) going into a dangerous part of town. He gets into quite a bit of trouble, but fortunately he lives to tell the tale, evidently. The ending was not very satisfying. 2/5.
Afterschool Special: Even though the peculiarities of Di Filippo’s world are somewhat lost on those of us living in today’s uninspired, un-engineered world, we can all still relate to and appreciate the special relationship that bullies have with their victims. Afterschool Special, is a Ribofunk-esque spin on this issue, which is as old as time itself. 3/5.
Up The Lazy River: Narrated from the point of view of a River Master based in Lagos, this short-story looks at the devastating effects of ecological warfare. It’s a race against the clock, as the River Master attempts to reverse the evil that has been wrought on his beloved rivers. Ribofunk’s most nefarious antagonist makes a surprise appearance towards the end (hint, hint: Krazy Kat). 4/5.
Distributed Mind: Similar to Brain Wars and Up The Lazy River, Distributed Mind’s story is spun around a sweeping epidemic. The microbe responsible for the pandemic acts by subverting the mind of its host. The microbe’s preferred mode of action thereby leads to the creation of a collective hive-mind that is greater than the sum of its individual parts and whose sense of agency is divorced from the individual minds of which it was brought about. Distributed Mind could have used some more time in the editing room as the prose is somewhat difficult to parse. Fortunately, it has one of the better endings in this collection, one that will doubtlessly leave readers with a good taste in their mouth. 3 / 5.
The consistency of the short-stories in Ribofunk should be noted. A few stories failed to reach the lofty heights suggested by the initial premise, but these were only a few. Ribofunk might not be for everyone but it is certainly worth reading for those who wish to familiarize themselves with the still rather sparse ‘biopunk’ subgenre.
4 splices out of 5