This review of Fuzzy Dice by Paul DiFilippo first appeared in Vector 232, November-December 2003:
The picaresque is not a mode that science fiction tends to use that often these days. Whereas fantasists are all too happy to send their protagonists off on long journeys that entail a host of discrete encounters along the way, science fiction writers, constrained presumably by the need to make their creation real, or at least convincing, prefer to explore a limited number of scenarios in greater depths. Paul Di Filippo displays none of that restraint in his latest novel; instead his bored and anti-social protagonist, a would-be writer and bookstore clerk called Paul, is despatched to a dizzying array of weird and wacky universes in his search for the solution to the ‘Ontological Pickle’, otherwise known as the meaning of life, the universe and everything.
A creature called Hans that resembles a metal broom with an infinite number of bristles – we are told that Hans represents one form of posthumanity in a parallel universe – appears to Paul one morning and gives him a yo-yo and a pez dispenser with the head of Richard Nixon. This, it appears, is the means to travel between universes as the spirit takes him. And the spirit takes him to some very strange places: the birth of a universe, the hippy days of the 1970s, a primitive computer game, a feminist utopia, a world in which chaos has run wild, a world of group personalities, a world in which morphic resonance is made concrete, another where personality traits are contagious, one based on black and white television shows, and the monoculture at the end of time. These various scenarios explore some pretty deep themes – among the authors and scientists who are specifically invoked are Italo Calvino, Robert Sheckley, Rupert Sheldrake and Marvin Minsky – and they do so in the classic manner of science fiction satire, exaggerating their most obvious characteristics to the point of ludicrousness. But if the ideas are deep (and it must be admitted that Di Filippo often does no more than skate over them), the treatment is light.
The writing is hip, which means it is replete with puns, word-play, hidden and not so hidden references to popular songs, jargon and sex. This catches the eye and keeps you reading, but there is an urge to jokiness that undermine the occasional scenes that could (should) be darker and more serious. It doesn’t help that Di Filippo has imposed an artificial structure upon his book. Picking up on the notion of God playing dice with the universe, he has divided the novel like a pair of dice into two sets of six ‘faces’, each of which is further subdivided into 12 chapters. 144 chapters in a work of less than 300 pages guarantees that none are long and some are very short indeed. But more than that they constrain each adventure to follow much the same pattern: the arrival, the initial attempt to understand the salient but immediately incomprehensible characteristic of the world, the getting into trouble (usually congruent with the discovery of some deeper truth about the world), the getting out of trouble, and finally the escape to the next world. So much has to be devoted to the ‘action’ of the tale that many of the scenes don’t get the development that they would repay; and the need to come up with the necessary number of scenarios has left us with a couple of worlds (the hippies and the black and white TV shows) that play no greater part in the playful consideration of the universe and the ‘Ontological Pickle’. It’s a fun book, but a little more time and a little less structure might have made it a much better one.