At Play in the Fields of the Borg 

For all their imaginative ability to warp themselves outside the limits of "consensus reality," most successful science fiction authors eventually settle down on their own favorite far-flung speculative specialty. Philip K. Dick had his surreal sci-fi noirs. Larry Niven has his engineering-lesson hard sci-fi. And Piers Anthony, who could never quite make up his mind whether he was writing sci-fi or fantasy, made the intersection of both his personal shtick. (Call me, Piers. I've got an idea for a story about dragons with rocket boosters.)

Not so with Paul Di Filippo, whose latest sci-fi short stories are collected in The Emperor of Gondwanaland. Di Filippo evolves "Puss in Boots" into a half-human creature in "Ailoura." He goes chrono-cop in "Time Travel Blasphemies I and II," and creates alternate histories in "A Monument to After-Thought Unveiled." In the category of, uh, hard science, he invents the ultimate Viagra in "Up!" The cyberpunk title story imagines an online micro-nation that just might be another dimension accessed through a seedy section of Buenos Aires.

The standout story in the collection is "Your Gold Teeth, Pt. 2," written in collaboration with Don Webb. Howard Exaker, an engineer who uses symbols and rituals to evolve collective consciousness, finds himself the last human alive on a ship sent to explore an artifact discovered inside a black hole. Exaker is lost in his own archetypes until he follows the advice of his surreal seraphim guides: "Isolate and oscillate, meditate and palpitate! Make a hole in the system, make the system your whole! ... Integrate the potentate, exacerbate the precipitate! Take your soul into the storm, take the storm into your soul!"

Di Filippo is not a sci-fi master -- not yet, anyway -- but he is a skilled journeyman who has explored more of the sci-fi universe than most. And while I hope that he'll eventually get his fill of riffing on the masters and contribute something uniquely his own to the field, these playful romps through the sci-fi canon are -- like Mona Lisa with a moustache -- strangely attractive.

The Emperor of Gondwanaland by Paul Di Filippo. $16.95. Thunder's Mouth Press. 370 pages.

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