If I tell you that on the second page of this story a tsunami is described as looking “like a liquid mountain mounted on a rocket sled”, it probably sounds like I’m saying “Femaville 29” is typical Paul di Filippo: slightly parodic, slightly manic, with some big boffo concept at its core. And to an extent that’s true, since it’s a story where plot is king, and characters hook up with an almost charming disregard for anything so prosaic as motivation, and the protagonist does have the rather daft name of Parrish Hedges. But, as it turns out, that tsunami is headed west across the Atlantic. It smashes into an unnamed city on the Eastern seaboard of the US, Parrish’s home, and the rest of the story takes place in the titular refugee camp (FEMA being the Federal Emergency Management Agency). The political sentiment is clear, if somewhat self-flagellating.
But that’s not the core of the story, either. Lip-service is paid to the sense of trauma such a catastrophe must cause, but if anything, for the survivors it turns out to have been a boon, by clearing away the detritus of their world. “The first week after the disaster”, we learn, felt like “an open-ended New Year’s Eve, the portal to some as-yet undefined millennium where all our good resolutions would come to pass.” When Parrish is interviewed by the FEMA reallocation officials, he rejects the placements they offer him, explicitly because he doesn’t want to leave the “interzone of infinite possibility” that the camp represents. And it’s not just him; nobody in the camp, it seems, wants to move on. Parrish’s explanation for why nobody wants to go somewhere secure and sensible is that everyone “wants to be reborn as phoenixes” because that’s what it would take to justify the loss they’ve suffered.
Written down so plainly, such a scenario looks crass and juvenile, because it is; yet in di Filippo’s hands, it somehow becomes breezy and infectious. It’s a gift that can sometimes make di Filippo seem an old-fashioned writer, and something of a big kid. You sense that, for him, sf is, genuinely and largely unironically, a toybox — that being an sf writer is, to borrow the phrase Bruce Sterling used in the introduction to his most recent collection, “a golden opportunity to get up to most any mischief imaginable”. And he’s good enough at it that we keep turning the pages, and while we do we don’t notice that the plot is running on convenience (Parrish hooks up with a woman called Nia, but said hooking is entirely irrelevant except that it brings him into the orbit of Nia’s daughter Izzy). Or if we notice we don’t care. In most Paul di Filippo stories, we’re on first-name terms with all the characters, and we like it that way.
If “Femaville 29” is a kind of wish-fulfillment, though, it’s not an entirely uncomplicated one. The members of the camp get restless; their enthusiasm for limitless possibility turns to dissatisfaction with their very limited present. Fights and arguments break out — at least, so we are told. We stay with Parrish, who by this time is too busy watching the children of the camp create a new city out of stones and twigs and leaves. Izzy is one of the “designers, engineers, imagineers” running the show, and it quickly becomes clear that the last of those categories is the most important. The children are filling the space left in the world with something better than the world (perhaps a polder). Inevitably, when FEMA loses patience, and decides to forcibly relocate the refugees, the city is ready and willing to take them instead — with the caveat that they have to let go of their past enough to cross the threshold. Parrish (I’m about to give the ending away) doesn’t make it (if he did, the story really would be too generous to like), but he accepts his lot without rancour. It’s enough for him to know that he might be able to get there someday. For a few moments, it’s enough for us, too.