Paul Di Filippo Reviews Equimedian by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro – Locus Online


Paul Di Filippo Reviews Equimedian by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro – Locus Online

Equimedian, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Hex 979-8988082712, hardcover, 326pp, $31.99) February 2024

I would venture to guess that most SF fans know Alvaro Zinos-Amaro as one of our best critics and interviewers. Case in point is his recent volume, Being Michael Swanwick, which I reviewed on this platform just a short time ago. But like Green Arrow or Hawkeye, the man has more than one arrow in his quiver. (I use a pop culture reference purposefully, for reasons soon to be seen.) He boasts some forty stories in his bibliography, starting with “Problems of the Solid State” in 2009. And now, at last, comes his debut novel. As might be expected, it’s a fusion of his scholarly and narratological prowess. And, most alluringly, it mines a vein of SF too-seldom plumbed these days.

The first thing to know about Equimedian is that it is “Recursive Science Fiction.” In other words, SF that comments upon, or whose central premise involves, science fiction itself. This type of fiction is a long-standing riff in our genre, and extends back to at least 1830 (!), according to the essential annotated list of such works compiled by NESFA. Now, sometimes such recursive tales can fly up their own fundament, becoming silly or banal or fan-fictional. But when handled expertly—as is the case here—they can come alive and add “real world” dimensions to a story. After all, it’s not realistic to deny that SF and its fans exist, is it, when seeking to portray reality?

The second aspect of this book to draw our appreciative glance is that it’s totally Phildickian, without being mere pastiche. This is a welcome novelty in the current marketplace. It seems to me that of all the inspirational Masters and Mistresses of SF being homaged nowadays, PKD receives the least attention. Probably because his worldview and fiction were so unique and hard to recapture and do right. We have Heinlein spinoffs and Sturgeon spinoffs; William Gibson spinoffs and Laumer spinoffs; Tolkien spinoffs and Lovecraft spinoffs. But PKD? Not so much. It takes a talent like Jonathan Lethem, in Amnesia Moon and others, to channel that bard. Zinos-Amaro quickly proves himself to be operating at that level.

Our hero is a typical Phildickian “little guy” schlub, a young man named Jason Velez. Jason gets along by working for a company named Codis, installing “EmuX” virtual reality stations in the homes of customers. It’s a demanding, aggravating job that allows him a subsistence lifestyle (including renting one room as his residence from a fellow named Leon). The only solace Jason has is that he’s a stone-cold science fiction fan. His large library of paperbacks and magazines, hardcovers and fanzines, as well as membership in two fannish clubs (the Custodians and the Mayflies), constitute his only refuge. He sees the world through an SF lens. Right from the first page of the text we know that much:

I close my eyes and imagine myself somewhere different from the here-and-now of New York, 1979. The first image that pops into my head is from DAW Collectors paperback number two-hundred and twenty-three, Walkers on the Sky by David J. Lake.

Reference to 1979 indicates that Jason’s world is definitely not ours. And since he’s quickly going to start skipping across the timelines, I’d like to make what I think is a useful distinction.

The concept of the multiverse is, of course, all around us these days. But I think what Zinos-Amaro is doing here—and what PKD always did—is not the same as invoking the multiverse. In the multiverse, we get a sense of various separated and multiple continua coexisting simultaneously. Changes accrue when you jump back and forth among them. But in the PKD version, it seems to me, there is always only one reality, but it keeps morphing. Changes are experienced not by movement laterally across dimensions, but simply by staying in place and having a change wave wash over you. Only the single timeline remains, but altered. It’s a subtle but necessary distinction, implying not the exhilarating freedom to bop around alternative versions of reality, but rather the sickly helplessness of the ground shifting under your feet willy-nilly.

And that’s what’s going to happen to Jason. Thanks to cosmic forces, and thanks to the machinations of a mysterious organization called Equimedian, and thanks to another group dubbed the Progress Pilgrims (ostensibly, time-travelling refugees from the future), Jason is going to become unstuck from reality.

Not that he will have to face this quandary alone. An old girlfriend named Jill is a stalwart. As is Cole Wellman, fellow fan and writer. See if this partial description of Cole rings a bell:

[I ask,] “Speaking of crowds, how’s life in the commune?”

“Just hit six months at Pillars of Salt,” Cole says. “Can you believe it?”

“Remind me, the name.”

“It’s from a novel by Barbara Paul. She dated one of the founders. I’m telling you, the Lower East Side never felt like such a foreign land.”

“You sound inspired.”

“I’m going to be writing a short book about it. I’ve been keeping a journal, and an editor saw it and asked me for an article. He liked it enough to request an expansion. We’ve already got a publisher.”

… Considering his encyclopedic knowledge not only of science fiction, but more broadly, literature, science, and history, I don’t think his designs are unrealistic.

Yes, Jason is hanging out with this world’s young Samuel R. Delany at the Heavenly Breakfast.

Having set up his scenario, Zinos-Amaro piles one reality-slippage bizarreness upon another, but in a carefully escalating sequence, never overdoing it. The climax of Jason’s odyssey leads to a meditative acceptance of the parameters of existence. This book is not just mind-blowing special effects, but also an excursion into existentialism, just like granddaddy PKD’s best work.

The quotidian and domestic details of Jason’s life are treated with equal gravitas. But what really captivates is the depiction of a fan’s life. Not since Jo Walton’s Among Others, an obvious precedent and inspiration, has a writer conveyed so keenly and accurately the weltanschauung and lifestyle of “one of us.” The litany of books referenced—not just the classics, but the lovable dreck—is a kind of tribute to the accomplishments of our genre. The maxim “It is a proud and lonely thing to be a fan” has never been so wonderfully instantiated.

If you’re in the mood for a blend of Ubik and Evan Dorkin’s The Eltingville Club, you’ve come to the right place.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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