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Hex Publishers is an independent publishing house proudly specializing in genre fiction: horror, science fiction, crime, dark fantasy, comics, and any other form that explores the imagination. Founded by writers, Hex values both the author and the reader, with an emphasis on quality, diversity, and voices often overlooked by the mainstream.

The Poppies of Terra #23 - Novel Kid on the Block

By Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

2024-02-14 09:00:46

In Chapter Eight of Lisa Goldstein’s The Dream Years there’s a beautiful moment of reflection that goes like this:

“Life goes on, he thought. Things change. The great adventure might be waiting for you even now, right outside your doorstep. The thought did not move him as it once had. I’m getting old, he thought. Doors are closing in every direction. Soon it will be too late.”

I encountered Goldstein’s book after I’d turned in the manuscript of my debut novel, Equimedian, to the fine folks at Hex, so I can’t say that passage was an influence, but it captures well the flavor of my own protagonist’s situation when we meet him. 

In the first chapter of Equimedian Jason Velez, who, as aptly described by Locus, “scrapes by installing virtual reality machines and maintaining his SF collection,” realizes that it’s time to make some changes. Unlike Goldstein’s character, Jason may not feel explicitly old, but he’s not young either, and he does feel an urge to open doors for himself, or at the very least resist that their closure is a foregone conclusion. By the end of that first chapter, Jason makes a list–an action intended to drive self-accountability–of things he wants to change. This includes hefty efforts, like finding a new profession and developing a better support system, but the very first item is to part ways with the bulk of his science fiction collection, many years in the making.

If you’re a minimalist by nature or by training, or if you’ve never had a personal library or substantial collection of any type, this may not seem like an outsized goal. But for Jason it’s difficult. His books represent years of accumulation twinned with curation, and they’re therefore a reflection of his interior self, an outgrowth of his inner psyche into the world of tangible objects. They hold beautiful memories of the places he visited in his imagination when he read them, and the tantalizing allure of new fictive destinations yet to explore. More importantly, the stories of their provenance–where he was at the time, with whom, how he came to discover a particular volume, and so on–form their own network of associative recollections, a second abstract library, if you will, superimposed upon the first. To remove a single item is to disrupt the entire lattice; to part with the majority of them is to excavate out a big chunk of himself.

The novel is not set in the here-and-now, but rather an alternative late 1970s, a period I chose specifically to pay homage to New Wave science fiction. Jason doesn’t limit himself to New Wave authors–in fact, he’s quite eclectic in his tastes–but he’s certainly familiar with a number of them, and even when he reads writers outside of that specific movement, he gravitates to the unconventional.

Every reference to a novel, story, magazine or writer in Equimedian is real, meaning that these works exist in our world. When I pointed this out to a reader a few days ago, the response was: “It would be sacrilege were they not, no?” Yes, I suppose it would! 

While planning the book I compiled several hundred literary reference candidates, a task made easier by my long-held interest in literature from that time. To give you an idea, writers on my initial list included Marge Piercy, M. John Harrison, Brian Aldiss, John Sladek, Kris Neville, Joanna Russ, Thomas Pynchon, Thomas M. Disch, Norman Spinrad, D. G. Compton, Garry Kilworth, Michael G. Coney, Sue Payer, Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Richard Cowper, Suzette Haden Elgin, Richard Brautigan, Emma Tennant, J. G. Ballard, Samuel R. Delany, Robert Silverberg, Andrew J. Offutt, Peter Tonkin, Angela Carter, Mark. S. Geston, John Boyd, T. J. Bass, David R. Bunch, William Kotzwinkle, Ron Goulart, Geoffrey Simmons, Crawford Killian, Kenneth Bulmer, J. T. McIntosh, Sydney J. Van Scyoc, Cristabel (real name: Christine Elizabeth Abrahamsen), Thomas Joseph Ryan, David Gerrold, Gordon Eklund, Lloyd Biggle, Jr., Daniel F. Galouye, Vonda N. McIntyre, Barrington J. Bayley, John Morressy, Graham Chamock, Pamela Sargent, Kit Reed, Barry Malzberg, Stephen Goldin, Brian N. Ball, David J. Lake, R. A. Lafferty, Kate Wilhelm, Lee Killough, Sally Miller Gearhart, Barbara Paul, Joseph Burgo, and others! Some of these are remembered today; some forgotten. A few were relatively obscure even in their day. I didn’t end up using every one of these–you can discover for yourself which survived and which didn’t. I endeavored to make each reference serve a specific narrative purpose. The section titles, by the way, are also allusions. Part One of the novel, for example, “A Confederacy of Disappointments,” points to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, itself, like some of Jason’s favorites, initially a cult classic.

Jason’s book hoard serves another purpose. It’s a form of currency, part of a system of exchange circulated between him and his fellow genre aficionados. These books feel to Jason like they’re a passport that grants admission to a community he’s not sure he’s ready to let go of. In reality, Jason’s fannish colleagues, though they get a kick out of his encyclopedic knowledge, would think no less of him if he didn’t own all these paperbacks, and certainly would not withdraw their friendships. But in Jason’s mind the individual and social dependencies have become merged; his self-image obscures, as it often does for us, his ability to see himself as others might. Can he clear the lens? 

Finding what I felt were the right references at the appropriate times was a fun challenge. It won’t be surprising to anyone that I enjoy New Wave material, since the title of this very column is a riff on Thomas M. Disch’s The Puppies of Terra, which was called Mankind Under the Leash upon first publication as an Ace Books double. Who knows, Equimedian might well be Jason Under the Leash.

In my opening Lisa Goldstein quote I deliberately omitted the last line of the paragraph, which adds an interesting element of skewness and unreliability to everything that preceded it: “He was not certain what he meant by that.”

By foregrounding the fiction within its reality, Equimedian positions itself in an uncertain place both outside and within the world it portrays, in the same way that Jason feels an outsider even within a tight-knit community of fans. Jason, too, is at times not certain what his thoughts mean–but he’s willing to go a long way to find out. In Equimedian’s fuzzy, twilight world, outsider art and outsider fandom join forces in the search for meaning within.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published over fifty stories and one hundred essays, reviews, and interviews in professional markets. These include Analog, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy's Edge, Nature, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Locus,, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, Cyber World, Nox Pareidolia, Multiverses: An Anthology of Alternate Realities, and many others. Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg was published in 2016. Alvaro’s debut novel, Equimedian, and his book of interviews, Being Michael Swanwick, are both forthcoming in 2023.

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