Review: Paul Di Filippo trips the multiverse fantastic in "Vangie's Ghosts"

Paul Di Filippo's latest science fiction novel, Vangie's Ghosts (Blackstone Publishing), is an impressively entertaining, deeply compelling speculation on the multiverse and the boundless potential of the human mind. The novel invites readers into the vast noodleverse inside of Evangeline "Vangie" Everett, a character who, at first glance, presents as a strange looking, completely silent 3-year-old girl. While the adults around her assume some severe neurological issue, we the reader are invited inside her head. What we discover there is breathtaking. Vangie has been born with the extraordinary ability to view, and eventually traverse and manipulate, versions of herself in uncountable universes. She's not immobilized by her mind/body in this universe, she's entrained to the point of immobility by the mesmerizing visions of her endless other selves.

Di Filippo, probably best known for his influential early 90s Ribofunk manifesto and short stories and the Steampunk Trilogy (1995), here riffs on the concepts behind the multiverse, presenting Vangie's unique talent for navigating an array of timelines and avatars, or her "ghosts," to orchestrate outcomes most favorable to her and her loved ones. This profound ability eventually draws the unwelcome attention of manipulative adults and a megalomaniacal fellow multiverse-mutant known as "the Massive." The Massive seeks to harness Vangie's powers for his own grandiose vision of remaking the multiverse in his own image.

Vangie's Ghosts is not just a narrative about the challenges and adventures of its unlikely protagonist across multiple realities; it is also a love letter to science fiction itself. Di Filippo integrates fun nods to other works and authors within the genre, enriching the novel with layers of intertextuality that SF fans will appreciate. And, as Vangie travels from one universe next door to another, we get to giggle over subtle (or not so subtle) changes in the timelines (like when Amazon becomes Biggest River and Taylor Swift is revealed to be a Robert Smith-like Goth icon). The book is a testament to Di Filippo's ability to infuse humor and levity into the expansive, often complex speculative science that underpins the story.

One of the most exciting and impressive things about Vangie's Ghosts is how Di Filippo keeps changing the size of the story frame and upleveling the action. Just when we think we know the size and shape of Vangie's world, it expands in some dramatic and unexpected fashion. Some of these expansions are jaw-dropping. If you remember Richard Matheson's The Incredible Shrinking Man, where the character Scott Carey keeps getting smaller and smaller, down to the atomic level, Vangie Everett basically expands in the opposite direction. We start off in a sad little girl's crib in a house trailer and end up in a multiverse beyond the beyond. It is hard to describe how fun and exciting this ride can be. I found myself constantly chewing on the ideas in Vangie's Ghosts and marveling as the novel seeped into my own dreams.

This is the kind of book that turns your days into the stuff you have to do before you get to return to the book. And it's the kind of book you mourn the loss of after it's over.

Vangie's Ghosts is a haunting, affecting piece of speculative fiction, blending elements of sci-fi adventure and space opera, horror, existential inquiry, and a deep-seated affection for the genre's legacy. Di Filippo's novel is an invitation to ponder the "what ifs" of the funhouse-mirror physics of the multiverse, wrapped in a clever and confident narrative that's both intellectually stimulating and devilishly entertaining.