A couple of Golden Age classics that have aged very badly. Often published in one volume.
In the sequel to Red Thunder and Red Lightning, we yet again skip ahead a generation, this time to Podkayne, granddaughter of Manny and Kelly. Martian born and bred, she is drafted (as all are) into service with the Martian Navy. The book starts by ridiculing Earthies (those who live on Earth) as generally helpless and whiny. It is hard to find too much fault in that assesment, but more about that later. As is sometimes the case with Varley, he writes more chronicle than anything else, and thus we follow the meanderings of Podkayne. It isn’t until the second half that things really start to happen. By then a very gloomy post-9/11, post-Katrina view has settled onto the book. If it weren’t for cheery Podkayne, this would not be a very cheerful book. In the end, the protagonists make a big decision, and there is a happy ending, of sorts.
While Red Thunder was a very positive book, and Red Lightning was at least mildly optimistic, Rolling Thunder paints a very bleak picture of Earth’s future, with billions dead and the planet rendered uninhabitable. Certainly the catastrophes depicted are not man made (unlike in Red Lightning) but it is clear that mankind had already started the processt”. Podkayne is a serviceable protagonist, but she is no Manny or Ray from the previous books. The end, and I won’t give away the surprising development there, feels a bit too much as if Varley wanted to tie up the loose ends any which way. I do love reading Varley, and this was, as always, entertaining. His voice is mesmerizing and his insights into human character are always interesting and novel. However I do feel that this was not on par with most of his work. Or perhaps he just gave me a bit too much of the blues.
This collects all of Varley’s short fiction to date. What really makes the book shine, though, are the introductions to the stories. Eminently readable little anectodes from the author’s interesting life. Even with only the introductions and no stories, this would have been a great (albeit rather short) book. The stories are wide ranging from drama to action, with Varley’s sublime characterization always front and center. A great book.
Demon jumps ahead another 20 years after Wizard. Robin has returned to her home in the coven habitat. Chris has remained on Gaea, and is slowly turning into a creature more and more like a Titanide (a centaur race native to Gaea). Cirocco is still around, but no longer does Wizard work. Gaby is dead, but keeps returning to Cirocco in dreams. Gaea has gone completely nuts, prancing about as a 15 meter Marilyn Monroe while making and screening movies in her own bloodthirsty fashion. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the final war has begun. Humaniy is destroying itself in nuclear fire. Not in one big conflagration, but in a staggered series of bursts. Refugees flock to Gaea, who has provided transportation but no regulation. Newcomers are robbed and enslaved by some of the humans already there. Amidst the chaos, Robin returns, together with her 19 year old daughter Nova and her newborn son Adam. She had to leave the women-only coven since she had a son, and both children seem to be Chris’, despite the two never having had relations. Gaea’s trickery again. It is soon clear that the final confrontation with Gaea is at hand, with Cirocco reluctantly at the helm of the forces arrayed against the mad habitat mind.
While better than Wizard, this one also left me unsatisfied. Varley simply isn’t that good at writing about military matters, and it shows. There are some surprising developments, but the surprise ending was too unexpected, and not supported very well by the story that went before it. I’m all for surprise endings, but this one felt as if it was hardly connected to the rest of the book. Decent Varley but only for the die-hard fan. It’s a shame that this series went downhill after Titan.
Wizard picks up about 80 years after the events in Titan. Cirocco is now a Wizard for Gaea, meaning she’s a troubleshooter. Gaby is sometimes her sidekick, and sometimes just does freelance work. They are both paid with extended lifespans. Since Titan, plenty of humans have emigrated to Gaea. There is a limited quota for free trips, and through this program, two new travelers, both prone to periodic seizures, arrive in Gaea. One is Chris, a rather shy and geeky young man from Earth. The other is Robin, who comes from an ultra-radical sect of witches (in the Wiccan sense) living in a habitat on the far side of the Moon. The sect is made up entirely of women, and holds men to be evil. Robin has never met a man, and has some strange conceptions about them. As they arrive, Gaea tells them that she can cure their ailments, as long as they do something heroic. They join up with Cirocco and Gaby on a circumnavigation of the habitat wheel. The wizard and her sidekick have a hidden agenda, though. Gaea is becoming ever more senile and crazy, and the two are looking for allies in a coming war against her.
The adventures of Chris and Robin make for a coming of age tale of sorts. The scenery is still wondrous, and Varley has added much to the richness of his world. The prose is excellent and the characters are rich and alive. Despite all that, I was still somewhat disappointed. The story sets up the next and final book (Demon), and develops the characters, but the plot isn’t that interesting. There seems to be little sense of where the story is headed. While this is often the case in long sections of many Varley books, in this one there weren’t any other really stellar bits to compensate. Varley is never bad, but it was an ultimately unsatisfying read.
Varley’s Big Dumb Object story, and the first in his Gaea trilogy. The first expedition to the Saturn System encounters an enormous spinning habitat (Gaea). As they approach, the ship is captured and destroyed. Some undetermined amount of time later, the expedition members, including Cirocco Jones, the Captain, emerge quite literally from the ground at various points on the outer rim of the habitat. They have all changed somehow, some having acquired new skills (such as being able to talk to some of the denizens of Gaea), some being depressed, some introverted. Cirocco Jones and what for all intents and purposes is her sidekick, Gaby, set off on a quest towards the center of the habitat to find some answers. Since Gaea is spinning, the center is “upwards” in their frame of reference.
A common misconception about this book is that it book is fantasy. It certainly does have some fantasy tropes, but is firmly in the science fiction section. The world building is ingenious and entertaining. Varley is excellent at characters and character interation, and so his Gaea, not unexpectedly, serves as the backdrop for character development and conflict. The ending is, as usual with Varley, both somewhat unexpected and viscerally satisfiying, even if in this case it also has to serve as a setup for the next two books in the trilogy. All in all a good read, but not stellar Varley.
A time machine is found next to a preserved mammoth in northern Alaska. A scientist and an elephant keeper are accidentally sent back in time, returning with a few mammoth. There is a a tycoon and there is a troubleshooter.
Into this deceptively simple idea Varley injects his sharp wit, his well rounded and interesting characters, his irreverent prose. The conclusion is perhaps foregone, but the ride is enjoyable. Varley has a way of making you love his characters, for they are imperfect humans like us.