Irontown Blues – John Varley

Chris Bach is a private detective with a sidekick named Sherlock. Sherlock is a genetically enhanced bloodhound with significant intelligence. They live in one of the vast habitats under the Lunar surface. Due to Post Dramatic Stress Disorder, Bach has retreated into a pseudo-fantasy world based on noir films and novels. He wears a fedora, and lives in “Noirtown“, a neighbourhood designed around the aesthetic of the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. One day, as befitting the stereotype, a mysterious “dame” walks into his office. She needs someone found.

Set in the “Eight Worlds” Universe some time after Steel Beach, the novel sports two very interesting, and very different, protagonists. Bach develops from his past trauma, shown in flashbacks, through his present low, and on to his maturity. More daring by Mr. Varley is to write almost half the narrative in the voice of his canine companion Sherlock. While the concept had the potential to fall flat, it is skillfully delivered, and Sherlock is fully developed as a character, albeit a rather peculiar one. The plot itself is somewhat bare-bones, but with characters like this, it has little impact on the quality of the novel.

The John Varley Reader – John Varley

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.

The Ophiuchi Hotline – John Varley

John Varley’s first novel, and also the first one in the Eight Worlds Universe, has an interesting and intricate, premise. Four hundred years previously, enigmatic aliens invaded the Earth, and most of humanity died off. Humans now live scattered around the solar system, dependent at least in part on technological know-how beamed from faraway Ophiuchi. No one knows who or what is beaming the data, except that it is finely attuned to the needs of humans. Lilo, a genetic engineer condemned to death for taking her reasearch into unethical directions, is embroiled in a plot to retake the Earth for humanity. Her multiple journeys throughout the Solar System are mirrored by journeys of discovery into her own humanity. As multiple clones are branched off, Varley explores how Lilo’s personality differs given her environment, and yet retains its basic values.

This one is clearly written during the seventies, as there is a lot of nudism and casual sex.

The book seems to beg the question: “What’s the point of retaking the Earth when life is an eden out here?” The ending does take the clear stance that we have to proactively defend our existence, and not take our survival as a spieces for granted. I very much enjoyed this book, which packs a lot of story into a mere 170 pages.

The Golden Globe – John Varley

Another original, intelligent and inventive novel from John Varley. There is no clear plot or clearly defined progression of events. The action is in the first person, with frequent long flashbacks to childhood and early adulthood in the third person. Our hero, Kenneth “Sparky” Valentine, is an itinerant thespian and con man. The setting is Varley’s “Eight Worlds” universe, but the novels in “Eight Worlds” are only very looseky linked so there is no requirement to read them in order.

The story focuses on the figure of Sparky and his personal development. It is one part travelogue, showcasing the wonders of Varley’s Solar System, one part psychological investigation into Valentine’s very complex mind, and finally it is a coming of age story spanning a century (the Candide inspirations are obvious).

Varley manages to make his characters truly alive, and deftly ensures that their reactions and social mores chime well with their surroundings. I am not usually drawn to books without much of a plot, but I found myself fascinated by the unfolding mystery of Sparky as he made his way back to “the Golden Globe”.

Steel Beach – John Varley

This novel is set in Varley’s “Eight Worlds” Universe. It is the story, almost the chronicle, of Hildy Johnson, who also made an appearance in “The Golden Globe”. Steel Beach is the story of how Hildy Johnson didn’t commit suicide. That’s putting it crudely since the actual story is full of wonderful detail and nuance.

Hildy Johnson lives on Luna (the moon), a utopia with very long (perhaps even infinite) life, no real need to work and unprecedented personal freedom. Ironically, this personal freedom comes from having a very advanced Central Computer (the “CC”) run basically everything. Every citizen has a personal interface with he CC and can ask for any information at any time. Sex changes and other surgerical procedures are effortless and painless. Subcultures of all sorts thrive as people pursue what they really want to do. For example, large “Disney’s”, basically theme parks where you can even live, provide their inhabitants with life as it was in, say, an idealized Texas in the late 1800s. So life is pretty good. There’s just one problem: Hildy (who starts the novel as a man and ends it as a woman) keeps trying to commit suicide. The CC has noticed a rash of suicides and is trying to do something about them. He dragoons Hildy into helping him. Little does either know where this will land them or the rest of Luna.

The novel is about this, and much more. It is an exploration into what makes us human. Why do we live, exactly? What do we live for? Hildy is faced with the issue of having more or less infinite life ahead of him but no understanding of what he/she must do with it. The unbridled consumerism of Luna is not enough to give him/her purpose. And so he is endlessly seeking. Steel Beach is a wonderful exploration into the nature of humanity. But it is neither lecturing nor boring. The first person exposition is witty, whimsical, at times laugh out loud funny, while remaining insightful and interesting. I loved this book.