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.

Dark Lightning (Thunder and Lightning IV) – John Varley

ThunderandLightning4DarkLightningAt the end of Rolling Thunder, the great asteroid starship Rolling Thunder leaves the solar system led by the extended Garcia-Strickland-Broussard clan. The ship is a classic hollow rotating cylinder, propelled to a high fraction of the speed of light by the mysterious squeezer-bubble technology invented by Jubal in Red Thunder. As with previous installments in the series, we again jump forward a generation. The story is told in the first person by identical twins Cassie and Polly, daughters of Jubal and Podkayne. After one of Jubal’s regular exits from stasis in a “black bubble”, he screams that the ship must be stopped. Eventually he figures out that Dark Energy (catchily referred to as “Dark Lightning” in the book) may be a danger when traveling at a very high percentage of the speed of light. However as always with Varley, the story is about the people. Jubal’s scream of “Stop the Ship!” triggers shipwide unrest, and the twins are the ones who have to sort things out.

In true Varley form, the worldbuilding is first-class, detailed and intricate. The characters are authentic and easily engage the imagination. The twins are in their late teens, and as such their commentary is peppered with talk of boys and fashion, but without being annoying. Mostly it is just plain funny. After the pessimistic tone of Red Lightning and very gloomy one of Rolling Thunder, it is also nice to read an installment in the series with a brighter outlook.

4½Rosbochs

Slow Apocalypse – John Varley

SlowApocalypseA screenwriter living in the Hollywood Hills gets advance warning of a coming disaster, a nanopathogen that renders oil supplies useless. Thinking itself a little mad, he nevertheless stocks up on supplies such as canned food and water. Pretty soon there are gas shortages, and it is clear that society is slowly unraveling while the government is hiding the truth. Things get worse and the small hill community where our hero lives buttons up, barricading the access road to prevent refugees from coming in. Then a massive Earthquake brought on by the destruction of the Los Angeles oil fields hits. Fire, flood and anarchy ensue.

Unlike many post-apocalyptic stories, this one isn’t about a superbly prepared person or group. Our hero is simply a normal person, and he does make mistakes. Varley’s skill at bringing characters to life really shines in this book. The struggle is personal, and those with real power are far away, unknowable, and untrustworthy. The big moral of the story is of course how very dependent the world is on oil. What would happen if all the oil reserves in the world vanished within the space of a few weeks? Society would break down very quickly, especially in big cities dependent on cars like Los Angeles.

4Rosbochs

Rolling Thunder (Thunder and Lightning III) – John Varley

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.

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.

Demon (Gaea III) – John Varley

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 (Gaea II) – John Varley

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.

Titan (Gaea I) – John Varley

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.

Mammoth – John 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.

The Persistence of Vision – John Varley

This short story collection showcases Varley at his most Varley. Not a lot of action, but quite a bit of character driven plotting. Light reading but nevertheless enjoyable and in some cases thought provoking. I did find it uneven, and some of the stories were maybe a little bit too focused on just showcasing the Eight Worlds Universe. The title story, “The Persistence of Vision”, is a departure and a wonderful tale of identity seeking.

Millennium – John Varley

The premise behind this book is, ahem, simple. Fifty thousand years from now, humanity is dying off as the result of plagues, toxic chemicals and radiation. However, time travel has been discovered and the “Gate Project” is kidnapping people who were going to die anyway in the past. For example passengers from the Titanic, victims of air crashes and so forth. These abductees, who are far more healthy than their short lived and sickly descendants, are put in storage for a future repopulation of the Earth. The story initially revolves around an impending mid-air collision between a 747 and a DC-10 over California. The two protagonists tell their stories in first person format more or less alternately. Bill Smith is the head of the crash investigation in the 20th century, and Louise Baltimore is the head of the “Snatch Team” from the Gate Project in the future.

So far so good. The characters are, as is typical for Varley, deeply flawed and authentic. The story is laid out as logically as possible, although the mechanics of time travel make this tricky. Once Varley has established the premise, the plot is about a developing temporal paradox that threatens the already bleak future with complete annihilation.

The first four fifths of the novel are quite enjoyable. It is clearly laid out where it could easily have been confusing and Varley skillfully ensures that the doomed humanity theme carries over into the characters and the story. The references to old fashioned computers don’t distract since Varley is always about the people, not the technology. The ending did annoy me a bit, since I dislike deus ex machina. But I must admit Varley pulled it off very well, especially by inserting a quite literal meaning in the whole thing.

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.

Red Lightning (Thunder and Lightning II) – John Varley

The sequel to the wonderful Red Thunder does not disappoint. A generation after the events of Red Thunder, the children of Ray Garcia and Kelly Strickland are growing up on Mars. An unexplained impact in the Atlantic and a consequent tsunami to dwarf all previous tsunamis are catalysts for the action. But this is not a disaster novel. It’s a novel about how Ray Garcia-Strickland grows from just another teenager into a man. Told strictly in Varley’s favored first person, we see the world through the eyes of an adolescent who wants to be a man but hasn’t quite figured out how yet. The tone is authentic and as usual Varley delivers on his characters. Thoroughly well imagined and believable, they feel like old friends by the end.

Varley’s novels, and especially the Red Thunder series, leave me with a feeling of well being after every section I read. The characters are so likeable and authentic it makes me want to be with them, in their world. Add to that the long section set in a fascism-leaning America logically and quite frighteningly extrapolated from today’s fear of terrorism as a convenient excuse for governmental power grabbing (the historical parallels are remarkably sinister), and it makes for a great novel.

Red Thunder (Thunder and Lightning I) – John Varley

RedThunderFor some odd reason I had never read Varley, an author who was first published in 1977, before I picked up this book. After this experience, I realized my mistake. Red Thunder makes some rather preposterous assumptions in order to underpin a story. A decade or two from now, two lower class Florida youngsters dream of going to space. They and their girlfriends accidentally run into (actually run over) an ex astronaut who has fallen from grace. Said ex astronaut has a quasi autistic genius cousin who has accidentally invented an immensely efficient and cheap form of energy generation/propulsion. Seeing as the Chinese are on their way to being first to Mars and the American expedition will not only be second, but may well have an accident on the way, this motley crew builds a spaceship.

Appalled yet? Most authors would have made a hash of this and turned out unreadable drivel. But Varley concentrates on the people aspect. The whole thing becomes an excellent, funny and exciting coming of age story.

 

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.