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John Varley: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted November 18, 2000, with later edits

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Perhaps the most significant of the genre writers to have emerged in the 1970s. An impressive array of short stories and novellas had many critics hailing him as the heir-apparent to Robert A. Heinlein, whose middle-period work Varley's most closely resembled. It may be true he hasn't quite lived up to that hype (who could?), but he was perhaps the most responsible for returning the genre to its more positive scientific roots after many years of the pessimistic New Wave, at the same time reinvigorating the traditional hard-SF scenarios with a more contemporary and irreverant perspective.

Many of his short stories and - so far - three of his novels (or maybe more?) have been set in a common future history, known as the Eight Worlds sequence. Sometime in the near future Earth is occupied by a mysterious alien race, and humanity must survive on the other worlds of the solar system already colonized; Mercury, Venus, the moon, Mars, Pluto, and various moons of Saturn and Neptune. Jupiter and its moons are off-limits however, as the "Invaders" have established a rapport with that planets' native species.

Varley's first publication came in 1974 with the short story "Picnic on Nearside" in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (FSF). This was also chronologically the first of the Eight Worlds stories. Nearside refers to the face of the moon towards Earth. Shortly after the invasion all of the moon's inhabitants relocate to the farside away from Earth, both to be out from under the watchful gaze of the Invaders and also to symbolize that now man's destiny lay outwards to the other worlds, and eventually out to the stars. His first book collection was 1978's The Persistence of Vision, the title story being the winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards. This collection has also been published under the title of one of the other stories included, "In the Hall of the Martian Kings." Another - "Air Raid" - was later expanded into the novel Millennium, and it was the basis of the 1989 Film starring Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd. Varley wrote the screenplay himself, and while it does have its good points, due to the wooden acting by the two leads this film was not as successful as it should have been. Still another story, "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank," was adapted for a made-for-public-TV video production which starred Raul Julia. The less said about that production the better. The fact that it was one of the films lampooned on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 should tell you a lot.

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If I'm not mistaken, this collection was the first of his books I read, although I may have read some of the stories earlier in "Best of the Year" volumes. If I had begun my subscription to FSF just a few years earlier than I did (1979) I would have discovered his unique talent that much sooner. Five of the nine stories had first seen print in that periodical, although his first story was not collected until 1980 in The Barbie Murders (variant title - Picnic on Nearside). Another collection came in 1986 with Blue Champagne, which included the award winners "Press Enter " and "The Pusher." Varley took a big chance of alienating many readers with the latter story, as it initially seemed to be about a child molester, but in actuality the title character is a starship voyager who attempts to make contact with girls who will be of a mature age - and thus potential romantic liasons - the next time he visits their planet, due to the paradoxes of the space-time continuum. "Press Enter ", published in 1984, is still an interesting story, but it rapidly became dated from Varley's frequent references to what he assumed at the time to be unfamiliar computer jargon. In its defense it can be noted that the story's first-person narrator, a seizure-prone, ex-Korean War POW, was unfamiliar with computers and their paraphenalia.

Varley's first novel (recently reprinted), 1977's The Ophiuchi Hotline, is set approximately 500 years into the Eight Worlds sequence. Shortly after the exile from Earth, a radio transmission is detected coming from the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus. When it is decoded it offers a vast array of new technologies, from cloning and other genetic engineering marvels, to techniques capable of recording a person's total life history direct from their brain. It became commonplace for individuals to have a clone of themselves ready to be animated with their life recording, as an insurance policy against their eventual death, thus ensuring a sort of quasi-immortality. Multiple clones of a person were illegal however, but that does not stop a corrupt Lunar politician who has a nefarious plan to reconquer Earth. Lilo, the lead character of the novel, dies within the first few pages, but a succession of her clones are caught up in an emergency which could lead to the expulsion of humanity from the solar system.

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Varley took a break from this future history for his next series of novels, known collectively as the Gaea Trilogy. The first book of the set, 1979's Titan, revolves around an expedition to Saturn's largest satellite, and of the startling discovery that what at first is believed to be a tenth moon of the planet is in actuality a living, sentient being - Gaea - which contains within itself a multitude of trapped individuals and species. The NASA mission commander, Cirocco Jones, becomes Gaea's agent for its negotiations with Earth. The series continued with Wizard (1980) and concluded with Demon (1984). In my opinion, this is an example of a good and intriguing premise drawn out to an exhausting and frustrating conclusion, and if memory serves correctly I never finished the third volume. It seemed to me Varley was hard pressed to come up with more and more outrageous species and situations for his protagonist to deal with. The ordeal may have been more than Varley himself could deal with, and it may have been a contributing factor to his not producing another novel - with the exception of the expanded "Air Raid" story, Millennium - until 1992.

Steel Beach saw Varley's return to the Eight Worlds sequence, and a return to his earlier successes as well. Set on the moon about 200 years after the exile when humanity has resigned itself to its fate of losing Earth, the Central Computer system has regulated life to the point of near utopia. Disease is a thing of the past, life-recording and cloning assure everyone of practically living forever, and the climate is regulated to perfection. If one becomes bored with their existence, a quick and painless sex-change can give them an entirely new perspective on life. In fact, to remain the same sex for too long is considered to be the height of decadence. So why in this paradise does Hildy Johnson, a reporter for Luna's leading tabloid journal, feel suicidal? And why does the Central Computer confirm his suspicions that others share this despair? Tightly plotted and ingeniously inventive, this novel reconfirmed Varley as a leading exponent of hard-SF. On top of that, it begins with what has to be the most outrageously bizarre sentence of any novel I have ever read "In five years, the penis will be obsolete," the salesman said. And it only gets better from there.

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Another novel in the sequence came in 1998. The Golden Globe recounts the exploits of Sparky Valentine, a member of a traveling troupe of actors, as he plys his trade among the outer planets and the asteroid belt, where collections of space junk have been welded together to form artificial satellites. Valentine has availed himself of all of the advanced technologies man now possesses in order to transform himself into the ultimate actor, able at a moment's notice to change from fat to thin, short to tall, young to old, man to woman. He does not limit his trade to the stage however, since he learned at an early age that an actor's livelihood is often uncertain, and that con games could be very lucrative. Unfortunately he finds there is a price on his head for a much more serious offense - murder. Desperately eager to escape to the outer fringes of the solar system, instead he finds himself being driven inwards to Luna, closer to the scene of the crime and perhaps to his ultimate justice.

It's been way too many years, but Varley has finally released another novel - Red Thunder - which is not connected to the Eight Worlds sequence (or is it?). Instead it is a light-hearted homage to Heinlein's juvenile novels, particularly the first of them, Rocket Ship Galileo, although it is definitely modern in its characterizations and language. I've recently read it and reviewed it (click link on title), favorably but with reservations. UPDATE: And now there are two sequels, Red Lightning, and Rolling Thunder. [And Another! - Dark Lightning]

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Considering the quality of the majority of his work, it is unfortunate that all three of Varley's short story collections and several of his novels are currently out of print. Of course there is a chance they could be found online or in used bookstores, but is it any wonder that a lot of current readers of SF are unaware of the genre's vast and varied history when even relatively recent works such as these are allowed to go out of print? [NOTE: Since writing this article, the first two Gaean novels and The Ophiuchi Hotline have been reprinted, and there is a new comprehensive collection, The John Varley Reader.]

Over the past few years I have read several references to another book Varley has been working on that will be part of Eight Worlds. It's title is tentatively "Irontown Blues," and I am anxiously awaiting it. During the same period he was working on the Red Thunder sequence, Varley also released a stand-alone novel, a time travel fantasy titled Mammoth. I have read it, and while it is an enjoyable romp I have so far decided not to review it, since it is a rather pedestrian and predictable tale.

UPDATE: Varley's latest novel is Slow Apocalypse. Wait, now the latest is Dark Lightning.

EDIT: And finally! Irontown Blues.

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Related Links:
Varley's Official Website
My reviews of Red Thunder, Red Lightning, Rolling Thunder and Dark Lightning, as well as Slow Apocalypse.
Also, Slow Apocalypse and Irontown Blues.
An interview at xeromag.com
The Varley Bibliography at fantasticfiction.com


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August 9, 1947
Austin, Texas

Official Website

3 Hugos
2 Nebulas
10 Locus Reader Awards
Prix Tour-Apollo (1980, for The Persistence of Vision)