Of Mars and Mammoths

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John Varley writes with startling creativity and a priceless gift for authenticity. When he arrived in the mid- 1970s with a flurry of hard science fiction short stories, he was immediately compared to some of the great names, particularly Robert Heinlein. He has proudly embraced that link, most recently in his novels “Red Thunder” (see “Libs in Space,” August 2003) and “Red Lightning,” but also in subtler ways. In the 1980s, the stories abruptly stopped because, as he explains in an essay in “The John Varley Reader,” he had Gone Hollywood, or at least enlisted: moving to an office on the MGM lot and writing screenplays that were never produced, including a screenplay for Heinlein’s “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel.” The only tangible results of that decade were the novel “Millennium” (which expand- ed his short story “Air Raid”) and the movie of the same name, starring Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd. The novel was brilliant, the movie less so (although not as bad as Varley thinks), and he quit films. All the better for science fiction; in 1997, he returned with his finest novel, “Steel Beach,” and has been steadily publishing since.

I reserve my highest recommendation for John Varley. I know of no writer in any genre, then or since, who has a better sense of dramatic timing, imagery, and realism, or who writes with such smooth, seemingly effortless grace. He’s capable of devising the strangest scenarios – the climax of his novel “Demon,” for example, is a battle against an insane goddess manifesting Herself as a 50-foot facsimile of Marilyn Monroe – that he can make the reader absolutely believe. His characters are strong, credible, imperfect but admirable; personalities able to stand up to worlds of bizarre and fascinating complexity.

The “Reader” collects some of his very best short stories, including ”Air Raid,” “The Phantom of Kansas,” “Beatnik Bayou,” and “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” (also the victim of an atrocious movie sometime in the ’80s). It’s too bad most of these stories are already easily available in “The Persistence of Vision” (1978). The only less familiar works here are “Just Another Perfect Day/’ a brilliant story which anticipated the critically-acclaimed movie “Memento” by 20 years; “The Flying Dutchman,” a first-rate Twilight Zone-style story of eternal entrapment; “The Bellman,” a less satisfying tale which sat on an editor’s shelf for decades, and seems to have gathered dust during that time; and “Good Intentions,” which· is embarrassingly bad. (Brilliant writers are entitled to their mistakes, but they ought not reprint them.) It would have been more gratifying to see some of his more obscure works compiled, like “Scoreboard,” ”A Choice of Enemies,” or (one of my personal favorites) “Goodbye Robinson Crusoe.”

But the “Reader” does include “The Pusher,” “The Persistence of Vision,” and “Press Enter” – all winners of the Hugo, the Nebula, or both – as well as many of his “Eight Worlds” stories. These are stories set in a future universe in which mankind, having been evicted from the Earth by a mysterious, invincible alien race, survives on the moon and other planets. It’s always puzzled me that Varley never won an award for these. They are his very best, since the setting gives his imagination free range. Among the innovations man lives within this future are the technologies of biological engineering and memory-re- cording, which allow for a crude kind of immortality: record your mind and store it, and if anything should happen, a new “you” can be built from a· clone, filled with your stored thoughts. Varley uses this to explore questions about personal identi~ sexuality, and individualism. In “The Phantom of Kansas,” the same person keeps being murdered over and over again, much to the frustration of detectives. In “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank,” people take vacations by putting their minds into the brains of wild animals for a weekend.

The “Eight Worlds” future is dynamic, with great technological advantages and great burdens, and in some ways free of government – except for the many things run by an all-powerful Central Computer. Subcultures prolif-

Varley is capable of devising the strangest scenarios, which he can make the reader absolutely believe.


erate, and awesome achievements coincide with miserable prejudices. Varley relishes the various and doubtful rather than the static and uniform; for him, innovation is attractive because of its unpredictability. But, unlike more generic science fiction, Varley rarely buries himself in the technical aspects of his stories at the expense of the people who inhabit them. “I was never much interested in writing about revolutions, warfare, or any of the great social upheavals of politics and violence,” he recently told an interviewer, “except from a person’s-eye view. . . . My main inter-

The story combines Katrina, 9/11, the Christmas Tsunami, Martian exploration, the Department of Homeland Security, and gun control into a smart 330 pages.


est in writing is people, the awful and grand things that happen to them, and how they deal with it.” The best science fiction has always remembered that technical marvels aren’t just for dazzling or preaching; they’re for exploring humanity. Varley recognizes this: it’s what makes his stories so severe and so real, and what earned him the 1999 Prometheus Award from the Libertarian Futurist Society.

Take “Options,” for instance. This “Eight Worlds” story, published in 1974, has relatively little space-fantasy pizzazz. It’s a simple story about a family – Jules, Cleo, and their three children – living on the moon a century after the invasion. But in this world, sex changes are almost as easy as changing clothes, and Cleo begins to desire to try life as a man. The resulting family tension is the source of the story’s power, and Varley tells it believably, honestl~ movingly. Just as the three-minute single is the hardest test for a rock musician, the short story is the most demanding form of science fiction writing, and “Options” is simply a masterpiece – one among many in the “Reader.” Of course, in the years since 1974, the politics and sociology of sex roles has changed a good deal, and, in Varley’s view, for the better. But the point of the story isn’t to illustrate a viewpoint in the nature-versus-nurture debate; it’s to explore Cleo and Jules and the complications of their marriage.

Unfortunately, he seems to have lost sight of this lesson in “Mammoth.” When super tycoon Howard Christian finds the frozen remains of a mammoth in a Canadian tundra, he decides to clone it for an amusement park, Michael Crichton-style. But any similarity to “Jurassic Park” dissolves when archaeologists also turn up the remains of a caveman wearing a wristwatch, and Christian devises a plan to retrieve mammoths through time-travel instead. He hires supergenius Matt Wright to handle the physics, and elephant expert Susan Morgan to handle the retrieved mammoths. But Susan becomes convinced that the circus is no place for a mammoth, and she and Wright hatch a rescue plot that goes haywire. The novel feels very cinematic: fast-paced, with little elaboration. The action tries to distract readers from weaknesses in the mundane structural features that any work of fiction must have – weaknesses shared in some respects with another recent novel, “Red Thunder.” But where that book succeeded by building technical plausibility, and following through with an electrifying climax, the characters here are sketched rather than drawn, handicapping an otherwise exciting conclusion.

Varley is at his best when describing the distant future. Closer to home, he is not only constrained by real events; he also spends less time developing the background that gives his stories their vitality. In “Steel Beach,” his best book, the reader is prepared to believe in telepathic computers, force-field space- suits, and micro engineered butterflies skimming over the surface of the moon. But in “Mammoth,” which· is set within the next few years, the reader has a hard time buying Howard Christian’s skyscraper penthouse, let alone his Batman-style ray gun, which wreaks ven-

The best science fiction has always remembered that technical marvels aren’t just for dazzling or preaching; they’re


for exploring humanity.

geance on evildoers in downtown Los Angeles. And the love story that develops between Susan and Matt is cold and unengaging: Matt’s devotion to her has all the charm of a desperate nerd who falls for the first girl who comes along.

their return, watch in horror as earthside governments collapse. Meanwhile, their brilliant inventor friend disappears, chased by mysterious government thugs who soon come after Ra- mon, his family, and his girlfriend. Being set farther in the future, the sequel gives Varley more room to be himself, and the result is naturally superior. The first novel was hampered by some- times tedious explanations of spiffy new technology that detracted from the

dramatic flow. None of that here. The love story is believable, the conflicts are realistic, and the story manages somehow to combine Hurricane Katrina, September 11, the Christmas Tsunami, Martian exploration, the Department of Homeland Security, and gun control into a smart 330 pages. Fast-paced, light-hearted, dramatic, and eminently plausible, “Red Lightning” is Varley’s best work since USteel Beach.” If only all science fiction were written this way.

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