Millennium, John Varley

Berkley, 1983 (SFBC reprint), 214 pages, C$??.?? hc, ISBN ???

With my ever-growing stack of books to read, I don’t often re-visit thing I have already read. But an idle viewing of the much-maligned Millennium on DVD left me wondering once again about what, exactly, John Varley had in mind before the movie industry made mincemeat out of his concept.

The essential back-story of the saga goes like this: After causing quite a stir in written Science Fiction circles at the end of the seventies, Varley went to Hollywood to work on movies. His written output during those years slowed down considerably, and the only tangible result of those years is his screenwriter credit on the 1989 film Millennium. There’s a dearth of documentation regarding the film’s troubled production (If Varley talks about it briefly in his 2004 retrospective The John Varley Reader, corroborating documentation is difficult to find on the web), but it’s no accident if this 1989 film looks as if it’s been shot years earlier. The finished movie reportedly languished in studio vaults for years until it was finally released. Varley started work on the script in 1979, and his “novelization” (credited to MGM/UA) came out in 1983, and ended up nominated for that year’s Hugo Awards.

At its best, the film plays like a fine science-fiction thrillers set in the early eighties. The first half-hour is intriguing, but everything quickly cheapens once the central mystery is explained. Millennium then gets bogged down in a redundant temporal loop (we really don’t need to see the middle when we know the end) and becomes increasingly inept at portraying the future sequences that are supposed to be the showpieces of the film. The end result is frustrating: there are a bunch of great ideas in the whole mess (the premise itself, about time-traveling operatives snatching away passengers of doomed flights, is the kind of idea that gets into your brain and then never goes away, especially for frequent flyers), but the execution becomes increasingly disjoint, all the way to a ridiculous amount of mystic yadda-yadda by the closing seconds of the film.

The book, unsurprisingly, is much better. At a pleasantly-short 214 pages, it moves quickly and keeps the strengths of the film while adding the rest of Varley’s original vision for the concept. Alternately told by the two main characters of the story in first-person “testimonies”, Millennium first reassures readers by giving them an early-eighties inside look at air crash investigations, with all of the procedural details and jargon-laden knowledge that presupposes. But the book’s most-improved aspect is in depicting the time traveler’s perspective on the events. The film’s unconvincing supermodel actress becomes a tough and uncompromising operative with her own distasteful habits, and her narration show how much of the character was watered-down for the big screen.

Not having to worry about a production budget, Varley is able to add all the depth and credibility that the story requires. Amazingly, the plot points of both versions of the story are largely similar: Varley, on the other hand, doesn’t play silly temporal games with his audience (when he does, it feels natural) and is able to give some sorely-needed background justification. He doesn’t try to tie the characters together more than strictly needed (the epilogue even suggests how unreliable the testimonies are) and is able to speak knowledgeably to his genre-hardened readers: all chapter titles are taken from previous time-travel stories.

Of course, it’s written with Varley’s usual verve. I had fond memories of the book, and revisiting it only underscored how good Varley could be even in delivering a run-of-the-mill SF thriller. It’s not just an illuminating look at how mishandled adaptations can keep the bones of a story and still mess up everything else: Millennium is a truly good SF novel, one that still has a lot of charm and value as an increasingly-historical context. (Which bolsters my contention that Back to the Future aside, the most interesting time-travel stories are ones where the future intrudes on a present, not ones where the present revisits the past.) Happily, I see from Amazon that Millennium is still in print; give it a try –it’s better than most novels published these days.

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