The Golden Globe, John Varley

Ace/Putnam, 1998, 425 pages, C$32.99 hc, ISBN 0-441-00558-6

Thirty-three bucks for a tour of the solar system. How does that sound to you? Even better: Wait a year and get it for ten bucks. Or rush to your library and get it for free! But given that it’s a new John Varley novel, why wait?

My first exposure to Varley was tardy, but significant: An impulse purchase of a (discount) hardcover edition of Steel Beach. I loved that book. Varley’s style -a chatty, lively first-person narrative loaded with fascinating asides about an original future- make than made up for a weak narrative structure and deliberately shocking details.

It was only later than I discovered Varley’s most successful works: The short stories assembled in The Persistence of Vision and The Barbie Murders. I wasn’t really ecstatic over the “Titan-Wizard-Demon” trilogy, but liked Millennium and loved The Ophiuchi Hotline. So, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I was waiting for the arrival of Varley’s first novel since 1992’s Steel Beach: The Golden Globe.

Even casual students of the Elizabethan era will infer that this novel has some relation with Shakespeare and/or the famous theatre in which many of his plays were first performed. But Varley gives another meaning to the title by referring to the cornerstone of his imaginary “Nine World” sequence: Luna.

Taking place a few years after Steel Beach‘s “Big Glitch”, The Golden Globe is a gigantic travelogue through Varley’s most celebrated future history. Kenneth “Sparky” Valentine is a once-famous actor, now running from the law after a few rather illegal acts on Pluto. He’s a spectacular thespian, a student of Shakespeare, a con artist and a terrific narrator. As with Steel Beach, Varley opens with a shock sequence as Sparky plays both Mercutio and Juliet in a rowdy representation of the Bard’s classic—including the sex scenes.

Before long, however, we’re on the run with Sparky as an unkillable Charonese (think “Silician”) mafia assassin is aiming for him. A few flashbacks, a few exotic locations, a few action scenes, a sudden new plot, a sudden conclusion and you close the cover on one of the best SF books of 1998.

There’s no denying that The Golden Globe is a shaggy-dog story. Fans of complex plotting won’t really find what they want here. Varley’s talent is in writing short stories, and he does the next best thing here by offering a string of vignettes, mini-adventures, tourist visits and linked flashbacks. Some will find it tedious; others will read it with glee.

In this regard, it’s very similar to Steel Beach, which also spent a lot of time describing future life on Luna, and included unrelated vignettes here and there to either sustain our interest or divert us from the main action. I may prefer the earlier novel by a nose (I’m more partial to a journalist protagonist than an actor) but the bottom line is that readers who loved Varley’s previous novel will also like this one.

Reader references run deeper, as it’s difficult to talk of this novel without mentioning Heinlein at least once, and Double Star at least twice. Much like Heinlein’s Lorenzo Smythe, Valentine’s narration is a compulsively readable mix of classical theatre and street smarts.

Indeed, it’s difficult not to like Varley’s protagonist, and in the end, that’s what carries the novel through. Even the travelogue aspect of The Golden Globe should not be a disadvantage given that SF has a long and illustrious history of such novels (Clarke’s 3001, Niven’s Ringworld, large segments of Robinson’ Mars trilogy, etc…)

So get the book, sit back and enjoy.

The show is just waiting to begin.

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