The John Varley Reader, John Varley

Ace, 2004, 532 pages, C$23.50 tpb, ISBN 0-441-01195-0

Let’s make this very simple: If you have never read anything by John Varley, you should get this book. If you have read everything by John Varley, you should get this book.

If you even nominally consider yourself a Science Fiction fan, I don’t have to explain Varley to you. How he was the Larry Niven of the late seventies; how his short fiction effortlessly slapped around the rest of the genre through limpid writing, audacious concepts and relentless optimism; how vital he was at a time where SF was still trying to sort out the fallout of the New Wave. He combined mature gender politics with Heinleinian verve, anticipated cyberpunk (never being properly credited for it) while writing SF that was decades before its times, shocking and delighting contemporary audiences. His combined body of short stories is, even today, an amazing piece of work. And now The John Varley Reader brings a lot of it together: Seventeen tales spanning thirty years of writing, including three Hugo-Award-winning stories.

If you haven’t read Varley yet, this is the best place to start: His short-story collections are woefully out of print (Heck, I had to read The Barbie Murders in French translation, and I’ve never seen a copy of Blue Champagne to this day) and trying to accumulate his fiction on a piecemeal basis is an exercise in frustration. (Especially when you consider his sporadic publishing history, with novels published in clusters half a decade apart.) This anthology presents a dynamite assortment of stories that have not lost one whiff of relevance even decades later. This last point seems particularly important, so allow me to rephrase it: The is no nostalgic value in The John Varley Reader: Every one of these tale is as current and hip today as they were when they originally appeared. Even now-historical pieces such as “Press Enter []” have an immediacy that remains current to this day.

And this goes to everyone, including non-SF readers. John Varley is one of the rare SF writer I would confidently recommend to any sufficiently daring non-genre reader. Now you can just give them a copy of The John Varley Reader and wait until their minds explode from all that accumulated pure-SF goodness. How do you explain something like “The Persistence of Vision”? As the description of an alien society made out of humans? As a realistic piece marred by the inclusion of an explicitly SF element at the very end? Heck, Varley’s take on gender roles alone (what with casual gender-switching so prevalent in his “Eight Worlds” universe) is still amazing today, not to mention his gentle brand of optimistic let-live philosophy. He’s not just an excellent SF writer; he’s -in many ways- the example of what a SF writer should be. His stories are readable, clever and provocative: true models of the short Science Fiction form.

But for die-hard Varley fans, The John Varley Reader includes another bonus in the form of lengthy autobiographical passages. Varley hasn’t led an easy nor a conventional life, and the autobiography that emerges is both heartening and surprising. As he describes his adventures, we’re privileged to get a glimpse behind the fiction and be amazed once again, this time not at the fiction but at the writer. But wait; there’s more. There are previously-uncollected stories, such as the nifty “Just Another Perfect Day” or “The Bellman”, rescued from the time-capsule that is Harlan Ellison’s mythical The Last Dangerous Visions.

I bought the book planning to read only the introductions and the stories I hadn’t yet read. But I found myself sucked into the whole thing, even the classic stories, re-reading all once more just for the sheer pleasure of it (Ah, “The Barbie Murders”, ah, “The Phantom of Kansas”).

Hopefully, this collection also signals a return to form for Varley, whose output has been marked by lengthy periods of quiet followed by bursts of excellence. And maybe it’ll even lead new readers to his other work, from the succinct brilliance of The Ophiuchi Hotline to the wide-screen eccentricity of Steel Beach and The Golden Globe. Every half-decade or so, SF critics collectively say something like “thank goodness John Varley is back”. Now let’s hope he’s back to stay.

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