Tag Archives: John Varley

Mammoth, John Varley

Ace, 2005, 364 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01281-7

It’s no exaggeration to say that Mammoth is John Varley’s least remarkable book yet.  It’s not part of a series, has made few waves upon release, seems partly destined to kids and features little science-fictional content.  In tone, it’s a lark that eventually takes itself seriously.  In theme, it pushes no envelopes and even treads upon Varley’s previous work.  In short, it’s forgettable and optional: the very definition of a minor work.

But that’s not a catastrophic assessment when dealing with a writer like Varley.  Mammoth does have a few qualities of its own.  Anyone looking to compare Varley at his least impressive to any other writer could learn much by studying Mammoth: Even in minor works, Varley manages to out-write a number of his contemporaries, feature one big spectacular sequence, throw in a few neat ideas and find a haunting finale.  The pieces don’t necessarily all fit together in a satisfying fashion, but that’s a comment on a different level: Line per line, Varley remains one of Science Fiction’s most preposterously readable author.

The best demonstration of that talent is to see how difficult it is to stop reading the novel even when it’s either following obvious paths, refusing to give satisfaction, headed in the wrong direction or tackling soppy sentiments. Varley’s narration somehow makes it all look promising, even when we’re sure of the contrary.  There’s always a neat little hook of storytelling to keep up going forward, a slight twist of perspective or a mini-mystery to keep readers going forward.

So it is that Mammoth begins as a straight-ahead time-travel story.  Somewhere in the Great Canadian North, a really-rich businessman’s archaeological team has discovered not only a superbly preserved mammoth, but also the remnants of what looks like a piece of advanced technology in the hands of a human wearing a wristwatch.  Looking for answers, the really-rich businessman hires a really-smart scientist to figure out that is probably, after all, a time machine coming from a lost time-traveler.  We get, in-between chapters, snippets of a kiddy documentary about mammoths.

There are complications.  The time machine looks like a bunch of marbles in a suitcase and no one can understand how (or if) it works.  Animal activists mount an attack against the really-rich guy’s compound and disrupt the marbles.  The really-smart guy figures out the way to travel back in time when the author nudges him so.  The really-smart guy’s return to contemporary Los Angeles, after a few days in the prehistoric wilderness, comes with a bonus mammoth herd.  A spectacular mammoth rampage ensues, followed by extreme police brutality, mammoth mop-up, and a plot that goes increasingly off the rails when it resumes years later.  By the time our protagonists are kidnapping a showbiz-star mammoth and running away to Canada, well, Mammoth fully earns that “least remarkable Varley book” title.

The time-travel plot ends up in a loop, the strange time machine becomes a formless plot device that Varley isn’t interested in explaining, the super-rich guy becomes a villain (then a more tragic figure) and Canada becomes a haven for mammoth-rights activists.  For those who are tired of conveniently rich characters in science-fiction, deliberately unsatisfying plot devices or dumb animal activism may not find the book entirely to their liking.  (There’s a particularly vexing suspension-of-disbelief problem when we’re asked to believe that mammoth would become the next big thing in showbiz.)  The writing is good, but it all amounts to a plot that alternates between weak and silly.  There are several fine moments in the novel (the return of the mammoth herd in downtown Los Angeles is a spectacular sequence, and it’s announced by a cute re-arrangement of chapter numbers), but they add up to a disappointing shaggy-mammoth story, with a sad extended epilogue that seems curiously out-of-place in the middle of an otherwise light-hearted (even ridiculous) story.  To see a fine premise scatter off in all directions like this is a disappointment, especially considering that it’s coming from a writer who has done far better in the past.

But even Varley fans have accepted that he can have off decades, and that the fizzy wonderful Varley of the seventies (or, to a lesser extent, the nineties) is not the one writing nowadays.  Mammoth is fine in the ways Varley can be fine even when he’s writing trifles, but it’s also maddening in reminding us that he can do far, far better.  Call it, as I first said, a minor addition to his bibliography: worth tracking down only once you’ve exhausted his top-line work.

Millennium (1989)

(Second viewing, on DVD, June 2009): Fans of SF author John Varley often point at this film to explain his silence throughout the late eighties. Varley himself has plenty to say about it (see his short story collection The John Varley Reader for the details), but the result is a pretty poor film. Oh, it starts out well: Despite some unconvincing special effects and moments, the first half-hour creates an effective mystery, and there are a few spectacular scenes detailing the aftermath of a plane crash. Kris Kristofferson isn’t too bad as the lead, although he (like most of the actors surrounding him) look like they have escaped straight from the seventies. But then there’s a time-traveling sequence that, like too many time-traveling sequences, falls in love with the cleverness of showing everything twice when once was dull enough. The result stops the film dead for about twenty minutes, a loss from which it never completely recovers. The film gets worse and worse as it nears its end: despite a few flashes of interest, the film suffers from a disjointed third act that breaks dramatic unity with a few plot jumps weeks ahead before settling for a perfunctory future sequence and a consciously trippy epilogue. Trust me: You’d be better off reading Varley’s 1983 eponymous “novelization” (ie; what he wanted to do, untainted by outside forces) for the better experience. The DVD has a lame “alternate ending” that is suitably hidden deep in the menu system, a few unenlightening production notes, and nothing else.

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.

Rolling Thunder, John Varley

Ace, 2008, 344 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01563-4

Varley fans who complained about Red Thunder and Red Lightning aren’t likely to feel much better after reading Rolling Thunder, the newest installment in a series that seems intent on showing how ordinary the author has become. It’s not a terrible novel, but it’s intensely familiar, leads to a conclusion that seems pasted from Varley’s previous work, and it survives only thanks to Varley’s usual gift for compelling narration.

A generation removed from Red Lightning, Rolling Thunder‘s narrator is one Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Podkayne Strickland-Garcia-Redmond, daughter of the previous book’s Ray. As the novel begins, she’s stuck on Earth, serving her time in the Martian Navy by acting as an immigration officer. It’s been a few years since the Martian Revolution of the previous volume, and Earth hasn’t quite adjusted to the change. The situation around the world is worse than ever, in part thanks to the disaster descriped in the previous novel, but Mars isn’t ready to let everyone immigrate en masse.

When Podkayne’s great-grandmother is suddenly scheduled for bubble stasis for medical reasons, it’s a mandatory ride home and family reunion for her, then a reassignment to the entertainment division of the Mars Navy where she becomes a jazz singer. (Don’t worry: she justifies why the music she sings is all made out of classic numbers. As usual with writers of Varley’s generation, the future doesn’t belong to pop music —or anything made after the sixties.) A tour to Jupiter’s Moons doesn’t go as planned, though, and the consequences are dire both for Podkayne and for the human race.

Like its predecessors, Rolling Thunder is grossly chopped into two relatively independent sections, separated by time. A disaster leaves Podkayne unchanged, but affects everyone else’s perception of her, with dangerous results for the young woman. It all leads to a conclusion that seems to borrow equally from The Ophiuchi Hotline and Steel Beach.

Also like its predecessors, the saving grace of Rolling Thunder isn’t to be found in its overarching plot, but in its moments or line-by-line narration. The homages to Heinlein are just as blatant as in the previous books, but the clear-voiced narration holds up things better than you’d expect, with lengthy yet appealing digressions on how things are done at that time. This being said, I wonder if Heinlein could have pulled off the dark ending of this novel, in which the characters basically run far far away in order to avoid the apocalypse threatening the rest of humanity.

As a science-fiction novel, it’s a minor work. It’s even more disappointing coming from Varley, although none of the three books in its series have been particularly impressive. With a bit of effort, this could have been a novella: the plot density is laughable, especially when the bulk of the novel seems to be Podkayne telling us about her day-to-day life.

If readers have made it thus far in the series, they might as well keep going: It’s an amiable entry in the series and the fact that it’s slight and negligible doesn’t make it less than entertaining. What’s more, it’s a stepping stone to what Varley says is the fourth and final tome in the series, Dark Lightning, to be written and published in a few more years. Not that we’re in any hurry.

It’s a sign of the novel’s minor impact that it’s not particularly interesting to dissect or even comment: If Varley’s your thing, this will do while you await for his next novel. But there’s no denying that Varley’s best works seem more and more distant.

Red Lightning, John Varley

Ace, 2006, 330 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01364-3

Every decade has its own John Varley, who went from a ground-breaking newcomer in the seventies to a Hollywood exile in the eighties to a mysterious absent in the nineties to, now, a mid-list entertainer perfectly content to tell familiar stories in aw-shucks narration.

Nominally a sequel to Red Thunder, this novel picks up a generation later. Mars has been colonized thanks to the bubble drive, and our narrator Ray is the son of the first volume’s Manny Garcia. As the novel begins, the Earth is struck by something, and the resulting tidal wave is enough to wipe out Florida where Ray’s grandmother still maintains the family hotel. Within hours the entire Garcia clan is on the move, headed for Earth, and then into dark devastated Florida in search of their relatives.

But it’s one of Red Lightning‘s problems is that even though the Florida expedition takes up nearly half the book, it’s not really the story that Varley wants to tell. No, the real reason for this novel is an umpteenth tale of how extra-terrestrials stage another American Revolution in Spaaace. Never mind the disaster special in the novel’s first half: Soon, we’re back on Mars, fighting against mysterious Earth forces, and using bubbles to terrorize Earth so thoroughly that no one will even think of taking over the plucky Martian colonists.

Yes, it’s all terribly familiar. Except that instead of political sophistication, Varley has magical bubble technology on his side. The solution to pretty much every problem in the book is “more bubbles!” It gets old fast, even when Varley gets all aw-shucks-y with us.

Fortunately, it’s the same narration that keeps the novel from being just another forgettable mid-list SF novel. Even when he’s seriously misguided, Varley’s narration is compelling on a sentence-by-sentence basis. It’s a combination of engaging storytelling, an accumulation of clever detail and a voice that doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s hard to dislike someone like that, even when they’re telling hackneyed stories that appeal to few others than libertarians looking for another hit of that extraterrestrial revolution. (They’re probably the same people who won’t mind the convenient appearance of mysterious extra-governmental forces terrorizing Mars.)

Given the colonial rebellion that takes up most of the book’s last half, it’s ironic that it’s the low-tech dirty trip through Floridian devastation that ends up being Red Lightning‘s set-piece. But even then, the quality of the segment can be difficult to reconcile with the science-fictional setting. What would have been perfectly mesmerizing in a contemporary setting becomes impossible to justify a few decades from now. Take, for instance, the way Florida is left to fend for itself under media blackout after a tidal wave. Yes, Varley has been informed by the events following the Katrina hurricane, but there’s something too pat about the lack of foreign sources of information and ad-hoc communication networks. (Also: not every future government will be as willfully incompetent as the Bush administration.)

The result feels disjointed, a double feature of stories that don’t go well together, jammed into a structure that can’t accommodate both a destroyed Florida and a rebellious Mars. The easy prose may make Red Lightning a fast and pleasant read, but it does nothing to patch the broken shape of the book, or the more problematic elements of its conception. Varley, of course, has been a genre Science Fiction writer all of his life. But this is one instance where stepping back from the future and writing a contemporary thriller would have been a better choice. In trying to stick to genre formulas, Varley is well on his way to diluting his own brand.

Red Thunder, John Varley

Ace, 2003 (2004 reprint), 441 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01162-4

Genre fiction is often defined as an ongoing conversation within which a set of common attitudes are shared and forged. When genre works well, it allows writers to depend on an audience that is already sympathetic to their goals and methods. Free from re-inventing the wheel, genre writers can explore more intricate issues. But when genre goes bad, it lock both writers and readers in a set of outdated assumptions that have less and less to do with the world outside.

This meta-conversation about genre has been ongoing in the Science Fiction community for, oh, decades, but it’s always revealing to illuminate the discussion with specific examples. Alas, John Varley’s career looks like it’s sliding into a specific case study of what can happen to a genre writer as he slides into obsolescence. The early phase of Varley’s career, with works like The Ophiuchi Hotline, was characterized by strong genre awareness and capable writing skills: Free to play around in structures built by Heinlein and his predecessors, Varley explored new issues of gender and body modification in ways that were friendly to the SF genre audience.

But recent works like Red Thunder may be showing a writer increasingly reluctant to extend genre premises, and far more comfortable providing comfort reads to a penned-in audience. Red Thunder is fun if you’re already a Science Fiction fan, but it may not withstand a moment’s scrutiny from more demanding readers.

Oh, it starts well enough: For all of his other faults, Varley can still write compelling narration, and Red Thunder quickly establishes not only its dynamic teenage narrator Manny (whose family is barely hanging onto a strip motel), but the rest of the Floridian characters who will come along for the ride: A rich rebellious girlfriend, a good buddy skilled in engineering matters and his no-nonsense girlfriend.

But things take a turn for good-old pulp SF when Manny befriends a washed-up colonel and his idiot-savant brother. Thanks to a very convenient discovery and two just-as-conveniently rich characters, they’re able to slap together a few pieces (using “all-American guts”, specifies the back-cover blurb) and go to Mars in time to beat the Chinese to the landing and save a NASA mission doomed by committee-driven engineering flaws. Try as you might, I’m not sure you could come up with a pluckier story to please long-time Analog SF fans.

It’s bad enough that the revolutionary “bubble” technology has been invented by a mentally-challenged genius speaking with a Louisiana accent. It’s the by-the-number plotting in which our teenage heroes and their redeemed captain build the ship, race to Mars, giggle at the Chinese and rescue their NASA friends that really makes the entire novel redundant. It’s a greatest-hits of common SF daydreams with nary a hint of plausible deniability. Try to tell the story to a non-SF reader: they’ll roll their eyes and mutter something like “you’re still reading this stuff?” despite your attempts at saying that this is aimed at young adults: Let’s face it, the novel was marketed at adults and makes most sense only to those who overdosed on Heinlein during their long-past teenage years.

The only reason why Red Thunder holds together is Varley’s ability to write compelling prose. Even those who want to dismiss the novel as nothing more than reheated space-age fantasies will be hard-pressed not to enjoy the procedural elements of how a small group of teenagers are able to weld together a spaceship bound for Mars. No matter how ludicrous it is, how wobbly its foundations are and how obvious its plotting remains, Red Thunder is a fun read. Don’t blame Manny and his friends for being stuck in the dusty daydreams of a dying genre: just hop along for the ride and nod your head at the expected plot points. Varley hasn’t written nearly enough in the past decade, and once stuff like Red Thunder is out of his system, maybe we’ll be back to top form sometime soon.

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.

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.

The Gaea Trilogy, John Varley

Berkley, 1979-1984, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Titan: Berkley, 1979, 309 pages, C$2.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-04998-1
Wizard: Berkley, 1980, 372 pages, C$2.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-04828-4
Demon: Berkley, 1984, 464 pages, C$3.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-08271-7

In early 1994, I took a chance by buying a hardcover edition of John Varley’s Steel Beach, none too sure that I’d enjoy a 500-pages book by an unfamiliar author. It was one of the first SF novel I bought, and also still one of my favorite. (The killer opening line is: “’In five years, the penis will be obsolete’, said the saleman.”)

Afterward, I read most John Varley’s stories and his other novels (Millenium, The Ophiuchi Hotline), enjoying most of it and wincing at the film adaptation of Millenium. Varley is often brilliant, even oftener shocking (deliberately so) and also pretty fascinating. He took on issues like biotechnology and gender roles, starring most often than not females as strong protagonists.

I bought used copies of Titan and Wizard a while back, but never got around to read them before I finally thought of buying the third volume of the trilogy, Demon. Then I sat back comfortably, and read.

The most shocking thing about the Gaean trilogy is that despite being desperate to shock the reader, it ends up being a very long, somewhat boring and utterly ordinary trilogy. Varley packed more ideas in the slim 200 pages of The Ophiuchi Hotline than his thousand-pages trilogy. Granted, the characters are more fully developed… but was it really worth it?

Probably not.

The trilogy opens on an exploratory voyage to a newly-discovered moon of Saturn. A quick sketch of the characters later, the NASA spaceship Ringmaster is trashed, and our characters are stranded on (or is it inside?) an alien world. Titan is perhaps the most interesting volume of the three, since it has the advantage of being the first glimpse at Gaea. A novel of exploration and discovery, it has a more-or-less satisfying payoff. Unfortunately, Varley throws in more than is necessary, and most of his attempts at shock value smack more of over-indulgence than actually useful plot development. Like most adventure stories, it’s also by times a travelogue of less than gripping interest.

Wizard logically continues the adventures of Cirroco Jones, the protagonist of the Gaean trilogy. A few new characters are introduced, and go through yet more seemingly interminable adventures. More shocking things are introduced and they still don’t feel really unsettling. Again, the conclusion is pretty satisfying, especially if you like the “one-mortal-against-the-gods” kind of story.

While Demon acceptably conclude Cirroco Jones’ personal evolution, this third tome nevertheless feels disjointed compared to the rest of the series. Perhaps this is a result of the four-year-break between Wizard and Demon, or maybe the sudden emphasis on movies in-jokes that permeates this final book. Even then, the book feels overlong despite the nice character development, and the conclusion feels empty more than would be the norm for the conclusion of a trilogy.

Even confirmed Varley fans might want to think twice before attempting the Gaean trilogy. It’s not that it’s a particularly horrendous work; technically, it’s pretty good despite its length (somewhat compensated by the character development and the easily-readable prose). However, in a world where there are so many good books and so little time, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that better books should be read before the Gaean trilogy.