Short works

Books : reviews

John Varley.
In the Hall of the Martian Kings (== The Persistence of Vision) .

(read but not reviewed)


In the Bowl. 1975
The Phantom of Kansas. 1976
Air Raid. 1977
Retrograde Summer. 1975
The Black Hole Passes. 1975
In the Hall of the Martian Kings. 1977
Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance. 1976
Overdrawn at the Memory Bank. 1976
The Persistence of Vision. 1978

John Varley.
The Barbie Murders (== Picnic on Nearside) .

(read but not reviewed)


Bagatelle. 1974
The Funhouse Effect. 1976
The Barbie Murders. 1978
Equinoctial. 1977
Manikins. 1976
Beatnik Bayou. 1980
Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe. 1977
Lollipop and the Tar Baby. 1977
Picnic on Nearside. 1974

John Varley.
Blue Champagne.
Berkley. 1986

(read but not reviewed)


Lollipop and the Tar Baby. 1977
The Pusher. 1981
Blue Champagne. 1981
Tango Charley and Foxtrot Romeo. 1985
Options. 1979
The Manhattan Phone Book (abridged). 1984
The Unprocessed Word. 1985
Press Enter []. 1984

John Varley.
The Golden Globe.
Ace. 1998

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 25 October 1999

Sparky Valentine is a 100 year old actor, plying his trade around the Solar System, usually just one step ahead of whatever passes for the law in his locale. But it's difficult building a fan-base when you keep having to change persona. Then, out beyond Pluto, he gets an offer he can't refuse: to play Lear in a new production back home on Luna -- if he can get there in time.

The plot, such as it is, is wafer thin, serving as an excuse for an exploration of the richly detailed Eight Worlds and their denizens' weird life-styles. (And there are definite nods to Heinlein's Double Star at times.) Although Varley doesn't promise consistency in his Eight World novels, all the standard stuff is here: almost complete control over the body's biology with gender changing being a comparatively simple transformation (Valentine has had his entire body surgically enhanced so that he can change his appearance to better play various parts), bizarre social arrangements, and a displaced humanity living in the Solar System but forbidden the Earth.

Just sit back and enjoy the tour, and revel in all the delicious details. The word mills of Varley might grind slowly, but they do grind exceeding fine.

John Varley.
Ace. 2005

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 13 September 2006

Howard Christian is the richest man in the world, and can afford to indulge in his hobbies. The current one is to clone a mammoth. But when his latest 12000 year old frozen mammoth is found along with a 12000 year old frozen human wearing a wristwatch he gets involved in something much more exciting: building a time machine.

This is fun, and with the wacky details one has come to expect from Varley, but without his usual depth. For example, when it comes to the scientist describing his problems with time travel, it feels a bit of a cop-out, as if Varley himself couldn't quite pull off the necessary techno-babble. But it's an interesting foray into the paradoxes of time travel, with a cast who are well aware of those very paradoxes, and into the lifestyle of mammoths, and of the super-rich.

John Varley.
Slow Apocalypse.
Ace. 2012

John Varley.
Irontown Blues.
Ace. 2018

Christopher Bach was a policeman in one of the largest Lunar cities when the AI Lunar Central Computer had a breakdown. Known as the Big Glitch, the problem turned out to be a larger war than anyone expected. When order was restored, Chris’s life could never be the same. Now he is a private detective, assisted by his genetically altered dog, Sherlock, and emulates the tough guys in the noir books and movies that he loves.

When Chris takes the case of a woman involuntarily infected with an engineered virus, he is on the hunt to track down the biohackers in the infamous district of Irontown. But if he wants to save humanity, he’l1 have to confront his own demons.

John Varley.
Red Thunder.
Ace. 2003

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 13 July 2004

Yes! Now, this is how space travel was always supposed to be: build a spaceship in your back yard, jump aboard, point it where you want to go, push the pedal to the metal, and, whoosh, three days later, you're on Mars! None of this malarkey about thrust, and delta-v, and fuel limits, and stuff.

Varley has given us a rip-roaring Golden Age space travel story, updated for the new millennium. The spaceship in question is built by a bunch of youngsters -- but they spend a million dollars on it, and have proper project management, surplus Russian space suits, an ex-astronaut adviser, and, most importantly, a space drive that uses newly discovered sufficiently advanced technology (that is, indistinguishable from magic). And there's sex, and racism, and alcoholism, and child abuse, and divorce -- but strictly as background to the plot: building that spaceship.

The vast majority of the book is one lovingly-created info-dump -- the spaceship doesn't even take off for 300 pages. But that info-dump is done in the best story-telling way (I'm trying not to say "Heinleinesque" ... and failing), and covers every little detail, from Florida swamp navigation, to celestial dynamics. I love some of the lateral thinking solutions they come up with -- look out for the in-flight cuisine!

The coincidences are huge (the kids just happen to nearly run over a washed up ex-astronaut, who's cousin just happens to have invented a space drive -- one of them just happens to have a trust fund to bank-roll the project -- and so on), but who cares? It's not that kind of story. Leaving aside the three things needed to make the story work (knowledge, money, and magic) the rest is very well grounded in a realistic-feeling world (depending on your precise definition of realistic, of course). And it is compulsive reading.

John Varley.
Red Lightning.
Ace. 2006

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 17 June 2007

The kids who built the Mars spaceship in Red Thunder are now grown up, with kids of their own. Living on Mars, which is essentially a big tourist resort for bored Earthlings, Ray Garcia-Strickland is bored. But that doesn't last. A mysterious object hits the earth at near lightspeed, causing a massive tsunami that devastates the Caribbean and East coast of the USA -- including Florida, where Ray's Grandma still lives. The family return to Earth, to rescue her. Once done they return to Mars, which then suffers multiple inexplicable invasions by strange groups looking for the vanished Jubal, the only man who can build the new power sources. Ray has to decide where his loyalties lie.

Each individual scene has the Varley trademarks: the security measures the Martians have to go through to enter the USA are particularly funny (in a teeth-grindingly ironic sort of way). Yet the overall whole is rather disjointed. In a postscript, Varley says that he originally had the tsunami located in the Indian Ocean, but after December 2004 he decided that he couldn't subject the people of the region to a second one, even fictional, so rewrote that part with it relocated. That might account for some of the disjointedness. So, a good Varley, but not a great one.

John Varley.
Rolling Thunder.
Ace. 2008

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 25 October 2009

The third generation in the saga of the first family on Mars. Here Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Podkayne Strickland-Garcia-Redmond, Poddy for short (although she's never read the book), gets to travel around the Solar System entertaining the Martian troops, before events even more cataclysmic than before cause dramatic changes in her lifestyle.

This is great rip-roaring fun, in an apocalyptic sort of way. It's essentially a book of two halves, a lot of relatively gentle scene setting, then the aftermath of the cataclysmic events. There are, of course, oodles of Heinlein references, some more overt than others. At one particularly apposite moment, we get

p197. I finally read that book my parents stole my name from, which was called Podkayne of Mars.
     What a horrible book! What a mean old man! He spends the whole book getting you to like this sweet little airhead, and then he does terrible things to her. Don't you hate it when an author does that? I'm not reading any more of his books, I promise you!

This is definitely funny in context (and you don't need to have read the Heinlein to get the joke). But towards the end, Varley manages to get what seems like every Heinlein juvenile title into the text, which is mildly amusing, but more distracting (not only as they appear, but also in anticipation) as we move towards the desperate climax.

There is a definite conclusion, but loads of loose ends, too. I'm hoping that this isn't a trilogy. I want to follow the exploits of this family further.

John Varley.
Dark Lightning.
Ace. 2014

rating : 4.5 : passes the time
review : 12 July 2015

On a voyage to New Earth, the starship Rolling Thunder is powered by an energy no one understands, except for its eccentric inventor, Jubal Broussard. But now, on his emergence from a state of suspended animation, Jubal makes a shocking announcement: The ship must stop, or everyone will die.

These words from the mission’s founder, the man responsible for the very existence of Rolling Thunder, will send shock waves throughout the starship—and divide its passengers into those who believe and those who doubt. And it will be up to Jubal’s twin daughters to stop a mutiny, discover the truth, and usher the ship into a new age of exploration…

Oh dear. Well, I said at the end of the previous book that I wanted more. But not this more.

Family and friends are now travelling to the stars in the asteroid-turned-starship Rolling Thunder. They are getting ever closer to the speed of light when Jubal realises there is a danger, and announces that the ship must stop. We follow the adventures of Cassie and Polly, who are Podkayne and Jubal’s teenage twin daughters, as events unfurl after this announcement.

The first third of the book is a Heinlein pastiche as the twins’ exploits give us a somewhat tedious guided tour of the inside of the asteroid. (Maybe it’s only tedious because I’ve had guided tours of the insides of other similar asteriods.) Then all hell breaks loose, and the twins transform from annoying teenagers to annoying super-trained agents, bent on saving the ship. Then the coda pulls another a rabbit out of Jubal’s hat.

I found the mutiny a bit ridiculous: people revolted before even finding out what the problem was. I also found the twins irritating (I suspect their continual bickering is supposed to be funny, or charming, or something), and could never tell them apart (despite some heavy handed attempts to paint their differences). About the only thing that saves this from being a “waste of time” is the Dark Lightning concept itself, but that is woefully under-used.

(update June 2017) I’ve just realised that the annoying twin daughters Cassie and Polly must be modelled on / references to the annoying twin sons Castor and Pollux in Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones (UK title Space Family Stone). So they are meant to be annoying, then. (Unless Castor and Pollux were meant to be funny, or charming, or something. Hmm.)