No father, no mother, she’s just like the other

The Ophiuchi Hotline — John Varley

hotline

1977’s The Ophiuchi Hotline was John Varley’s first novel.

Convicted of crimes against humanity, Lilo’s fate is set. She will be executed as thoroughly as the state can arrange: her genetic samples will be destroyed, her brain records erased, and her body will be dropped into one of the small black holes 1 that power the Eight Worlds.

All this will come to pass, but it won’t be the end of Lilo’s story.

Centuries ago, enigmatic aliens liberated the intelligent beings of the Solar System. Unfortunately for humans, only Jupiter’s natives and the cetaceans of Earth qualified as intelligent in the eyes of the Invaders. Although the aliens never stooped to harming humans directly, they erased all traces of advanced civilization from Earth, dooming ten billion humans to slow death.

The invaders left the lunar colonies alone. By Lilo’s time, humans have not just survived but spread across the Solar System. In large part, humans have been able to do this thanks to the information gleaned from the Ophiuchi Hotline, an alien comminications beam originating from the direction of 70 Ophiuchus. Much of the information in the Hotline is incomprehensible, but some is not. The little that can be understood has given humanity the Solar System. Minus, of course, Earth and Jupiter.

Most humans are prudent enough to avoid deliberately provoking the Invaders. The demagogue who calls himself Boss Tweed is one of the exceptions. He is a fanatic who is determined to drive the Invaders from Earth. Lilo, brilliant and unconventional enough to break the state’s strict genetic laws, could be a valuable tool in Tweed’s war on the Invaders. Or rather, a Lilo will be: Tweed is prepared to grow clones of Lilo (furnished with her [stolen] recorded memories) until he finds one that will do what he asks. Or perhaps two. Or three …

Whether or not slavery is better than death, for the succession of Lilos Tweed creates it is inescapable. At first; Tweed has created a small, hidden community of extremely bright people who are determined to escape his control.

At which point an outside factor intrudes; after centuries of dipping into the Hotline, humanity has just received its first phone bill….

 ~oOo~

I’ve mentioned what I call Protean SF before now, that sub-genre in which human form is matter of fashion, where changing sex is as time-consuming as changing clothing, where modifying people so they can stroll around naked on Mercury is no more remarkable than a smartphone. Varley’s Eight Worlds is almost perfect example of the sub-genre: brain taping, advanced surgical procedures, and the nullsuit mean that humans can be almost anyone they care to be, wherever they care to be, as long it’s not Earth or Jupiter.

(The Eight Worlds do draw the line at modifying what they consider the basic human genome, which is where Lilo gets into trouble.)

Varley’s transhumanism allows him to embrace the Solar System as it was understood in the 1970s, rather than rejecting it in favour of fictional terrestrial worlds around distant stars. Thanks to space probes, our understanding of the Solar System had been transformed. Rather frustratingly from the perspective of SF writers, the New Solar System was considerably less habitable than the one imagined in old-time SF. Venus had no swamps because it was hotter than a domestic oven and Mars combined lunar-style craterscapes with near-vacuum atmosphere and toxic soil. Not a problem for the Eight Worlds advanced technology.

The Eight Worlds isn’t all casual sex and whimsical body modification. Most of the rank and file living in the Eight Worlds are an uninspiring lot, affectlessly promiscuous, illiterate and incurious 2. Despite possessing the basic technology needed for interstellar flight, they have never bothered venturing farther than a half light year from the Sun. Homo sapiens still exist only because they are beneath the notice of the invaders. Invaders who have not yet decided to wipe them out. But if the cockroaches get pesky, it’s time to bring out the bug spray.

The Ophiuchi Hotline was not the final Eight Worlds story3.; it would be followed by four more short works (“Lollipop and the Tar Baby,” “Equinoctial”, “Options,” and “Beatnik Bayou.”). Someone reading the novel in 1977 could have been forgiven for thinking that it was intended to end the series; Varley essentially burned his set down in the course of the novel. Where previous stories focused on very personal issues 4, The Ophiuchi Hotline is all about Humanity’s Place in the Universe.

Into the mere 237 pages of the mass market paperback, Varley crams enough worldbuilding detail and plot for several much fatter books. The plot moves at breakneck speed because it must. That’s good, because haste keeps the reader from noticing how contrived certain elements of the story are. What struck me is the failure to explain whatever it was that the beings behind the Hotline thought they were doing. The novel is kind of a hot mess but it is an interesting hot mess.

The Ophiuchi Hotline is available here . I have to say that while the novel is worth your consideration, it is not where I would begin with the Eight Worlds or indeed with Varley. Varley’s short fiction is generally stronger than his novels. I recommend both The John Varley Reader and Good-bye Robinson Crusoe and Other Stories 5.

1: The tiny black holes and the fact they do not emit Hawking radiation suggest Varley came up with this aspect of his setting no later than 1974.

2: The Eight Worlds have medical technology so reliable it does not matter that medics are by and large considered unskilled low-level workers. This reminds me of Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag.” I wonder if Varley had this story in mind?

3: I need to infodump this somewhere in the review and a footnote is as good a place as any.

Varley wrote a bunch of Eight Worlds stories in the 1970s and early 1980s, let it lie fallow for a decade, then began a new series with the novel Steel Beach . For various reasons he didn’t worry about continuity. If you are like me, you will be happier if you consider the two series as different universes, like DC’s Earth One and Earth Two.

The first series included the following:

  • Beatnik Bayou”
  • The Black Hole Passes”
  • Equinoctial”
  • The Funhouse Effect”
  • Good-bye, Robinson Crusoe”
  • Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance”
  • In the Bowl”
  • Lollipop and the Tar Baby”
  • Options”
  • Overdrawn at the Memory Bank”
  • The Phantom of Kansas”
  • Picnic On Nearside”
  • Retrograde Summer”
  • The Ophiuchi Hotline

The second series consists of

  • Steel Beach
  • Golden Globe

Regardless of anything Varley might say on the matter, the Anna Louis Bach stories cannot be reconciled with either version of the Eight Worlds.

4: A surprising fraction of the classic Eight World’s stories are essentially “What I Did on My Holidays: IN SPAAACE!”

5: The collections do not overlap; throughout his career, Varley has been careful to avoid making readers pay for the same story twice (in contrast to certain authors I could name who made a habit of packing two collections worth of material into three collections). Between them, these two collections have almost but not quite all of the short fiction Varley has published. The exceptions are “Scoreboard,” “A Choice of Enemies,” “Manikins,” “The M&M Seen as a Low-Yield Thermonuclear Device,” “Her Girl Friday,” “Truth, Justice and the Politically Correct Socialist Path,” and “A Christmas Story.” Sadly, I am not the sort of pathetic obsessive who would be compelled to find out if the excluded seven have ever been collected.

“Manikins” was included in the collection The Barbie Murders AKA Picnic on Nearside6, “The M&M Seen as a Low-Yield Thermonuclear Device” was in Orbit 18 , “Her Girl Friday” was subsumed into the novel Steel Beach, “Truth, Justice and the Politically Correct Socialist Path” was in the anthology Superheroes, while “Scoreboard”, “A Choice of Enemies” and “A Christmas Story” have never been collected save for their first magazine publications.

6: Mattel was displeased with Varley’s use of the term Barbie. I don’t know if the Mouse ever noticed how he used “disney” but since his home is not a seething rip in space-time, I would guess they have not.



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