The tragedy of John Varley

The Persistence of Vision — John Varley


The tragedy of John Varley’s 1978 collection, The Persistence of Vision, isn’t that its contents have aged; although time has not been kind to some of them, others have fared well. The tragedy is the stark contrast between the John Varley of the 1970s and the John Varley of today. Young Varley was one of the few male authors of note to emerge in the disco era, the author of a remarkable series of short works [1]. The mature Varley wastes his talent on second-rate Heinlein pastiches [2] and novels whose moral is that, as bad as the collapse of civilization would be, at least it would turn women back into homemakers and get the kids off the Twitter.

To quote a noted social activist, “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”

Introduction (The Persistence of Vision) • essay by Algis Budrys

Exactly what it says on the tin. This essay provides a useful context for reading young Varley. The 1960s had seen an often heated conflict between the New Wave and more traditional authors. (I myself take no sides in that argument between talented visionaries and the opposing alliance of timid reactionaries and untalented hacks.) Varley was seen by some as the source of good old reliable hard science fiction, but he did ring changes on gender and sex that would have been unthinkable fifteen years earlier. The New Wave was not entirely in vain.

The Phantom of Kansas • [Eight Worlds] • (1976) • novelette by John Varley

The Eight Worlds was one of Varley’s two out-of-the-box settings [3]. Centuries before, aliens had shut down all technology on Earth, dooming billions. Only the handful of people living in space retained high technology—which was not enough to avert a struggle to survive, as their colonies had never been intended to be self-sufficient. By the time in which the Eight Worlds stories are set (or to be more exact, when most of them are set), that trauma was as distant a memory as the Black Death is for us. However, like the Black Death, the Invasion left its marks on the society that emerged from the wreckage.

Fox, the protagonist of this story, is an Environmentalist, someone who shapes the weather and ecology of the disneys, vast habitats built under the surface of worlds like the Moon and Mars, Fox’s personal life is disrupted when an unknown enemy starts assassinating him. Brain tapes and clones make death a momentary inconvenience but still, each murder costs Fox months or years of personal experience. The police aren’t having much luck running the killer to ground. There’s an obvious way to draw the killer out: Fox could flaunt themself as bait and hope that they will be luckier than their previous iterations….


As I recall Disney was maximum displeased when Varley used their corporate name as a generic term. Varley ran into something similar when he wrote a murder mystery featuring cultists popularly known as Barbies. Large corporations have no sense of humour.

This short story provides a nice example of what made Varley stand out. Interplanetary probes had relayed a lot of doleful information about the true nature of the other worlds in the Solar System. No more Mars canals. No more swamps of Venus. This inspired a lot of authors to drop interplanetary settings for interstellar. Varley, in contrast, gave his characters a tool kit that allowed them to live comfortably in a wide variety of challenging environments and a history that ensured that they had no choice but to make their homes across the Solar System.

The Eight Worlds is an example what I have called Protean SF, stories where body form is a matter of fashion and choice. Varley’s characters change gender as their mood takes them. In the Eight Worlds, the effort involved is on par with moving from one home to another. Nothing remarkable. For the culture of the 1970s, this was pretty bold.

“Air Raid” • (1977) • short story by John Varley

Raiders from the future kidnap doomed travelers in a desperate bid to save humanity.


The sad thing about “Air Raid” isn’t that it was expanded into a less than wonderful novel and turned into a pretty dismal movie. It’s that as bad as the movie was, it’s not the worst adaptation of a Varley story.

In retrospect, it’s weird that shows like Sci-Fi Radio and Mindwebs pretty much ignored Varley.

Retrograde Summer • [Eight Worlds] • (1975) • novelette by John Varley

One of the legacies of the Invasion was strict population regulation; on worlds like the Moon, each person gets to have one incarnation running around at any one time and everyone gets to have one and only one child. Timothy is hard pressed, therefore, to understand how it is that he has an older sister. Happily, a holiday out on the Mercurial surface will give the siblings much needed alone time to discuss a history entirely unknown to Timothy.


The Eight Worlds have adopted a pretty labour-intensive approach to raising kids, so it’s a little odd that while they’re willing to invest in one full time teacher for each child, they’ve pretty much abandoned multiple-parent parenting models. Anyone who chooses to include more than one parent (as opposed to a parent and a trained professional) is seen as a nutcase. Probably doesn’t help that, at least in this case, the people trying to reinvent the nuclear family were actual nutcases.

The Eight Worlds have these nifty force-field garments called nullsuits that make wandering around on the surface of a world like Mercury about as challenging as wandering around Southern Ontario in January. You can get killed in an Ontario winter—offhand, I can think of a couple of people from my school who froze to death—but it takes a certain amount of poor life choices and bad luck to mess up that badly.

The Black Hole Passes • [Eight Worlds] • (1975) • novelette by John Varley

Out at the edge of the Solar System, isolated outposts orbit in the heart of the Ophiuchi Hotline, sifting the alien laser signal for new technologies useful to humanity. (Why the aliens have gone to the trouble of signaling us is left as an utter mystery in the short stories; Varley’s first novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline, explained what form the phone bill would take.) Each listening post is crewed by a single person; in the case of Jordan Moon, even phone sex with the woman in the nearest listening post isn’t doing much to alleviate the crushing loneliness. There’s no situation that cannot be made even worse. An encounter with a passing black hole leaves Jordan tumbling through space, far from any plausible rescue.


For reasons that are never explained, Varley posits lots and lots of tiny black holes out in the Oort Cloud. These would be the old-fashioned kind of micro black hole, the sort we thought might exist before Hawking demonstrated that black holes have temperature and small black holes evaporate very, very quickly (see also Charles Sheffield’s kernels. mortally wounded by Hawking). Well, science marches on.

I never particularly noticed it before this reading, but interplanetary communication is oddly difficult in the Eight Worlds. The listening posts don’t radio what they hear back to the Solar System. They use message rockets. I don’t know how much of this is because the story needs the listeners to have message rockets and how much of it is Varley believing that communication would be that hard. Although … Pioneer 11 had been launched years before this story was written. It seems to me like it should have been obvious radio communication over many AU was quite doable.

In the Hall of the Martian Kings • (1976) • novella by John Varley

Astronauts discover a Mars seemingly as dead as the early probes indicated. Through no fault of their own, the astronauts have overlooked something important, a phenomenon whose discovery will leave their habitat in shambles, many of the explorers dead, and the survivors marooned on Mars. For the handful of astronauts trapped on Mars, their only hope may be the very lifeforms whose appearance marooned the Terrans.


Varley is using a now superseded model of Mars’ climate, one in which Mars cycled between harsh, airless icebox conditions and periods where it was (comparatively) habitable. We see a lifeless, airless Mars because we have the bad luck to have developed astronomy during one of Mars’ long ice ages. Mars’ obliquity does seem to vary quite a bit and that would affect the climate but if there was ever an age when water ran on the Martian surface, it was billions of years ago. Ah, well.

There’s a short section in this that seems to be yet another reaction to Randal Garrett’s loathsome “Queen Bee”; the idea that women’s primary usefulness is reproductive and recreational gets stomped on hard. I am pretty sure there are enough SF stories tossing rocks at that particular Garrett to fill an anthology. An angry, angry anthology.

This was never one of my favourite Varley stories, partly because while there is a reason things work out as they do, the survival of the castaways seemed a bit like cheating. Rereading it, I can see in the attitude of the castaways towards Earth some of the same American exceptionalism [4] I find so off-putting in recent Varley novels.

In the Bowl • [Eight Worlds] • (1975) • novelette by John Varley

A series of poor life choices leaves a tourist on the surface of Venus and dependent on his guide, a particularly determined eleven-year-old girl.


When some authors fume about the loss of Swamp World Venus, Varley has a bit of fun with the Venus we actually have. Of course, it helps that the Eight Worlds has magitech powerful enough to let people hike around on a world hot enough to melt tin.

I would like to say that Varley stays out of Heinlein territory with eleven-year-old Ember, but … over the course of story she morphs from an annoying kid who happens to have a monopoly on skills the protagonist desperately needs to someone about whom the protagonist could say

I began to wonder what sort of papers I’d be signing when we got to Venusberg; adoption, or marriage contract.


Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance • [Eight Worlds] • (1976) • novelette by John Varley

One of the Hotline’s gifts was the symb, an artificial symbiont that enables humans to live naked in Saturn’s ring system. The partners are also granted exceptional creativity, and musical talents so outstanding that regular humans have established ring outposts to purchase music from the hermits who dwell there. The cost of this creativity is a subtle alienation that even the symb-wearing humans are slow to perceive.


Spider Robinson borrowed (with Varley’s permission, I believe) the idea of the symbs for his and Jeanne Robinson’s Stardance stories. For some reason, having a symb reduces the desire for tangible material goods, which, given the other cognitive side-effects, makes me wonder just how extensively the symbs rewrite their hosts. Or it would if I had not got an answer to that question in the 1977 novel The Ophiuchi Hotline: “very extensively, more than the partners know, and for a purpose they cannot guess.”

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank • [Eight Worlds] • (1976) • novelette by John Varley

What was supposed to be a pleasant holiday in the body of a lion takes an unexpected and unpleasant turn for Fingal when his human body is misplaced. Trapped in a computer never intended to house a human mind, can Fingal cling to sanity long enough to be rehoused in his real body?


I am not 100% that the procedures for storing and managing memories in the Eight Worlds would stand up to close examination, but there is a reasonable explanation for Fingal’s plight; the normal memory recordings are static. The writable kind that allow this sort of body tourism are not designed to last as long as they may need to store Fingal. I don’t really see why they couldn’t just write him to long term, static, storage. Aside from “then there is no story,” I mean.

This story suffered adaptation into a particularly dire film. Worse yet, the generally capable RaúlJulia had the bad luck to star in the adaptation, so the film version makes me sad in two entirely unrelated ways.

The Persistence of Vision • (1978) • novella by John Varley

The 1964 rubella outbreak left thousands of newborn children blind and deaf. Their deficits might have doomed them to lives in institutions, but a handful of visionaries within their community refused to settle for this. As the world around them spirals towards final economic collapse and inevitable nuclear war, the deaf and blind fumble their way to a new way of life. As a visitor to their isolated community discovers, while the new way of life is strange and alien, it is also better than the alternatives. If he can manage to adapt to it in time, that is.


The main thing that keeps me from bitching about how the ending is basically olden timey hand waving and magic is the fact that the forty-seven-year-year-old hero’s love interest is thirteen.


General comments

A general request: if an author feels the need to borrow just one idea from Robert Heinlein, that idea shouldn’t be “women are prettiest before they graduate from grade school.” The recurring theme, adults macking on kids [5] who aren’t even old enough to drive, is pretty fucking creepy, even for the seventies.

On a more pleasant note, Varley’s Eight Worlds provides interesting solutions to the question of how to generate drama in a setting that is by modern standards wealthy and peaceful. The answer is, of course, to focus on those challenges that are either orthogonal to wealth and general security, like romance and coming of age stories, or which are enabled by them, like art and tourism. This seems pretty obvious, yet it seems that many SF authors would find this an entirely novel idea. Aside from Varley’s Eight Worlds and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, I cannot think of many examples of authors who used this method to write interesting stories in the context of a utopian or semi-utopian society. Even Iain Banks of revered memory didn’t spend a lot of time exploring the dramatic potential of utopia. When citizens of the utopian Culture get bored, they join Contact, Special Circumstances, etc, seeking adventure (or having it forced on them) in the distinctly non-utopian civilizations outside the Culture.

This particular collection is out of print. Readers are advised to look for The John Varley Reader and Goodbye, Robinson Crusoe and Other Stories, which contain all but a handful of Varley’s short work.

1: Of course, eventually, market realities forced him to transition to novels. One of the unfortunate side-effects of the collapse of the magazines and rise of the mass market paperback is that authors whose talents are better suited to the short story, the novelette, and the novella find themselves forced to write at longer lengths. One of the solutions is to stitch together novellas—three novellas make a novel—but as far as I know Varley never did that.

2: Not that there are a lot of first rate Heinlein pastiches out there. In fact, “Today I will write a Heinlein pastiche” is as much grim foreshadowing as “Let’s sneak into that camp where several trespassers were hacked up by a supernatural serial killer, have lots of sex, and wander around alone in the camp’s oddly expansive graveyard!”

3: The other was the Anna-Louise Bach setting. There are those who say that AMB is pre-Invasion and Eight Worlds, but AMB and Eight Worlds feature incompatible tool kits.

4: There is no such thing as Canadian exceptionalism because unlike the inhabitants of other nations on Earth, Canadians are too modest to draw attention to themselves by claiming that any particular set of virtues is uniquely Canadian, even those of which we do enjoy a near monopoly.

Also, we abandoned the one aspect of Canadian life that was, as far as I know, unique to Canada. It used to be that provinces got to decide for themselves which side of the road drivers used, and there wasn’t a nationwide consensus as to which side that was. I assume hilarity often ensued as drivers crossed the border from provinces where drivers kept to the left to ones where they drove on the right. I am a bit sad we moved to a federal road chirality model.

5: Obviously, kids are going to experiment with each other, but that’s a completely different situation from geezers-‘n-‘tweens.

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