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Sweet Summer Sweat

The Barbie Murders

By John Varley 

2 Feb, 2020

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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John Varley’s 1980 The Barbie Murders (later re-published as Picnic on Nearside) is a collection of science fiction stories. Most but not all of them are set in Varley’s Eight Worlds milieu. 

Bagatelle • [Anna-Louise Bach] • (1976) • novelette

Cheap fusion never materialized. Cheap fission did. With it came nuclear terrorism: no threat to the species, but dangerous to individual communities. When a deranged cyborg threatens to destroy New Dresden, lunar cop Anna-Louise Bach is forced to draft a visiting counter-terrorism expert.


Said expert is a sexually harassing horny bastard with no sense of boundaries, which on the plus side is seen as a character flaw. His expertise lets him get away with it. Just part of a long tradition of jerk-ass geniuses…

Remember when atomic terrorism was going to be a thing? The Anna-Louise Bach setting is distinct from the Eight Worlds setting in several ways, the most important of which is that for the most part people in the 8W are happy, whereas people in the ALB are stressed and miserable. 

The Funhouse Effect • [Eight Worlds] • (1976) • novelette

What was supposed to be an enjoyable tourist cruise past the sun is complicated by madcap hijackings, counter-hijackings, and strong hints that the transformed comet in which the tourists are travelling is doomed.


As discussed in a certain tor dot com essay, Varley set himself an interesting challenge by making the 8W a place where most people are reasonably well-to-do and secure. How to generate plot? A lot of the time it involved tourism and very sexy encounters. 

The Barbie Murders • [Anna-Louise Bach] • (1978) • novelette 

Moon cop Anna-Louise returns, this time grappling with the tricky challenge of catching a murderer in a community in which everyone, killers and victims alike, look identical.


The dystopian ALB stories are high-tech, but they lack one modern-day technology that would have greatly simplified the case. There’s no such thing as DNA testing in this setting. 

I have a memory (one I have not been able to verify) that Mattel was not all that pleased with Varley’s use of the term Barbie.”

Equinoctial • [Eight Worlds] • (1977) • novella 

Ambushed by artistic terrorists, a post-human spends years of her life trying to find her kidnapped babies, lost somewhere in Saturn’s rings. 


In the terrorists’ defense, they are adherents of a completely bonkers creed that exhorts followers to complete a pointless artistic project, one that requires a lot more person-power than the terrorists can reasonably supply. If they succeed, they will be rewarded with rainbow puppies and space unicorns. The rest of the Solar System seems to be happy to let a civil war play out in Saturn’s rings.

Symbionts and modifications that allow humans to live in space turn up from time to time in science fiction (See Pohl and Williamson’s earlier Reefs of Space, not to mention Hansen’s War Games). Early Varley was very big on technologies (biological or otherwise) that would permit humans to live comfortably on the hell worlds the rest of the Solar System turned out to be. For some reason, this trope (which presents a less implausible solution to the problem of the general uninhabitability of the Solar System than easy terraforming or faster than light travel to more clement systems) isn’t very popular1.

Manikins” • (1976) • short story 

What dreadful truth hides behind the patriarchy?


I bet Varley got hate mail for this horror piece.

Beatnik Bayou • [Eight Worlds] • (1980) • novelette 

A young man’s extreme reluctance to grow up is complicated by an extremely poor decision on the part of his teacher.


And here one of my least favourite 8W tropes appears: adults fucking minors. That the teacher is having sex with their student is just part of the wallpaper, not the thing that gets the teacher into hot water.

Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe• [Eight Worlds] • (1977) • novelette 

An old man’s extreme reluctance to grow up is complicated by an unforeseen catastrophe.


The Eight Worlds can edit people’s minds. In a lot of settings, this would facilitate a horrific police state. In the 8W, it’s used to facilitate holidays. 

Lollipop and the Tar Baby• [Eight Worlds] • (1977) • novelette 

A girl accompanying her mother on a deep-space quest to find commercially exploitable black holes makes two disquieting discoveries: firstly, that some black holes are intelligent, and secondly, that her mother does not have the girl’s best intentions at heart.


Another adults fucking kids story, with added incest. At least in this case, it’s clear mom is a terrible person who sees the kid as a disposable sex toy.

Picnic on Nearside • [Eight Worlds] • (1974) • novelette 

Two teens decide to visit the Near Side of the Moon, which humans have avoided since humanity lost the Earth to the Invaders. A dying space-coot forces the kids to confront mortality sooner than they might have preferred. 


Well, at least it’s teen-on-teen sex in this one. Otherwise, a decent coming of age story. 

General comments

  • Even the ALB stories aren’t as gloomy as later Varley works. Readers who know only those works might be surprised by many of these stories.
  • Early Varley is leaner and more disciplined than later Varley. 
  • I was squicked by the recurring ephebophilia theme. Heinlein has a lot to answer for.

The Barbie Murders is out of print.

Please comment here.

1: Spider Robinson borrowed the idea for Stardancer and aren’t you all lucky I’ve never reviewed that here?