The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley

[This is a review of the novel The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley, first published in 1977. John Varley is my favorite science fiction author. This is my first review of his first novel. I haven't done a lot of book reviews, so be kind.]

It's six hundred years in the future, and the human race has been permanently exiled from Earth by alien Invaders that prefer cetaceans to humans. The remnants of humanity live on the moon as well as pretty much any airless rock and inhospitable planet in the solar system that can hold them.

The central theme of this novel is pseudo-immortality through the use of clones and mind recordings, explored through the life experiences of Lilo, a woman condemned to genetic death for the crime of tampering with human DNA. We follow several versions of Lilo around the solar system and eventually out beyond the orbit of Pluto to the Ophiuchi Hotline, which is a stream of valuable information that has been sent for four hundred years by unknown aliens to the human race, for reasons that no one has bothered to explore. At least, until the Ophiuchites present humanity with a bill for their services.

You might think it would be difficult to relate to a story that skips from clone to clone of the same person, but I never find it confusing. The development of Lilo as a character is key, and her courage in doing one of the few things that warrant the death penalty is central to the story. Lilo's different selves learn and grow in interesting parallels. Lilo is not the strongest of Varley's heroines, but she's certainly interesting.

And I love the way Varley treats gender and sex, particularly in this novel and in all of the Eight Worlds stories. Varley doesn't use sex change and the lack of sexual taboos to titillate his readers. It's just part of life. What would you do with your body if you could change pretty much anything? What if I could be a man for awhile, and not just through extensive surgery and hormone changes, but the man I would have been if I'd been born as one? I don't care what your sexual orientation is or how strongly you relate to the gender you were born with – is there anyone that wouldn't be interested in finding out how the other half lives?

This is the first of Varley's Eight Worlds books, and the future world he describes has always captured my imagination. Like the laws that would be necessary for a civilization that is virtually immortal but also trapped and unable to expand. Like the "Disneylands," which are environmental terrariums of a sort where people can pretend they're living somewhere on Earth. I particularly love the null-suits that replace a lung and allow people to walk around in a vacuum or live on the more inhospitable planets in the solar system. It's exciting, even though it's somewhat depressing as well. Is there truly enough variety left in the gene pool for real change and evolution of humanity? I often get the feeling that the humans in Varley's Eight Worlds books are a dying breed that don't realize that they are.

The Ophiuchi Hotline has a fascinating ending, and I'm not going to spoil you. Even though it's his first, I believe it's also one of his strongest books. If you're interested in trying his stuff, it's a great place to start.
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

12 comments:

Josie Kafka said...

What a great review, Billie! I'm not as much of a SF-book fan as you are, but you've made this sound very, very appealing.

Billie Doux said...

And my work here is done.

Victor said...

yeah, you've made me want to give this a read.

TimArt said...

Me too Billie, I started looking for it on Amazon before I'd finished the review.

I'll send ya the bill ;)

Harry Earle said...

Billie, I have only read the first two paragraphs of your review and I have stopped and bought the book on Amazon! Seriously, you've made me want to read it so much :-) Thank you.

Josie Kafka said...

Billie, have you ever considered founding a religion? You seem to have all the requisite skills.

Billie Doux said...

As L. Ron Hubbard is supposed to have said, founding a religion is where the money is.

I'm mostly worried that people buying this book on my say so won't like it. I love it and have re-read it several time, but I'm so very aware that everyone's mileage varies.

Josie Kafka said...

It's a short step from prophet to martyr.

Purple Duck said...

It probably won't surprise you that Varley was for decades my favorite sci fi author as well (his latest stuff has caused me to cool on him a bit but he is still among my top 3). I also can't believe I am just finding out you felt the same way about him.

Ben

Billie Doux said...

Ben, I think I remember you saying something once about Louise Baltimore, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised. We were out of contact for a few years and when we got back in contact, we were both deeply into Buffy.

I'm doing Millennium next.

drnanamom said...

I love John Varley and thought I had read everything he had written but I haven't read this! Now I have another book to look forward to :).

TimArt said...

I read it and loved it by the way Billie- the other 8 worlds books are on their way now.

Kind of disappointed to gather that I won't be returning tothe adventures of Lilo though, I thought she was great, leg-hair & all....