Steel Beach by John Varley

[This is a book review of Steel Beach by John Varley, first published in 1992.]

"In five years, the penis will be obsolete," said the salesman.

This is the opening line of Steel Beach, the second of John Varley's "Eight Worlds" novels, and set earlier than The Ophiuchi Hotline: 200 years after the Invaders have exiled the remnants of the human race from planet Earth. Humans have adapted to life on the airless planets and moons in our solar system. And there, life seems to be on hold.

The story is told in first person by Hildy Johnson, self-named after Rosalind Russell's character in the classic movie, His Girl Friday. Hildy is a hundred years old and seems to be enjoying his life, but in fact is in the grip of suicidal depression, like most of exiled humanity. How do you define yourself when you no longer have a home world, there is nothing new to do and no frontier to explore, when work isn't necessary to stay alive? The human race has been orphaned, literally set adrift with no way to ever go home. Hildy's existence is an imitation of life, a search for meaning with none to be found.

Hildy is a reporter, but practically nothing of importance is ever reported in the Eight Worlds other than superficial news about celebrities and sex products. In his free time, Hildy is building a log cabin in the Texas "Disneyland," an artificial environmental bubble with extreme heat, saloons, and actors paid to pretend to be colorful residents. An unnecessary job, a fake place to live; Hildy's existential despair echoes modern ennui. Varley excels at this sort of humorous commentary about our lives today, the trend toward brainless info-tainment, the (in this book, literal) worship of celebrities, the hunger for spectacular and pointless violence as a substitute for actual challenge and danger ("slash-boxing" made me cringe, but I certainly got the point, pun intended).

Hildy is an interesting character and I feel for him, although I think I empathize more with the constantly confused Brenda Starr. But as always, it's Varley's intriguing and appalling vision of the future that captivates me. I've always been interested in life support in a completely hostile environment, total control over the body, near immortality and practically effortless gender realignment. And yes, it's pretty obvious from the beginning so I hope this isn't a spoiler, but Hildy does indeed change sexes during the course of the novel. The name 'Hildy' is what I'd call a massive clue.

There's a lot in this novel for the Heinlein fan. Parts of Steel Beach echo The Moon is a Harsh Mistress since Luna is the setting and there is a Central Computer reminiscent of Mike, but with a dangerous god complex. And there are the delightful rebellious "Heinleiners," a hodge-podge of loosely related rugged individualists who might be the key to humanity's uncertain future.

Because Steel Beach is ultimately about our future as a species. The title itself suggests the next phase of evolution, the human race tossed up gasping onto a steel beach to evolve or perish. Are we destined to die out? Will we ever be able to take the next step and leave the solar system? I'm not sure Varley answers this question to my satisfaction, but he certainly makes me think about it.
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

1 comment:

Purple Duck said...

This is my favorite of Varley's novels. I find that he has always struggled to hit the right mix of hard sf, satire and a desire to write Heinleinian juvenile fiction (which would be viewed as way to hard-core for juveniles today). This is the book where he get's the mix just right for my taste.

I love Hildy and Brenda as well as the supporting cast. He re-introduces virtually all of his most intriguing and upsetting ideas (casual sex changing, extreme violence, nutty libertarian Heinleiners with advanced technology, humanity ceding control to computers). The humor is also done with the sharpest edge of any of his books.

I was also always struck that this is the book he wrote after his return from Hollywood. It is in someways much more superficial than his pre-hollywood works (especially short stories like The Persistence of Vision, or Barbie Murders) but is also more accessible than earlier stuff (like The Ophiuchi Hotline).