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Book review: Irontown Blues

(This is a nonspoilery review of the novel Irontown Blues by John Varley, published in 2018.)

Irontown Blues is about a very forties-ish private detective named Christopher Bach who works out of a shabby office in the Acme Building. One day, a beautiful dame wearing a veil comes into his office and hires him to solve an unusual problem. And this would be the start of a classic hardboiled detective novel, except that it takes place centuries in the future, Christopher's office is on the moon, and the beautiful dame has been infected with paraleprosy.

I'll be honest. John Varley is my current favorite science fiction author, but the Sam Spade thing is so not my genre. When I read the blurb, I was worried that I wouldn't like it. Not to worry, though. Irontown Blues has everything I enjoyed about Varley's other Eight Worlds stories, with a particularly lovely plus – the other main character is Sherlock, Christopher's genetically enhanced, super smart bloodhound. I lost a much loved feline friend a few months ago, and I miss him terribly, so I could totally relate to a story about a man whose closest relationship is with his beloved dog. Particularly when Sherlock himself takes over the narrative, relating his side of the story in a delightfully dog-like way.

Here's an example: the opening line of the book, first person by Chris:
The dame blew into my office like a warm breeze off the Pacific.
Sherlock later relates his first person interpretation of the same scene:
The bitch blew into our office like the stink of things rotting on a sandy beach.

It made me laugh out loud. Sherlock isn't insulting the woman; remember what the word "bitch" means when you're a dog. Sherlock's interpreter and editor, who interjects comments into Sherlock's sections of the book (Christopher himself has no idea what Sherlock is thinking) says that she edited out pages and pages of Sherlock describing various smells, and explains what dogs find humorous. It's pretty cute, especially if you're an animal lover. Which I am.

But while Sherlock is an important character, the story is Christopher's, and he's in a bad way. He spends his life essentially cosplaying private eye fiction because he is still traumatized by something that happened several years ago during the Big Glitch, a catastrophic event covered in depth in Steel Beach, the first of Varley's Eight Worlds novels. (I think. I've always been of the opinion that The Ophiuchi Hotline is an Eight Worlds novel, too.)

What are the Eight Worlds, you may ask? Or maybe you won't, but I'll tell you anyway. In the future, alien Invaders have taken over the Earth, killing the entire human population; the only humans remaining were those living on the moon at the time. Permanently exiled from their home planet, the succeeding generations of human exiles have scratched out a life on pretty much every airless lump of rock in the remainder of the solar system.

In this 'verse, medical science can prolong life and cure nearly everything painlessly, and people can modify their bodies in endlessly creative ways and even easily change genders. But there is a deep sense of loss floating subconsciously in the background of these stories, the painful reality that humanity has forever lost its home.

Not that this series of novels is depressing. They're not. There is a great deal of fascinating and creative detail. Loved the cults – especially the Heinleiners. (When I was twelve, I would probably have described myself as a Heinleiner.) I'm also fond of the "disneyland" habitats on the moon that played a bigger part in the earlier novels. Christopher lives in Noirtown, a simulated neighborhood arranged by decade where it's always night and it rains a lot. The titular Irontown is an untamed, unloved section of the moon that is populated by criminals, misfits and the mentally ill. It was intentionally meant to resemble the feel and mood of the famous and undeniably great noir movie, Chinatown. "Forget it, Sherlock. It's Irontown."

While I think Irontown Blues can be read on its own, I found myself regretting that I hadn't re-read Steel Beach and The Golden Globe first. I also thought it was a bit too short for my taste. I felt like I'd just gotten into the story when it ended. I did like that ending, though, and I won't spoil you. But if this is the last Eight Worlds novel, I am not unhappy with the direction that Varley took.

Not that I want this to be the last Eight Worlds book. I really, really, really want more. Really.
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. Sounds interesting, I think I'll give Varley a try.
    And speaking of the moon, have you read Artemis by Andy Weir? I got it for Christmas last year and I quite enjoyed it.

  2. Anonymous, yes, I liked Artemis. I wasn't as crazy about it as I was about The Martian, but it was a terrific read.

  3. There's basically two timelines in the 8 worlds series. Ophiucci Hotline is in the first one. Like 15 years later he started the Steel Beach trilogy, which is *SORT* of a reboot, by which I mean it doesn't exactly fit the timeline of the original stories. In this last one he incorporated elements from his Anna Louise Bach stories, which were not part of the 8 worlds universe at all, and he's really kicking the crap out of them to make 'em fit. There's a lot of retconing going on here.

  4. Mahatma Randy, thanks -- that makes sense. A lot of what he writes seems like it could eventually be part of the Eight Worlds. Even the Thunder and Lightning books have many of the same themes.

    Your handle is absolutely awesome, btw.


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