The John Varley Reader

by John Varley

Onto this stage of dashed hopes, as he had so many times before, strode the Devil.

Science fiction grandmaster John Varley serves up his greatest stories in this retrospective collection. And his agenda becomes clear quite quickly. He’s not wrong. He holds no apparent ill will to the human race and laments our current condition by examining the what if’s should we live long enough to evolve socially and sexually.

This collection serves up a variety, but most stories contain futuristic social themes of sexual revolution. Broad-minded common sense, or perhaps in more appropriate terminology, uncommon sense, is what Varley’s all about.

As usual there’s a link below for a short summary of each story within the collection, but these are so fundamentally good that those not making the headlines still deserve commentary, and nearly every summary has an accompanying, notable quote.

complete story summaries w/quotes:

Here are some show-stopping favorites:

“Beatnik Bayou” – 13-year-old Argus is in love with his teacher Cathay, but Argus’ scholarship is ready to move to the next level with another teacher. Argus and another student, along with both their teachers, get involved in a confrontation Cathay has with a pregnant woman who’s been stalking him. The situation leads to mild violence and becomes a significant learning experience for all involved.

This one has some great life lessons, all of which we’ve learned and would be better off if we’d never had to learn them. As adolescence gives way to adulthood we’re all faced with many aspects of being human that aren’t pleasant, but learning to live with them and move on anyway is just the way it is.

“You can use me as a role model if you want to, but I don’t insist on it. But I promise I’ll always tell you things straight, as I see them. I won’t try to slip things in painlessly. It’s time for pain.”

“Persistence of Vision” – The numbers of deaf and blind have had drastically increased and a few of them decided to form their own commune where their specific needs could be met with little to no outside help. Our narrator, a roaming individual who’d spent decades wondering the country, happens across the community and recognizes something very special, transcending humanity, and opts to stay and live with them for years.

A strange and wonderful story of what it might be like if we could release ourselves from our individual prisons and be with other people, not just judge them from our own eyes. It can be bizarre, but here is a great example of the barriers that can be broken and examined with writing. There’s a good chance you, like many of us, will be fighting back tears as the last few words roll off the page.

Why is that once having decide what I must do, I’m afraid to reexamine my decision? Maybe because the original decision cost me so much that I didn’t want to go through it again.

Press “Enter” – A seizure-prone war vet lives an isolated lifestyle in Los Angeles and receives an odd phone call from his neighbor he barely knows, who has apparently committed suicide. As police investigate, it turns out the neighbor was a kind of hardcore hacker, but not the neutered variety of Mr. Robot. This guy was a world-shaker, once housing 7 trillion dollars of fabricated money in an account for a day. As the investigation deepens and our veteran becomes romantically involved with a computer whiz involved in the case, they learn it wasn’t suicide.

When you sit down to read this one, be prepared for one of the scariest stories you’ll come across in your life. Not standard horror, not supernatural or otherworldly, this stuff, with a small stretch of the imagination, can happen right now, and we have the exact type of shadowy, unaccountable, rich-beyond-our-ability-to-concieve government that’s capable of this. First published in 1985, this story features computer technology, but instead of being dated it’s more effective today than ever. It’s both brilliant and terrifying.

One thing I always provided her with was an ignorant audience.

“The Pusher” – A man visits a playground filled with children and very little adult supervision. Sometimes he chooses little boys, but he usually prefers little girls, and he eventually gets the attention of one and offers her candy as he begins by telling her a story…

Yes, your mind goes there. Our minds go there, because we’ve been tainted. Our minds go there because that’s where sensationalist media wants them to go, because that’s the explosive story. They go there because our we’ve been imbued with great vengeance and furious anger when the path of the righteous is beset, and a little piece of human nature craves that anger, that crusade. We jump at the chance to exercise it. But settle down, Francis, that’s not what this story is about. Read it, and come out the other side a better person. Or at least a little smarter.

“Just Another Perfect Day” – A man wakes to find he has no recent memory. A letter he reads explains he’s had an accident that causes this, that the same thing will happen to him tomorrow, that aliens have invaded Earth and that he, because of his condition, is one of a very few people the aliens will speak to. He is also destined to fall in love every day.

This story is linked to the following, but as a standalone it functions by opening up your imagination instead of just engaging it. It’s as if every sentence on the page indicates two more that weren’t written. It’s so gloriously incomplete, a man reading a letter at the beginning of a new day, that it is complete. In a way, it seems natural to wish this story wasn’t linked to anything else. The condition of living every day as if it’s both your first and your last…fascinating.

“In Fading Suns and Dying Moons” – A lepidopterist (a person who studies butterflies) is conscripted by the US military and forced into service to investigate The Line, a massive line of aliens crossing the continent at 1 mph collecting butterflies. Our doctor is tasked with finding out why.

This is another brilliant offering, showing us just how limited our three dimensional minds can be, especially from a perspective outside of those dimensions. It’s also one of the few speculative fiction stories in this collection that crosses over into horror.

“Funny thing,” he said. “All our answers, over thousands of years. Myths, gods, philosophers … What’s it all about? Why are we here? Where do we come from, where do we go, what are we supposed to do while we’re here? What’s the meaning of life? So now we find out, and it was never about us at al. The meaning of life is … butterflies.”

“Good Intentions” – Joe Hardy, local politician, is losing his election bid when Satan walks in to offer a deal. Joe drives a hard bargain, wanting limited contributions, a campaign free of mudslinging, and the ability to keep his ethics without kowtowing to anyone. Satan promises victory, with a congressional seat in a couple of years and the presidency in six. During the presidential race the Devil’s servers are hacked by the opposing party and the deal with Joe Hardy is exposed, leaving the Devil scrambling to fulfill his end of the bargain.

Political commentary probably more relevant today than when the story was written.

In today’s political word, if you weren’t willing to lie, cheat and be bought, it looked as if not even the Devil himself could get you elected.

Summing up, most of these stories revolve around sex. Not the ‘cue the 70’s porno music’ sex, but gender roles, sex as a biological function, sex as a necessity but also as a thing of beauty.

John Varley’s writing is an instructive as it is entertaining, even illuminating part of the path to the utopia that united the world and allowed the exploration of space we loved in Star Trek. And enlightenment is the key, along with a willingness to let go of stodgy superstition and to embrace, not inhibit, science; embrace, don’t inhibit, sexuality. We may still respect our individual heritages and deeply held religious beliefs, but dammit we need to stop acting on them. As stated so simply in Firefly, concerning the divergence of ideologies, “we’re all just folk now.”

Older generations will always stifle younger, and parents will always screw up their children—it’s just part of the tapestry of the world. But nowadays children have access to information far beyond what was available to parents at similar ages. Now the planet just needs to hang in there so a few generations can go boisterously on to the next world and let those who grew up with all the information take over, allowing bigotry, racism and sexism to fade to light background noise. If that previous sentence alarms anyone, don’t worry: we’ll always have elitism. We’re still human, after all.

To protest, one must be aware of the possibility of something better.

5 stars

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