6. Steel Beach by John Varley (1992) 481 p.

I. Ron Butterfly

After a decade-long hiatus, John Varley returned to his Eight Worlds series with Steel Beach, and the change is considerable. The original gist of the series is that humanity has been evicted from Earth by an unknown alien force dubbed “the Invaders,” forced to eke out a living on the other eight worlds of the solar system (Pluto’s recent demotion messes up the name a little, I guess). The only book from the original series I’ve read is The Ophiuchi Hotline, written in the 1970s, which revolved around an aspect of the Eight Worlds conspicuously absent from Steel Beach: a hotline of data streamed towards Earth from the star Ophiuchi, providing new technology which gives the human race a leg-up in surviving in exile.

This is the only major change from the original series, in storyline terms at least. Varley’s prose, on the other hand, has become far better. While The Ophiuchi Hotline was typical mid-century science fiction, with an occasional glimmer of humour and wit, Varley’s new style of prose is wonderfully funny, laced with dry observations and laconic philosophy.

The book revolves around Hildy Johnson, a newspaper reporter for Luna, now the most populous and important world since the Invasion. (Hildy describes it as “Refuge of Humanity as well as the Front-Line Planet and the Bulwark of the Race – not to mention the First To Get Our Asses Whipped if the Invaders ever decide to continue what they started.”) Despite being on the doorstep of Earth, Lunarians rarely think about the Invaders; it has been two hundred years since their arrival, and most have grown lazy and complacent in a society run by the all-powerful, benevolent Central Computer, where all their needs are provided and Earth is a distant memory. All is not well, however; after several failed suicide attempts, Hildy is choked with an inexplicable despair, and the Central Computer informs him a disturbing fact: suicide is fast becoming the primary cause of death in Lunar society. Even more troubling is the fact that the CC has been feeling rather depressed himself lately…

This sets the tone for most of the book – dissatisfaction and depression. There’s a lot of introspection, philosophy and hypothesising about the human condition, which sometimes leaves the plot aimless and confused. But the book still works. Luna itself is a fascinating society, with a hundred amusing little things over every page. People get sex changes every few years or so. The Apollo landing site has become a theme park. There are underground ranches filled with cloned brontosaurs. A modern religion canonizes long-dead celebrities like Elvis for worship. People who used to be kings and queens on Earth now scrape out a living as plumbers or stunt doubles along with the rest of society, and have to save up if they want to rent a party hall for a coronation.

There’s an aspect to Varley’s work, a Pratchett-esque understanding of how humans tick, that makes it so much more real than anything by Heinlein or Robinson. Of course people are more interested in celebrity marriages than the Invasion of Earth. Of course the lunar landing site is a replica, since the original one was trashed by drunken college students. Of course there are enormous, underground habitats made to look exactly like 19th century Texas or Oregon, so tourists from the cities can come and watch actors shoot it out with blank cartridges. Human beings were shallow, pedantic and trivial in the 20th century; why shouldn’t they be so in the 23rd? It’s a hell of a lot more realistic than most hard science fiction, and lot more fun, too.

Books: 6/50
Pages: 2351