35. The Barbie Murders by John Varley (1980) 260 p.

oh, the seventies!

John Varley is my favourite science fiction author. This is largely due to The Golden Globe, a light-hearted, whimsical tale of a dashing actor/conman named Sparky Valentine who attempts to make it from Pluto to Luna in under ten months to land a lead role in a production of King Lear, all the while trying to outrun a nigh-invicible mafia hitman. I read it last year and it was not only the best science fiction books I ever read, but one of the best books in general.

The problem is that I’ve subsequently read his bibliography in reverse order (see 50 Book Challenge #6), and have watched his writing style decline rather than develop. The Barbie Murders is a collection of short stories written between 1974 and 1980, and while they’re still very enjoyable, they’re clearly the work of a much younger man.

Most of the stories are set in his Eight Worlds universe, in which humanity has been evicted from Earth by the omnipotent and mysterious Invaders, left to survive on the remaining worlds of the solar system. In order:

Bagatelle, about a police chief trying to negotiate with an intelligent nuclear bomb that has been placed on the main thoroughfare of Luna’s biggest city;

The Funhouse Effect, about an ill-fated cruise to the sun inside a converted comet;

The Barbie Murders, about a detective trying to solve a murder committed by a woman from a cult-like community of 7,000 people who are exactly identical;

Equinoctial, a bizarre story about a society of space-dwelling people who drift through the rings of Saturn;

Manikins, an even more bizarre story about a woman in a mental ward claiming that all men are controlled by parasites (and the only story not set in the Eight Worlds);

Beatnik Bayou, about growing up in the unusual education system of Luna;

Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe, about a kid living in an enormous underground biome on Pluto modelled to recreate the Pacific Ocean;

Lollipop and the Tar Baby, about a spacer on the edge of the system who is disturbed to find a black hole talking to her;

and Picnic on Nearside, the first story Varley ever wrote for the Eight Worlds, about a kid who takes a joyride to the abandoned “nearside” of the moon and discovers a hermit living among the empty ruins.

On the whole, the stories are good, just not quite as good as The Golden Globe. They’re almost up to scratch with Steel Beach, though, and far better structured – Varley clearly knows what he’s doing when it comes to short stories. On the whole, this is a book I bought out of a desire to read the author’s entire catalogue, and not something I’d reccomend to the average reader. Do go out and buy The Golden Globe, though.

Books: 35/50
Pages: 10, 905