Irontown Blues by John Varley (2018) 289 p.

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Back in the 1970s John Varley – not exactly one of America’s most prolific writers – wrote a novel and a bunch of short stories set in what he called his Eight Worlds, a series in which humanity has been evicted from Earth by the mysterious, all-powerful alien Invaders and left to scrape out a living in the remaining worlds of the solar system. He revisited the series in the 1990s with Steel Beach and The Golden Globe, the latter of which is probably my favourite science fiction novel: a delightfully witty romp around this imagined future society narrated by an actor/conman who’s attempting to get to Luna in time to portray King Lear while being pursued by a nearly unkillable mafia hitman. They’re mostly light-hearted books but they’re creative, engaging and a great amount of fun. Varley spoke for years about wanting to eventually write a third book to finish off what he considered his “metals” trilogy, which would be called Irontown Blues and focus on a cop. Twenty years down the track and he’s finally written it, though protagonist Christopher Bach is actually an ex-cop turned private investigator.

It is, unfortunately, a huge disappointment. I probably look at Varley’s previous novels with a touch of nostalgia, but there’s no denying that they’re objectively very good while Irontown Blues is, if one is being generous, objectively lacking in a lot of ways. Very little happens in this book. It starts off appropriately enough with a mysterious dame entering Bach’s pulpy noir-themed office – a key theme of the Eight Worlds series has always been how humanity, reduced to a stub of its former civilisation, clings onto the various cultures of the past. She claims to have been infected with an engineered disease and hires Bach to find out who did it. Bach watches some CCTV footage, visits his mother, follows one red herring to a Chinese restaurant, goes and inspects a mostly empty room, gets kidnapped, and… that’s basically it. That’s all that happens, aside from a central flashback covering events which already occurred in Steel Beach and then an uncompelling climax which more or less repeats what happened in that flashback. (The book is noticeably only about half the length of Steel Beach or The Golden Globe.) Along the way, the Lunar cities Bach moves through feel empty and under-sketched, in stark contrast to the brilliantly painted society Varley used to give us. Half the novel is narrated by Bach’s cybernetically enhanced canine companion, Sherlock – an interesting enough concept which eventually becomes grating and often leads to the same scene being told twice from two different perspectives in a book which already feels like it’s just playing out the clock.

Varley’s written some bad books before – the Gaea trilogy, for example – but this is really the first piece of his writing which has mostly just bored me. It feels like he’d had the concept of “cop story in the Eight Worlds” kicking around in the back of his head for decades and decided to just finally write it, ignoring the fact that the reason he hadn’t got around to doing so yet was because he hadn’t actually thought of anything interesting to flesh it out with. A very disappointing end to an otherwise great series – read Steel Beach and The Golden Globe and leave it at that.