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Varley, John

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1947-    ) US author who began to publish work of genre interest with "Picnic on Nearside" for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in August 1974 and who was soon thought to be the most significant new writer of the late 1970s. He was fresh, he was complex, he understood the imaginative implications of transformative developments like cloning (see Clones), many of his protagonists were women (see Women in SF), and most of the stories he told were set within an overall background Universe whose centre of geography had been startlingly displaced – in a manner characteristic of the finest sf – from Earth itself. It may have been the case that many previous Space Operas, especially those claiming galactic scope, were set far from the home planet (which was often "forgotten"), but Varley's innovation was twofold: to bring the displacement close to the present day, into a Near-Future setting that made it more vivid, and to present a subsequent Solar System whose own complexity seemed to mark a genuine evolutionary shift – in fictional terms – from the old geocentricity. The image of an incessantly humming solar system – it is central to books like Michael Swanwick's Vacuum Flowers (1987) – owes as much to Varley as it does to the idioms of Cyberpunk. Urgent and risk-taking, the stories assembled in The Persistence of Vision (coll 1978; vt In the Hall of the Martian Kings 1978) and The Barbie Murders (coll 1980; vt Picnic on Nearside 1984) seemed to announce the shape of sf's response to the end of the twentieth century. The pessimism implicit in his assumption that Homo sapiens might be exiled for cause from the home planet they had desecrated was laced through with an optimism derived directly, it seems, from the work of Robert A Heinlein. Varley's shorter works brought him three Hugos – for "The Persistence of Vision" (March 1978 F&SF) in 1979, "The Pusher" (October 1981 F&SF) in 1982 and "PRESS ENTER _" (May 1984 Asimov's; 1990 chap dos) in 1985 – and two Nebulas – for "The Persistence of Vision" and "PRESS ENTER _".

This sense of currency was also a feature of Varley's first – and perhaps finest – novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977), set 500 years into his Future History – it is sometimes called the Eight Worlds sequence, though there are deliberate internal inconsistencies – at a time when humanity has been long exiled from Earth by immensely superior, indifferent "Invaders". Bioengineered and variously cloned, humans now subscribe to social and sexual codes – and live within perspectives and according to processes – that differ radically from those of their flesh-bound, planet-bound ancestors. The protagonist is in fact several successive clones of the same person, the original dying only a few pages into the text and new versions of that original – clone bodies with pre-recorded mind-tapes of the original plugged in at the point of awakening – taking over when needed. The sense of ongoing process – and of an identity-dissolving taste for metamorphosis – is incessant. The eponymous hotline, which is operated by similarly displaced interstellar exiles, beams data through the solar system, the last item being a message that humanity will soon be banned from its home system, and will be doomed to wander the stars, homeless, for ever. This happens. The remaining novels assembled under the Eight Worlds rubric include the important Steel Beach (see below) and the less significant The Golden Globe (1998), the title referring both to the Moon, where much of diasporan humanity resides, and to the central character of the tale, an actor attempting to return to the Moon in order to play King Lear. A late addition to the series, Irontown Blues (2018), intensifies if anything the Recursive nature of its predecessors, with references (again) to Robert A Heinlein's worlds and other characters and venues, including Sherlock Holmes and the film Chinatown (1974) directed by Roman Polanski; the complex Underground society of the Moon is vividly portrayed.

Varley then composed the Titan or Gaean sequence – Titan (1979), Wizard (1980) and Demon (1984) – which begins exuberantly with a mission to explore the lesser moons of Saturn. The title refers not to the largest moon Titan but to a newly discovered body which the mission tentatively names Themis (another of the Titans of mythology after which several known Saturnian moons are named). This turns out to be a sentient artefact or Macrostructure actually called Gaea (see Gaia) and containing within its entrails a veritable Pocket Universe of trapped individuals and species. Cirocco, the female protagonist of the series becomes Gaea's agent, intimate and enemy. Although this was a technically interminable template, the series was kept decorously to trilogy length, though it did not fully escape the charge that the libidinous solipsisms of the plot had a Virtual-Reality resonance, especially the third volume, which features Zombies, an over-elaborate multi-species War on Gaea, and a giant replica of Marilyn Monroe energized by the "god's" manna: the ultimate destruction of this figure has been likened to the death of King Kong (see King Kong). Millennium (Spring 1977 Asimov's as "Air Raid" as by Herb Boehm; much exp 1983) – filmed as Millennium (1989), for which this is a novelization much in advance of the making of the film, for which Varley wrote the screenplay – is a Time-Travel novel in which humans from a devastated future extract contemporary accident victims at the moment before their deaths because, being still genetically whole, they can be used in a project to repopulate the Earth, with the aid of an AI. Like his best work, the book was smoothly muscled, manipulative and ruthless.

Varley's output of the 1980s was, nevertheless, less strikingly innovative than had been hoped – and, perhaps unfairly, expected – of him. The stories assembled in Blue Champagne (coll 1986) – Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo (1989 chap dos) reprints an original story from the collection – show no technical decline but lack some of the exploratory dangerousness of his first work. Steel Beach (1992), on the other hand, demonstrates through its very considerable length a virtuoso control of the Hard SF toolkit, presented through many of the kind of compulsive narrative hooks employed by Robert A Heinlein in his ruthless prime; but the story itself, set in the Eight Worlds universe about 200 years after humanity's expulsion from Earth, lacks dramatic urgency, despite many cleverly conceived (but sidebar) episodes full of action. The title itself, however, deserves to have become established as a tag for the evolutionary impasse humanity may soon face: like a lungfish struggling to breathe on a Pacific beach, Varley suggests, humanity could soon find itself struggling for breath on the steel beach that is all the home that remains, after the final death of Nature. The difficulty with his presentation of the steel beach that may be our destiny lies, perhaps, in his underlying hopefulness that engineering solutions may pry us out of hell.

The much more recent Thunder and Lightning sequence of Young Adult tales – comprising Red Thunder (2003), Red Lightning (2006), Rolling Thunder (2008) and Dark Lightning (2014) – remains on Mars over a period of several generations, focusing initially upon a topos sourced deep in the past of American Genre SF: a young genius invents (see Invention) an almost magical device which is used to power a home-made Spaceship and beat the Chinese to Mars; further volumes expand upon the can-do worlds opened to view by this triumph, and in Dark Lightning (2014) much of the cast embarks starwards in what would seem to be a Generation Starship, except for the use of Stasis Fields to pass the time quickly. Mammoth (2005) is a nonseries Time Travel tale involving Cloned mammoths and an involuntary trip by its protagonists to the last ice age; they return to the middle of contemporary Los Angeles (see California), where the genuine mammoths they have in tow are shot dead, with the exception of one small mammoth they have named Little Fuzzy, in homage to H Beam Piper. They then escape to Canada. Varley himself seems to have escaped his early work.

More recently, Slow Apocalypse (2012) is a Near Future novel of Disaster set in a Los Angeles (see California), where a nuclear family (and its outliers) learn slowly how to survive, in the first instance, the societal collapse caused by a Genetically Engineered virus – developed by a traumatized Scientist in the wake of 9/11 with the intention of ending US dependence on Middle East oil – that feeds on and solidifies petroleum, causing crude oil to explode world-wide. The LA family must next confront the consequences of the world's worst earthquake, which is triggered by the explosion of the crude under California. Sober consideration is given to the imminent drastic threat to any world sufficiently wastrel to depend on diminishing supplies of oil to flourish, though the terrorism-caused near End of the World, and the domestic success story of the Oregon-bound family (see Survivalist Fiction), generate a sense that this modestly uplifting tale may, only a few years after its publication, give off a fossil uplift. [JC]

see also: Asimov's Science Fiction; Black Holes; Children in SF; Eschatology; ESP; Fantasy; Galaxy Science Fiction; Linguistics; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Magic; New Wave; Outer Planets; Pastoral; Robert A Heinlein Award; Science Fantasy; Seiun Award; Sex; Space Habitats; Time Paradoxes; Writers of the Future Contest.

John Herbert Varley

born Austin, Texas: 9 August 1947



Eight Worlds


  • Titan (New York: Berkley Publishing Corp/Putnam, 1979) [first appeared January-April 1979 Analog: Gaean: hb/Ron Walotsky]
  • Wizard (New York: Berkley Publishing Corp/Putnam, 1980) [Gaean: hb/Tony Russo]
  • Demon (New York: Putnam, 1984) [Gaean: hb/Tony Russo]

Thunder and Lightning

  • Red Thunder (New York: Ace Books, 2003) [Thunder and Lightning: hb/Bob Warner]
  • Red Lightning (New York: Ace Books, 2006) [Thunder and Lightning: hb/Bob Warner]
  • Rolling Thunder (New York: Ace Books, 2008) [Thunder and Lightning: hb/Bob Warner]
  • Dark Lightning (New York: Ace Books, 2014) [Thunder and Lightning: hb/Fred Gambino]

individual titles

  • Millennium (New York: Berkley Books, 1983) [novelizing the film Millennium (1989): much shorter version first appeared in Asimov's Choice: Black Holes & Bug-Eyed-Monsters (anth 1977) edited by George H Scithers, as "Air Raid" as by Herb Boehm: pb/uncredited]
  • Mammoth (New York: Ace Books, 2005) [hb/Matt Stawicki]
  • Slow Apocalypse (New York: Ace Books, 2012) [hb/Judith Lagerman and Piotr Tomicki/Shutterstock]

collections and stories

works as editor

  • Superheroes (New York: Ace Books, 1995) with Ricia Mainhardt [anth: pb/Bruce Jensen]


previous versions of this entry

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