Showing posts with label John Varley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Varley. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Millennium by John Varley

Rating: WARTY!

Varley is a writer whom I like, but this novel left a lot to be desired in the writing quality department. I first saw this story as a movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd (that's how old it is!). I loved the movie. It, in turn, was based on a short story titled "Air Raid" which appeared in the inaugural edition of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in the spring of 1977. I reviewed it in October 2013. I think this novel was - in the incestuous way that Hollywood has - taken from the movie, so it feels a lot more familiar than Air Raid did, but it's written to be somewhat different for some inexplicable reason.

This novel is one that has such an absurd premise that you have to turn off brain cells and skim the most superficial level of it, if you want to enjoy the story. The movie was a critical and financial disaster, but I actually liked it. It was rated badly and made less than seven million (in 1989) which is a fortune to you and me, but a sorry waste of time in Hollywood dollars. Cheryl Ladd was a breath of fresh air which more than made up for Kris Kristofferson's predictably wooden performance. I'd recommend it over the stories, though.

Varley has a real problem with time in this novel - and I don't mean in the actual story, but in the details he writes, which keep changing. As far as I could tell, that is set in a future as far ahead of us as the Copper Age coming to the Fertile Crescent is behind us. It's a society where we're led to believe that though this world is at an end, with pollution and genetic deterioration running riot, the amazingly advanced technology they have - including time travel - cannot do a thing to help? The plan they develop is to go back to the past and collect healthy human specimens which they will then dispatch to another planet so the human race can start over. How they managed to be eight thousand years into the future and not even begin to colonize other planets is a mystery which goes unexplained, as is why they waited so long to implement even this solution.

The plan for collecting healthy human specimens is to scavenge air disasters and other disappearances. What they do is scan history to find an airplane crash. Before the crash happens, they link to the airplane and send in a team to remove the living humans and substitute zombie-like replicas which bear a superficial resemblance to the rescued people. This was before the age of DNA "fingerprinting" so all they do is replace the teeth in the zombie with a set which matches the rescued human and they're good to go.

Given that they want healthy human specimens, it makes no sense to collect a random sample from a jetliner. Wouldn't you want to run tests and take the most genetically fit specimens if you want to reboot the human race and give it the best chance? Yes, it's Eugenics, but this is the end of the entire race we're talking about here (and it's fiction), not some Nazi ethnic cleansing. Besides, healthy specimens come from all races, not just the so-called Aryans. So why focus on taking passengers from US air disasters? Seriously?! Oh that;s right! It's another US author for whom the rest of the world simply doesn't count! Got it!

To be fair, there is mention of taking others, including the largely fictional Roman 'lost' legion, but it would seem to me to be a lot easier if they had taken people from prehistoric times, who would not only be genetically healthier than modern humans, but also a heck of a lot easier to snatch without causing problems down the time line. "Hah! Got you!" I can hear you saying, "If they did that, they could wipe out whole populations of humans which descended from a couple of initial individuals, if they took either one of those 'founding parents'," but here's the thing: there are engineers in this story whose job it is to scan the timeline and discover suitable people for this abduction. All they have to do is scan them to their death and snatch all the ones who don't live to old age right before they're schedule to die in their original time. Easy-peasey

Not that they had no harmful genes a hundred thousand years ago, but they had fewer than we do today because most of those with genetic defects above a certain level of severity would not survive, unlike today. And why take only white folks, when Africans have the greatest genetic diversity, even today? I should note that it's the movie, in true Hollywood tradition, which shows the rescued passengers to be almost exclusively white, not the novel, but the novel never said a word about seeking genetic diversity or representation. Perhaps the author expected us to assume this, but it would not have hurt to clarify it.

For me, the biggest unanswered question was, given the technology they have, why can't they fix these genetic problems? Another good questions is, if they can time-travel, why not go back and fix the issues that led to the appalling pollution and genetic issues, so they never happen in the first place? This is what I mean by setting your sights low if you want to enjoy the fantasy of this story. Do not go looking for good science or logical moves in this fiction! Yes, you can argue that doing something like that would screw-up the time line, but would that be any worse than doing nothing which has already screwed-up the future here?

Having said that, that was one thing I did like: is that the future people dare not make big waves in the time stream. Chronoclasms will echo down the ages if they mess with the wrong thing, changing their present (in the future!). This is why they take the passengers who are doomed. They will die in the crash, so if they substitute bodies and remove the living, no one will know they were snatched.

Of course there were many ways to achieve this same aim without limiting oneself to jetliners which is what the movie did. Why not get all those children who go missing every year? Bring them to the future, educate them in schools specifically structured to teach them what they need to know to survive on this new planet, and when they're mature enough, send them. The haphazard nature of this 'culling' in which they indulged themselves (and the future of the human race!) seemed ridiculous and dangerous to me.

There are many ways a writer could have gone with this and it's a bit depressing to think that someone of Varley's stature made so many poor choices. Dual first person narratives were really annoying. I am not a fan of first person voice by any stretch of the imagination and having two of them makes it twice as bad. The movie thankfully dispensed with that. In this case, the alternating narratives come from Louise Baltimore (all the future people are named after cities - mostly US cities) and Bill Smith, who is an investigator trying to figure out how two planes collided in mid-air (presented in a delightfully disturbing manner in the movie). The more he investigates, the more suspicious and confused he becomes. Baltimore is sent in to try and fix these issues, and ends up making them worse.

The writing overall isn't bad. There's too much info-dumping (which is a side-effect of the ill-chosen voice, I have to add), but aside from that, it's written reasonably well. There was only one big error I noted, which is that on page 36 it's 7:15, but two pages later, during the same sequence, it's only "oh-seven-hundred." Someone wasn't watching the clock! This is funny because later there is a problem raised with all the watches from the plane's victims showing the wrong time.

The problem as we begin the story is that one of the team who switches bodies loses her stun gun, and that kind of technology cannot be allowed to surface back in 1955. It gets worse when another such gun is lost in 1980. Louise Baltimore (everyone in the future seems to be named after a city) is sent back to recover it, and ends up encountering Bill Smith, one of the crash investigators, who is starting to suspect something truly weird is going on here. Love ensues!

There is some unintentional humor which leavens this book, such as where I read about the temporary morgue, wherein the head of the local NTSB board had "somebody" set it up. That struck me as hilarious, but maybe it's just me! The bottom line is that the movie is far better. Skip the book and go straight there. If you can still find it in this purported age of instant access and steaming video.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dark Lightning by John Varley

Title: Dark Lightning
Author: John Varley
Publisher: Penguin
Rating: WARTY!

John Varley was born quite close to where I live, and I have several of his books on my shelves. Admittedly it's been a long time since I've read anything by him, I cannot remember ever reading a work of Varley's which was as annoying and boring as this one turned out to be. This volume is part of his 'Thunder and Lightning' series, and was preceded by Red Thunder, Red Lightning, and Rolling Thunder, the latter of which I haven't read. The first two I found moderately entertaining but nothing to write home about. My favorite of Varley's is Steel Beach, by far, with his short story Millennium a close second.

While I was quite interested to see a fairly new novel from Varley in the library I was less thrilled to begin reading it, unfortunately. It features first person PoV, which is so unnatural as to be completely unbelievable unless it's very well done, and it's rarely done that well. In this case it was absurd. Even hyperthymesics don't have that good of a recall and unfortunately, they all-too-often pay for that memory with unpleasant functionality issues.

I skipped the prologue because I think prologues are ridiculous affectations. If it's worth telling, it's worth putting into chapter one or later. If the writer doesn't think it's worth a chapter, then I don't think it's worth reading! And as long as I'm complaining, Varley is known for hard sci-fi, but this volume read more like fantasy in some regards, most notably in relation to the 'ark' space craft in which his characters were traveling.

The ark's creator evidently financed it entirely his self, which means he must have been a trillionaire or something. He built it to look exactly like Earth inside (as far as was possible, of course!), including bringing up actual Earth homes, and populating the terrain with waterways and lakes, as well as food animals. I found that to be going way-the-hell too far beyond practical, and for me it detracted from the believability of this whole enterprise.

This story is set around the year 2100 and begins with some action - fake action. The main two characters are the Broussard twins (Star Trek Broussard collectors, anyone?). They're named Cassie and Polly. I thought this was for Castor and Pollux, but it's actually Pollyanna and with that I guessed - correctly - that her sister was Cassandra. They're playing a game called flycycle - which is nothing but a huge rip-off of Harry Potter's quidditch. Polly gets into trouble with her harness, and starts heading down for a crash. Cassie notes Polly's absence, manages to spot her falling, and goes to her aid.

So we have this totally unbelievable blow-by-blow account of Polly's dire straits, which was farcical because it was narrated by the person to whom it was happening. Seriously? I don't know why writers are so addicted to 1PoV. It doesn't get me involved or give immediacy to the story for me. It just makes me think over and over, how ridiculous and restricting the whole technique is, and how dumb the writer is for at once hog-tying themselves and putting the rest of us through this with them. It's particularly ridiculous when the narrator spews a ludicrous 'B' movie line like this: "...somewhere in there I had lost my helmet, and I didn't even remember it..." I seriously doubt you would remember remembering that if you were plummeting to your death....

The cover has a booster line from author Cory Doctorow: "There are few writers whose work I love more than John Varley's...". I was not impressed in my first outing with a work by Doctorow, but what these blurbs serve for me is to prove once again how truly far Big Publishing™ has its corporate head buried in its corporate ass. At the time, I don't know Cory Doctorow from some random guy across town. I have no more reason to trust his judgment than I do some miscellaneous woman standing in line for the bus. Why would I even care what he thinks - especially when his comment is so generic that he could have utterly detested this particular novel and still give that as an honest quote?

Not only is the 1PoV annoying, it's interrupted by annoying definitions, right there in the text, of cute buzzwords Varley has invented, such as 'flycycle'. All this to say that after only one chapter - five pages - I was really struggling to see how I was going to like this even as I was hoping that it would win me over - and soon, very soon!

The two girls walk home from the crash tossing banter back and forth - banter of a nature which suggests that Varley forgot that these were girls, and put boys' dialog in their mouths. But at least he has the guts to use 'masturbate', a word of which YA writers inexplicably live in mortal terror for some reason.

The twins live on a gigantic spacecraft which is essentially a two-mile diameter, six mile long cylinder, artificial gravity being provided by the rotation of the cylinder. Originally I had no idea what Varley meant with his mumbo jumbo about 'gravity' changing, dependent upon whether you go spin-ward or counter-spin-ward, but there are some weird effects come into play when you're dealing with fake gravity, as this article demonstrates.

This story is alternately told by Polly and Cassie, and they're the biggest chatterboxes ever, filling page after page with uninteresting drivel. It can be highly inappropriate, too. Their father, Jubal, has been sequestered in a "bubble" for reasons unexplained at the time, and when he comes out, he demands that they stop the ship. Instead of them actually doing that, or us getting an explanation as to why it's considered necessary, we're treated to some thirteen or fourteen straight pages of family history, which is not only boring, it kills the drama completely. When they finally decide to go see Uncle Travis, the completely whack inventor of the ark, it takes some fifteen pages of drivel to get there. I skipped most of those. This ain't no Steel Beach!

I managed to make it to roughly half-way through this when the never-ending flood of irrelevant and boring drivel replete with pseudo-intellectual lectures on physics rendered me incapable of proceeding. By then, I'd actually started hoping that this entire space craft would indeed do whatever it was they feared it would do, which was still pretty much unexplained even at that point. Ain't I a stinker? This is without a doubt the worst Varley I've ever read.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Steel Beach by John Varley

Title: Steel Beach
Author: John Varley
Publisher: Penguin
Rating: WORTHY!

In Steel Beach, a novel in Varley's "Eight Worlds" series, humans have been displaced from Earth by aliens. Earth and Jupiter are no-go zones, but humans are allowed to live anywhere else in the solar system.

The main character is Hildy Johnson, who is modeled after Rosalind Russell's role in the Howard Hawks 'screwball comedy' His Girl Friday. That role in the movie was originally written for a guy, but was given to Russell who took it and ran with it. Hildy is just as self-destructive as every other human, all of whom are living in overcrowded conditions and who are generally unhappy with the state of their existence. Hildy commits suicide several times and is fortuitously (from the perspective of others) revived. He/she also undergoes gender reassignments more than once.

After a lengthy and amusing introduction to existence in this solar system, Hildy finds a new interest in life after accidentally discovering someone wearing nothing - quite literally nothing, walking on the surface of the Moon - a person who then completely disappears as if by magic. Eventually this apparition leads to the uncovering of a group of people who have found the means to travel in space without protective craft or suits.

These people are in hiding, for obvious reasons, from the civilization's central computer system which it turns out, has been performing experiments on people, including Hildy, who learns that the computer has been cloning people in order to maintain population levels, which raises the question as to whether Hildy was actually saved from suicide, or was merely cloned (impractical as that is when you think about it).

This novel was highly inventive and entertaining. I loved the Hildy character and the cool ideas being freely tossed out like they were going out of style. The ending was kinda trite, but aceptable given the quality of the lead up to it.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine by Various Authors

Title: Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine
Author: Various (see Below)
Publisher: Penny Publications
Rating: WORTHY!

This is the first edition of this magazine (to which I don't subscribe). The first edition was published by Davis, but it's now owned by the publisher listed above. This particular edition has several short stories, and description of the "New" Smithsonian museum! The individual stories are reviewed very briefly below.

Good-bye, Robinson Crusoe by John Varley
This is a 29-page coming-of-age (for the second time) story of an alien who starts out spending time in an ocean, living on a largely deserted island, enjoying his gills, fearing the shark which lives out there by the reef, but who eventually realizes he isn't a child and it's time to leave those childish things behind and get back into life where he belongs.

Think! by Isaac Asimov
Thus is a story about the dawn of artificial intelligence - or rather the dawn of a realization by humans that artificial intelligence isn't so artificial after all!

Quarantine by Arthur C Clarke
This is a weird two-page story about a disastrous discovery which could spell the end of the universe: chess!

The Homesick Chicken by Edward D Hoch
This one is hilarious. It takes the joke question: "Why did the chicken cross the road" and make a really funny and interesting short story out of it. Brilliant!

Perchance to Dream by Sally A Sellers
In what is, in some ways, almost an homage to Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, the power of alien regeneration technology in what otherwise appear to be ordinary humans is the subject of this novel. When life is gone the heart lingers on in the body of another - as though it's the heart itself which is the individual, and none of the rest of the body.

Air Raid by Herb Boehm, aka John Varley
This is the short story which gave rise to the movie Millennium and was the sole reason why I got my hands on this volume! This story is brilliant and discusses people of the future - on a rotting, dying Earth polluted beyond redemption, sneaking back into the past to steal good bodies - but not just anybody, only live bodies which were due to die in airplane crashes, and which are replaced by fabricated bodies, so the live humans won't be missed.

Kindertotenlieder (dead songs of childhood) by Jonathan Fast
I don't know if this is a rip-off of another short story I once read or of that was a rip-off of this one. The other story (the title of which escapes me, I'm afraid) was about this exclusive restaurant where on rare and unpredictable occasions, the chef would serve a really fine meat, exquisitely prepared with special ingredients in the very secret kitchen. Tours of the kitchen were, coincidentally, also held on rare and unpredictable occasions....

Period of Totality by Fred Saberhagen
This was a really boring story about which I remember nothing other than astronauts trotting around on a planet waiting for an eclipse. Or maybe it was an eclair. An eclair de lune....

The Scorch on Wetzel's Hill by Sherwood Springer
This wasn't a terribly bad story, but it wasn't really very engaging, original, or entertaining, either.

Coming of Age in Henson's Tube by William Jon Watkins
This is a YA story of young kids using the peculiar gravity of the space tube in which they live to go base jumping, with all the attendant risks if you chose the wrong gravitational spot to leap into.

Time Storm by Gordon R Dickson
This is a longer (~34 pages) and fortunately interesting story about a guy who is trying to find his way through a North America racked by time storms, which cause faults in the air and which can be deadly if they sweep over you. He has a girl and a leopard in his van with him, and he has to contend with the weird and the dangerous - and that's just the people he meets....

I recommend this edition of this sci-fi magazine.