John Varley,
The John Varley Reader:
30 Years of Short Fiction

(Ace, 2004)

John Varley's stories are, to a great extent, the reason I love to read. I didn't grow up in a household of avid readers; there weren't bookshelves full of treasured volumes in my family's home. As a teen, I certainly didn't view reading as a pleasurable way to spend my leisure time and that attitude didn't change until shortly after I finished university.

A colleague at my first job, who couldn't believe I was so disinterested in books, took it upon herself to turn me into a reader. Her approach was to introduce me to the amazing worlds found in the short fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny and John Varley.

Suddenly, here were tales that could hold my interest. I didn't find my attention drifting off, mid-paragraph. Bradbury's quietly poetic style, Zelazny's surrealism, Le Guin's socio-political thought experiments -- each breathed life into reading for me. But Varley's stories did something more. While not as stylistically inventive as the others, Varley's fiction was bold, clever, youthful, sexy. His SF idols were Heinlein and Niven, but Varley had attended Woodstock, had lived in the Haight, he was a child of the '60s, and these experiences took his fiction in startling new directions. I loved it. And I wasn't alone. In 1979 "The Persistence of Vision" (included here) won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and Varley continued to ride at the forefront of science fiction well into the '80s.

Then came the drought. During the late '80s and '90s Varley produced very little short fiction. His attention had turned to Hollywood and screenwriting, and a new crop of short-story writers came to prominence: Kress, Willis, Egan, Baxter and Bear. Lately though, Varley stories have begun to turn up once again, and to mark both his return and the 30th anniversary of his entry into the science fiction field we have this collection, The John Varley Reader.

I had read all but two of the stories in Reader previously, but many of them were tales I hadn't revisited in a couple of decades. So I was anxious to see how the work held up.

It's a very different experience reading stories like "Picnic on Nearside," "Beatnik Bayou" and even "Options" today than it was a quarter century ago. All three of these tales deal with "changing," a cloning technology that allows people to download their minds into cross-gender versions of themselves. Changing is easy, cheap, reversible and, like most any new technology, it's adopted first by the young. There's quite a lot of adolescent sex in these Varley stories. And the boundaries between hetero- and homosexuality blur to invisibility when your girlfriend of yesterday is your boyfriend today.

Of course, these stories were written in a more liberal time, a time when the world was not yet facing up to the reality of AIDS, Internet kiddie-porn or religious-right opposition to stem-cell research. The world has changed, and I've changed, too. I wasn't yet a parent when I first read these stories. Now I have a daughter entering her teens and "Beatnik Bayou," in which a teacher has sex with a prospective student, a boy about my daughter's age, strikes me somewhat differently. These are still very powerful stories; they do what the best science fiction has always done, they make us question the world we live in, its values, its rules. But I have to wonder how these stories would be received if they'd been written in today's political/cultural climate.

Among my favorite stories in Reader are "The Phantom of Kansas," in which an artist who sculpts weather wakes up to discover she's been murdered, repeatedly; "Press Enter," in which an investigation into the death of a computer hacker turns the life of a Korean War veteran upside down; and the aforementioned "Options." But perhaps the book's most interesting inclusion is "The Bellman," a story with a copyright date of 2004. As we learn in the story's introduction, however, it was actually written in the late '70s for inclusion in Harlan Ellison's The Last Dangerous Visions, a book which has yet to see the light of day. The story, with its in-your-face violence, may not seem all that "dangerous" today, but it strikes an interesting contrast to "Beatnik Bayou," which seems far more risque here in the increasingly conservative early 21st century.

As a long-time Varley reader my favorite parts of this collection are the introductions. Varley has included more than 45 pages of autobiographical notes in Reader, and they add tremendously to the pleasure of revisiting these wonderful stories. He reveals his fears that readers of his "changing" stories would view him as a pervert; he tells of "the P factor," how only his stories with titles that begin with the letter P win awards; he discusses the frustrations of working in the film industry and of how he came to terms with mangling his story "Air Raid" in his re-re-re-writing of the screenplay.

The John Varley Reader is a wonderful book; the older fiction holds up tremendously well. But the fact that only two of the stories, "The Flying Dutchman" and "In Fading Suns and Dying Moons," were written within the last 10 years makes me wonder whether Varley can still produce the consistently groundbreaking, thought provoking, challenging science fiction that first captured my attention. I hope so. But I think it's going to take a lot more than a title that starts with P to pull it off.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 4 June 2005

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