Physical handicaps have to be among the least commonly used aspects of reality in science fiction. Occasional side characters may be blind to spice a narrative, others may be mute or deaf to give an added degree of interest, but rarely does handicap itself directly inform the storyline. John Varley’s 1978 novella The Persistence of Vision bucks this trend entirely and uses physical impairment in a highly engaging, provocative story worthy of the counter-culture generation.
The Persistence of Vision is the story of an unnamed, middle-age man disenchanted with the state of the U.S. which Varley presents as the near future. The economy and ecology in a slow spiral downward, employment is dismal, society continues to fragment, and the health of the land deteriorates more each day. Abandoning his urban life and hitting the road, the man sets himself the goal of tramping to San Francisco to catch a steamer to Japan, leaving the S behind. But while crossing New Mexico, he encounters a commune unlike any that has ever existed, and it will change his life.
The result of an outbreak of German measles, a generation was born in New Mexico with a highly irregular number of deaf and blind babies. But with one woman’s kindness, many have been brought to a living commune of the most unique proportions in the Navajo desert and raised as farmers in a sustainable community. The sense of touch the people’s only input, their fingers, hands, feet, and body in general provide the knowledge they need of the world. As a result, multiple languages have sprung up, including handtalk, bodytalk, and touching without touching. The group knows each other intimately despite never having laid eyes or ears on one another. A John Lennon/Yoko Ono-esque love-in if ever there were, the sense of community the unnamed man encounters wars with his preconceptions of normal society in controversial yet interesting fashion.
Varley’s presentation and description of the commune is the heart of The Persistence of Vision. Personal throughout, extraneous details are never allowed to creep in. The narrator’s impressions and experiences the rails of story, delving into Varley’s conception of the group is fascinating. But even more intriguing are the ideas which flow in the wake, particularly the subconscious manner in which sight and hearing skew our everyday, every-moment thoughts and assumptions, and the resulting walls of territoriality created around us. The story can be real food for thought.
But for as fascinating as it may be, the concept presented is utopianism, and any story which purports to have achieved a perfect scenario is, of course, suspect. The Persistence of Vision, as readable and unique it may be, is exactly so. Either glossed over or never brought to the surface, the vices of humanity—as inescapable as they are to the handicapped and non-handicapped alike—play no role in the story. One would like to see a little more “real” humanity in the deaf/blind, as despite their obvious bias to reality, show little sign of anger, hate, jealousy, and all other unavoidable aspects of this thing we call life.
Nevertheless, The Persistence of Vision is a highly unique piece of New Wave science fiction written in controlled, engaging fashion. Highly reminiscent of Robert Silverberg’s work of the 60s and 70s both in style and content, Varley tackles an interesting topic with an even more interesting premise, and develops both in a (literally) sensual, personal story of a man coming to terms with life in an uncertain world. Whether or not the premise is developed realistically may be a drawback, however. Regardless, some of the least thought-over and most assumed aspects of being human are questioned, which is the real achievement of the novella.