Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Review of Press Enter_ by John Varley



Only one of four other stories to accomplish the feat to date, John Varley’s 1984 novella Press Enter_ was winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award in its respective years of eligibility.  (Interestingly, another of Varley’s novellas is included in that same group: The Persistence of Vision.) Containing equal parts drama, romance (yes, they can be mutually exclusive), and science fiction, the reasons it performed as such are obvious.  Whether or not the story holds water after nearly thirty years, well...

Press Enter_ is the story of Victor Apfel, a former prisoner of war in North Korea who has spent the intervening years on government pension living at his parents’ suburban home.  Receiving a strange automated phone message one day asking him to go to his neighbor’s house—a neighbor he hardly knows, the suicide he discovers only leaves more unanswered questions.  The neighbor, whose name is Kluge, has left a house filled to the rafters with data network cables and computer terminals.  The suicide note left scrolling on an operating terminal, when the police call in a young Vietnamese computer whiz to validate it, the story takes another turn.

A romance developing between Apfel and the Vietnamese girl, named Lisa, the plot goes cultural.  Varley using the opportunity to dig into the atrocities of Asian genocide, from Korea, through China and Japan, to the horrors of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, there is a strong ethnic flavor to the novella.  Alternating between background and affective, Varley uses his platform as a writer to raise awareness of events which remain largely unknown in the West.  But that it  likewise often serves to inspire empathy in the character makes the presentation less than ideal.

But a larger weak point to Press Enter_ is the nature of the conclusion and the wave of understated plot which bore it to that point.  Spoiling matters to go into more detail, suffice to say Varley wears a paranoid, flower-power mindset on his sleeve—despite the fact that the story was written in the early ‘80s.  It can be forgiven that the tech has since been outdated, but the loss of fidelity remains.

The story itself enjoyable, Varley retains the strong voice throughout.  Apfel’s situation, and the dovetailing of Lisa, develop pitch perfect (despite the overall lack of underlying integrity), indicating the man knows how to spin a yarn.  Suspense held from page one, it packs good entertainment value, due in large part to Varley’s ability to write lucid prose that rolls like a train on a track. 

In the end, Press Enter_ gives the appearance of great depth but proves to lack it upon deeper examination.  (The reason it won the awards it did?)  I’m quite certain Varley’s heart was in the right place, given the overall back-to-roots message, but the underlying assumption is more paranoia than reality.  A touching, solid tale for sure, yet one that may not hold up well as time moves on.

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