Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review of Steel Beach by John Varley

There are several significant features which identify the stereotypical cyberpunk story.  Most readers would agree that one is setting.  Near future almost necessary to bear the sub-genre’s label, Gibson, Sterling, Shiner, Rucker, and other writers known for the form did their share to propagate visions of technology burgeoning in our lives just a few years in the future.  The stereotypical cyberpunk view rarely one that looked long term; a life replete with technology to the point of utopia was not on the agenda.  Such perspective appeared in the wave of science fiction that came next: the Singularity, the Accelerated Age, whatever you want to call it.  Segueing the two nicely is John Varley’s Steel Beach (1992), which examines the personal effect of having an existence where technology is expanded to the point it can provide every dream.  What will humanity want next?  Varley’s answer is disturbing.

Steel Beach is the story of Hildy Johnson.  A magazine journalist living on Luna, he works for the Nipple, covering whatever entertaining material he can get his hands on.  Society lacking for nothing, his reports typically feature the latest in sex change technology, what actor A is doing with diva B, and the latest in body modifications.  The two-hundredth anniversary of the Invaders’ takeover of Earth upcoming, Johnson’s editor assigns him the task of producing an article a day comparing life when the aliens came to Earth to life on Luna now.  But before the reader can groan “Oh no, here comes a lengthy, episodic, self-indulgent examination of how the future is different from Earth today”, Johnson’s life takes a twist.  Living in an underground Texas cabin, complete with slivers, horse shit, and a doctor whose medicine bag contains more whiskey than medicine, Johnson’s ennui begins to dig its thorns deeper and deeper into his mind, and he takes to reckless behavior.  A slash-boxing competition injuring him severely one day, in rehab a virtual dream changes his life.  Meeting Luna’s Central Computer while under, he emerges with a new perspective pushing him to seeking meaning like he never had before.  Trouble is, which is it, real or virtual?

A classic post-modern idea (searching for meaning in a meaningless life) imbued with all the tech and ideas of another post (post-humanism), Steel Beach is, if nothing else, a smorgasbord of ideas.  The tree man, the brontosaurus negotiation, the Texas Disneyland, the pleasure tech, “zombies”—and on and on goes the list of futuristic imagination.  Vacillating between pertinent to to the main storyline to digressive merely for creativity’s sake, the smorgasbord can sometimes feel like too much for one sitting.  At about the halfway point, however, the novel starts to gain momentum and drive itself towards what is a very personal, relevant conclusion.  But the opening, for as colorful and innovative as the ideas are, still requires some patience to wade through.

Varley making these easy for the reader, the wading is through a shallow river.  The ten years between novels showing, the prose of Steel Beach is honed razor sharp.  Varley’s anti-establishment act is dressed to kill in black sarcasm and candid observations on people and society.  That some plot material is indeed extraneous is something realized only after the fact.  Varley’s voice strong and clear but his ideas iconoclast, in my notes I have “an irreverent Ray Bradbury”.  Given the humanity underlying the cutting prose, I stick by it.

In the end, Steel Beach is a bildungsroman as only science fiction can write: discovering life and self in utopian Lunar setting.  Endlessly inventive, a post-modern ennui must be dealt with as life replete with every pleasure one could want doesn’t (apparently) make everything better.  Varley’s prose slicing and dicing, the surplus of ideas move fast and quick as Hildy the newspaper reporter attempts to sort out life.

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