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Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

1993 Hugo Award Nominee- 'Steel Beach' by John Varley

I purchased 'Steel Beach' knowing absolutely nothing about it.  If you're trying to read all the Hugo and Nebula Nominees it's nice to pick up a book you know nothing about by an author you've never read before.  Before I open most books I have a pretty general idea what I'm getting into, the same authors have a tendency to be nominated over and over, and just generally picking up plot lines while looking through other books.  I've got a few unread Heinlein's sitting on the shelf, along with a couple of Pohl's and a few works by Greg Bear and an ancient tome called 'A Mission of Gravity,' I'm looking forward to reading them all and there will be surprises on the way, but I know what I'm getting into when I open them.
So it's really nice when I get the chance to pick up something like Beach which I have no idea about.  Based on the name alone I assumed it would be some kind of military SF, what I ended up with was quite the surprise.

There's a tendency among some SF writer's to put a lot of time into creating an interesting world, and craft a novel that explores that world fully without straying too far into an actual plot.  A lot of Heinlein's later work did this, novels like 'Friday' and a couple others.  'Steel Beach' seems to fall right into this vein.  The first half of the novel is absolutely plot less, following the main character, Hildy, as he wanders about this seeming utopia, exploring Varley's fully developed world, with occasionally stops to attempt suicide. 
By reading only the reviews on the back of a novel everything looks like a gem.  It's easy to get fooled so usually I don't even look at them.  The reviews on the copy of Beach I own states that he can be compared to Heinlein, is the greatest writer in America, and that it was great to have him back, it's that last one that gave me pause and led me on a little research while reading the novel. 

Varley is famous for writing the 'Eight Worlds' set of stories.  A shared universe within which the Earth has been destroyed and man has settled the rest of the planets in the galaxy.  There is no faster than light travel and many of the other staples of hard SF are missing.  Much of this universe had been explored through Varley's short stories which are highly regarded.  'Steel Beach' seemed to take place in this world.  As I'd never read any Varley before and hate jumping into a series midway I almost waited to read until I found out Varley plays pretty loose with continuity, in his own words:
Does this look like a man who cares
about continutiy?
This story (Steel Beach) appears to be part of a future history of mine, often called the Eight Worlds. It does share background, characters, and technology with earlier stories of mine... What it doesn't share is a chronology. The reason for this is simple: the thought of going back, rereading all those old stories, and putting them in coherent order filled me with ennui... Steel Beach is not really part of the Eight Worlds future history. Or the Eight Worlds is not really a future history, since that implies an orderly progression of events. Take your pick. (Afterword 1st Edition)

So I'm off the hook as far as continuity is concerned.

Large portions of this novel are very reminiscent of Delany's 'Triton.'  Both novels build an almost perfect future utopia ('Triton' even has the word in the subtitle) and forgo much of a plot to let the protagonist explore that world fully.  Both main characters even have a sex change midway through the novel and spend the second half as a woman.  'Triton,' along with the rest of Delany's work, is complex and difficult and highly entertaining, and there's a reason I haven't reviewed any of his work, Delany is much smarter than I am and I probably couldn't do him justice in a review.  Many other aspects of the novel were picked right from Heinlein himself, not just the style of the novel, a group of people even call themselves 'Heinleiners,' and you can't have a Utopia on the moon without thinking of 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.'

I don't really go in for this sort of meandering storyline that Varley lays out here very often.  He's created a world that is truly impressive and interesting enough to wander around in, but I can't help but feel that he needs to put a story into that world that does it justice.  Apparently most of the Eight World books are short stories, and many reviewers feel that form is where Varley's shines. 

Varley's problem is that in the last third of the novel he actually does try to inject a plot into the mix, but one that goes against a lot of what he had been building so far.  Just when the reader starts to wrap their head around what this novel seems to be, an exploration of why a person might be dissatisfied with utopia, Varley changes his tune.  Dismissing the notion that Hildy would be dissatisfied with Utopia all the blame for what has gone wrong gets placed at the feet of the computer who runs the place.  The conceit that the computer would go insane by presenting too many personalities and thus be the driving force behind Hildy's suicide feels like a cop out to me.  The only driving question of the novel for most of the work is why Hildy is trying to kill himself and how he keeps surviving, Varley answered that question by dodging out on the much more interesting questions of why people were wasting that Utopia, and whether or not paradise leads to a stagnation in humanity.  Varley had already borrowed Heinlein's style with the wandering narrative, and taken many aspects of 'Triton,' I felt like he was crafting something that would have been a great novel (just perhaps not to my taste) but just didn't feel comfortable with what it was shaping into.  If he had just stuck with that same track he may have crafted a novel that could have stood alongside those other two works.

In the end 'Steel Beach' is an entertaining but flawed novel that really makes me want to read more of Varley's short fiction.  Probably best known now for it's opening line (check it out it's pretty funny) and for introducing some modern readers to the sort of exploration of sexuality that had already been going on in SF for some time.  Readers that enjoyed this book, or people who are thinking about it, should probably look at both 'Triton' and 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' first, though it's not really fair to compare 'Steel Beach' to two of the most respected SF authors ever it would be best if the reader could notice the respect that Varley pays to these two authors.

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