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The John Varley Reader

"John Varley is the best writer in America" Tom Clancy proclaims on the back cover of The John Varley Reader: thirty years of short fiction (and other books), and while I've never read a Clancy book in my life, I happily agree.

Nobody places exquisitely human characters in WTF bizarre settings and stirs the plot with generous dollops of panache and a smattering of hard science like Varley. The result is consistently engrossing, enjoyable and touching.

He's just a Heinlein knockoff you say? Well, I have fun reading Varley. Not a Heinlein expert by any means, but I place Varley way ahead of that grand master (as well as all of the others), not in terms of influence on the field, but in terms of personal enjoyment and influence on me.

Varley's SF helped shaped my life. His attitude towards sex for instance is refreshingly enlightened. Whether they have it off with men, women, relatives, clones, the disabled or genetically engineered centaurs... or are turned into men, women, clones, deaf/blind mutes or genetically engineered angels - the sexual mores of his characters always make sense in the society they inhabit. And you always see them first as people - complex, fallible, admirable and sympathetic - rather than as a set of traits, behaviours or DNA sequences. Most sexual behaviours are okay with me (whether I'd indulge in them myself or not), because of Varley's characters. I don't have a fundamental ethical issue with human cloning (assuming medical safeguards are satisfied) partly because of Varley. My view that teaching is possibly the most important profession is attributable to Varley.

And while I don't believe Varley would condone some of the more outre actions taken by his characters if they took place in a 20th or 21st century world, he does make the implicit argument that advances in technology (among other factors) shape standards of morality, that these are malleable and adaptable - as they should be.

Reading Varley has made me a more tolerant, better person. There's not many influences I can trace back so directly.

The John Varley Reader collects eighteen of Varley's stories and prefaces them with biographical notes. To be honest, I find myself disinterested in Varley the person. I tended to skip the bits where he talks about his life and moved onto the bits where the talked about his work. That said, Varley can invest as much in autobiographical sketches as he does in his fiction, and to the same >devastating effect.

Read at the very least "Beatnik Bayou", "The Persistence of Vision", "PRESS ENTER |", "The Pusher" (a story I long held up as the perfect example of SF short fiction) and "Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo" from this collection. Then detour to "Blue Champagne" from the same-titled collection and "Equinoctial" from the collection The Barbie Murders (aka Picnic on Nearside... Varley's collections have a tendency to change titles when they jump the Atlantic; In the Hall of the Martian Kings is also known as The Persistence of Vision). If it weren't for these latter two stories then I'd almost suggest (almost) that it's not worth seeking out his other collections because The John Varley Reader otherwise does present the best of his short fiction.

Then check out his novels, especially the Gaea trilogy, Titan, Wizard and Demon - SF despite the titles - and especially especially his "Eight Worlds" novels (set in the same future history as many of his short stories, though he's not a continuity freak) Steel Beach and The Golden Globe... with another, Irontown Blues, eagerly awaited. (Alas, he's decided to concentrate right now on a sequel to his Heinlein juvenile tribute, Red Thunder, which was fun but light.)

I got the Reader mainly for the five stories previously uncollected: "The Bellman", "In Fading Suns and Dying Moons", "Good Intentions", "Just Another Perfect Day" and "The Flying Dutchmen" but have to admit that they represent minor examples of his work - still worth reading, but not particularly memorable. The exception being his The Last Dangerous Visions contribution, "The Bellman", freed - not without some regret - from Ellison's twenty five year shackles; but perhaps ultimately for the better. "The Bellman" is gripping storytelling and if the other TLDV stories are half as good as Varley's then it's an even more obvious no-brainer to get when (if) it finally comes out.

As an aside, his website has a charmingly tinkered together feel - I regret to observe that neither Varley nor his webmaster know a lot about effective site design - but who cares really? And his Top 25 Movies I Love list is a must-read.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 21, 2005 12:45 PM.

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