The Golden Globe by John Varley
(Ace, $6.99, 517 pages, paperback; published September 1999; first published 1998.)
In his deceptively casual manner, John Varley has added another deftly eccentric pillar to an already strange and convoluted (and perhaps tumbledown) future-historical edifice. Consider how the "Eight Worlds" sequence began, with the brilliantly inventive stories in such collections as The Persistence of Vision (1978), and with Varley's swift and savage first novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline(1977). In those tales (which importantly prefigured the cyberpunk movement), shock was everything: alien Invaders eliminated us from Earth, as our species, one of merely third-order intelligence, threatened with extinction the second-order sentience of our planet's cetaceans; human survivors on the Moon and in scattered habitats struggled and then prospered, maturing into brassy and frenetic new cultures. In time, a second confrontation with the Invaders loomed, and a final exodus from the Solar System seemed inevitable. Truly radical novelty and dislocation have seldom been so impressively rendered in SF. But the sequels have been very different.
Very different, but highly effective in their slower and less direct manner. Steel Beach (1992) was Varley's belated return to the "Eight Worlds" project; but instead of continuing along the urgent narrative trajectory suggested by The Ophiuchi Hotline, this new novel returned to an intermediate phase of the human diaspora, some time before events have reached their critical stage. At leisure and in the first person, a star reporter for one of Luna's news organs expatiates on life in the human states and colonies, which extend from Mercury to beyond the orbit of Pluto. There are some developments that are significant in the larger sense, such as the construction by rebellious libertarians of the starship "Robert A. Heinlein", and the nervous breakdown suffered by Luna's governing AI in response. But what matters in Steel Beach is socio-cultural detail: the faddish pursuits of humans made near-immortal; sex changes achievable at will; the frenzies of histrionically daft popular media; religion become worshipful nostalgia for celebrities like Elvis; the creation of replicas of lost Earth's landscapes in the Moon's subterranean spaces. Little truly happens; the swarming but collectively static human panorama is central, as in the works of Jack Vance. This formula is compellingly picturesque, but it left open the question: why had the hyperkinetic Varley of the 1970s turned into an entertainingly garrulous snail?
The Golden Globe does much to answer that question. It occurs in parallel with Steel Beach, ultimately bringing its protagonist to Luna and into association with Hildy Johnson, the narrator of the earlier novel; it seems clear that both books function as introductions to a concluding volume, which should derive great momentum from the scene-setting services they have performed. The Golden Globe's task, then, is to complete Varley's detailed description of his Solar System and its Eight Worlds, prior to the author's ultimate resolution (destruction?) of that setting and its history. A Grand Tour of the planets is called for, and this the narrative of Kenneth "Sparky" Valentine provides.
Valentine is quintessentially picaresque in conception. He is a down-at-heels actor wandering the outer worlds (such as Pluto), appearing in seedy Shakespearean productions, in which he can play almost any role by speedy manipulation of his gender and appearance. But he is also a con man and general ne'er-do-well, who must constantly flee pursuing officers of the law and, more seriously, criminal enforcers. Hearing of an imminent opportunity to play Lear back on Luna, he undertakes a hurried journey from Pluto to the inner worlds, chased from destination to destination by a particularly grim posthuman assassin belonging to the "Charonese Mafia". Although Valentine's successive run-ins with the assassin, in which his means of defense include a faithful performing dog, a remarkably well-armed variety of luggage, and assorted musical instruments, are very funny (as are his amorous escapades and sundry swindles), they are only interludes in an extended travelogue taking in Pluto, Oberon, Luna, and points between; Varley's emphasis is on his carefully realized locations, sudden surges of slapstick action serving as their not too consequential garnish.
And then there are "Sparky"'s memories, which explain his nickname and his fugitive status. By the time of the main action, Valentine is a hundred years old; in his flashbacks, he describes his curious upbringing by his father John, a fanatical old-school thespian who abusively compels his son to follow him onto the stage. Kenneth is able to achieve some independence as the child star of a TV show on Luna, becoming very popular in the role of "Sparky", a sort of moralising adventurer; special treatments keep him pre-adolescent for twenty years, so this persona persists. But his father's domineering treatment has left Valentine only half-sane, communicating with a non-existent advisor and protector; when John returns to Luna from a long sojourn on Triton, a terrible crime ensues, and "Sparky" has to flee, spending seventy years as a talented drifter, with many names and faces. There is a lot of comedy and satire in these passages, but much familiar tragedy also; and again, the sense of place is strong.
The two streams of Valentine's story are vividly descriptive, related in a colourful flippant vernacular straight out of the oeuvre of Robert A. Heinlein, who inspires the starship in Steel Beach and at The Golden Globe's end. But other than stage-setting, and many diverting episodes, what does this novel have to offer, as a major work of SF? The answer, paradoxically, lies in The Golden Globe's lack of accountability to the standards of novelty SF demands. Although Varley engages in speculative invention on a large scale, the focus of his cultures is entirely nostalgic. They are mired in the Earthly past, recalling it in every way they can: they take their social structures, their cultural forms, their very names and identities from that past, celebrating it compulsively. They have not adapted to space; in spirit, they still live on the forbidden Earth; their theme-park disneylands, their Pseudo-Hollywood studios, their Shakespearean and retro-pop-culture obsessions all testify eloquently to this. Valentine's story often reads like a tale from the early to mid-Twentieth Century, with its Big Studio politicking and its hobo jungles. Varley's fundamental purpose seems to be to delineate the decadence that precedes a civilization's fall-or redemption.
Something must give. Either the humans of the Eight Worlds, in their homesickness, will return to Earth like lemmings, inviting a second war with the Invaders that must destroy them; or they finally will throw off their old ties, fixing their gazes forwards on the stars, in the final exodus mooted by The Ophiuchi Hotline. Just as Valentine must escape his father's choking influence, so the species must depart Earth's (and the Sun's) gravity well. The nostalgia of The Golden Globe is thus a tight psychic compression, which must culminate in an explosion; and that, most likely, will be the subject of this trilogy's concluding volume.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.
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© Nick Gevers 27 November 1999