John Varley’s Steel Beach (1993)
“Tell me. Is the Lord of the Universe in?”
It is rare enough in Science-Fiction literature to find a novel of real originality and deeper purpose but if there is one author who could produce such a work it is the American writer John Varley. Since the 1970s he has been producing a small but significant number of Sci-Fi short stories and novels set in his imagined ‘Eight Worlds’ universe, an era in the relatively near future of Earth when the planet has been taken over and quarantined by a mysterious and unassailable alien civilization. Meanwhile the survivors of the Human race have fled into exile on the extra-terrestrial planets and moons of the Solar System where they live in a perpetual state of Cold War paranoia fearful that the alien superpower may at any time finish the job it began decades previously.
The stories in this fictional milieu are a joy of literary endeavour: funny, clever, touching and insightful, they are well above the usual SF fare. Varley has established himself as one of the more intelligent and thoughtful masters of the genre with his emphasis on character and motivation rather than on paragraph-sized descriptions of high-tech gadgets or page-long accounts of space battles. One of the finest and most endearing books in this sequence is the ‘Steel Beach’ (1993). In part a musing upon the meaning of life, in part a murder-mystery, with plenty of gallows humour and wry wit, Varley delights in several classic cinematic references. One of his chief characters, a reporter sporting the name of ‘Hildy Johnson’, and a closely related narrative twist at the end of the book will give true lovers of classic B&W movies something to appreciate.
The novel justifiably won several awards upon publication and easily remains one of Varley’s most accessible works. If not the correct place to start in the ‘Eight Worlds’ universe, chronologically, it is certainly the best place to start for sheer reading pleasure. ‘Steel Beach’ is still available, though a new edition is badly needed, and comes highly recommended for SF fans and cinephiles alike.