Painting Saturn’s Ring red: John Varley’s 1970s Eight Worlds stories

John Varley is a writer who has astonishingly brilliant at writing on the micro level. He writes great sentences, and he writes great characters-in-situations. He explores ideas, and the way science fictional ideas intersect with human psychology, as well as anyone has ever done. He’s one of the most compelling writers in the field.

In the seventies, near the beginning of his career, he came out with a brilliant series of stories and one novel set in the “Eight Worlds” universe. The background to these stories is that Earth has been conquered by mysterious aliens, and humanity is clinging on to a very comfortable relaxed post-scarcity existence in the rest of the solar system. Gender is easily casually switchable. Little things like skin colour, height, and weight have become aesthetic preferences. People live everywhere in the solar system but Earth and Jupiter, which the aliens have claimed. There are religious fanatics painting one of Saturn’s rings red, and others trying to stop them. There are messages from the stars, from a different set of aliens. All children grow up with an individual teacher, an adult who puts themselves into a seven year old body and grows up again with the kid. There’s an inflexible law that only one person with a particular genome can exist at one time, because otherwise, with cloning and recording memories so easy, things would get out of hand. In The Ophiuchi Hotline we find out more about the solar system, the aliens and what’s been going on. If you take the novel together with the stories, collected (with a lot of other brilliant stories) in The John Varley Reader, you build up a mosaic picture of a society that is in some ways very comfortable and in others teetering on a very dangerous edge. Many of the stories are about the characters of the novel, set before the novel, explaining how the characters came to be where they are.

This is an immensely rich and detailed universe. Varley’s Luna feels like a real place, with it’s “Disneylands” that mimic Earth environments (except for the gravity) where people do artificial weather as an artform. The sociology and psychology of the situation always feels absolutely right, with Earth taken away, with cloning, recorded memories, trivial gender switching, of course this is what people would be like. Murder is a crime of property—of course it is, when the victim can have a new body and their memories restored from their last back-up. The economics on the other hand, well,  he talks from time to time about the balance of trade between the planets, but other than that the economics seem so post-scarcity that they might as well be communist. The Central Computer on Luna keeps an eye on everything.

Any one of the Eight Worlds stories is brilliant and memorable. I had to read them all after reading The Ophiuchi Hotline (hardest title to spell of all time) because as I encountered the minor characters I remembered their short stories so well. Sometimes there would just be a mention of something, like how weird black-hole miners get, and I immediately remembered “Lollipop and the Tar Baby” where a woman goes out on eighteen year solitary voyages and raises a clone-daughter on the way for company, but gets back alone every time… but some of the stories are a lot more fun! If you read the novel with the stories you build up an unforgettable mosaic picture of the Eight Worlds universe.

The Ophiuchi Hotline itself is a very good exploration of the problems of cloning with memory-transfer. There are a number of copies of many of the main characters, and a lot of what makes the book interesting is seeing them reacting the same, and differently, in the changing situations. The characters are themselves a mosaic. There’s enough density of ideas and interactions of ideas here for any SF lover—this is an interesting if implausible future.

The novel doesn’t quite work—everything is rushed at the end and the pacing doesn’t quite come off. The things that are good about it more than compensate for this, it is very much worth reading—but it’s merely extremely good, while the short stories are phenomenally amazing.

This has generally been my reaction to Varley. I’ve been reading him for decades, since first reading the brilliant and chilling novella “Air Raid” in the seventies. I think I’ve read everything he’s published. I tend to be blown away by his short stories and to find his novels slightly unsatisfying somewhere. It may be that his natural length is short—at short length I’d put him up there with Chiang and Tiptree. Or, a theory I’m always willing to entertain, it might just be me.

Varley came back to a variant of this universe in the nineties with Steel Beach and The Golden Globe. While I like some things about The Golden Globe a great deal, neither of them feels to me as if it really fits in the Eight Worlds universe—and Varley says himself in the intro to Steel Beach that he’s not trying to be consistent with his earlier work, and I think they’re best considered separately.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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