Varley, John 1947–
Varley, John 1947–
(Herb Boehm, John Herbert Varley)
PERSONAL: Born 1947, in Austin, TX; son of John Edward (an oil worker) and Joan Varley; married Anet Mconel (a consumer advocate), October 10, 1970 (divorced); children: Maurice, Roger, Stefan. Education: Attended Michigan State University, 1966. Politics: "Rational anarchist." Religion: "Lapsed Lutheran."
CAREER: Writer, novelist, editor, and short-story writer, 1973–.
AWARDS, HONORS: Locus Award, 1976, special award for placing four novelettes in top ten, 1979, for novel Titan, 1980, for best single-author collection The Barbie Murders and a Hamilton Memorial Award for Titan, 1981, for best novella Blue Champagne and for best short story "The Pusher," 1984, for novella Press ENTER, and 2005, for The John Varley Reader; Jupiter Award, 1977, for novella In the Hall of the Martian Kings. Nebula Award nomination, Science Fiction Writ-ers of America, 1975, for best novelette Retrograde Summer, 1977, for short story "Air Raid," 1979, for best novelette Options, and for best novel Titan, 1980, for best novelette Beatnik Bayou, and 1981, for best story "The Pusher"; Nebula Award, 1978, for story "The Persistence of Vision," and 1985, for Press ENTER; Prix Apollo (France), 1978, for The Persistence of Vision; Hugo Award nomination, World Science Fiction Convention, 1977, for novelette The Phantom of Kansas and Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, 1978, for novella In the Hall of the Martian Kings and for short story "Air Raid," 1979, for novelette The Barbie Murders, 1980, for novelette Options and for novel Titan, 1981, for novelette Beatnik Bayou and for novel Wizard, 1982, for novella Blue Champagne, 1984, for novel Millennium, and 1993, for novel Steel Beach; Hugo Award, 1979, for novella The Persistence of Vision, 1982, for short story "The Pusher," and 1985, for Press ENTER; American Book Award nomination, 1980, for The Persistence of Vision; Science Fiction Chronicle award, 1982, for short story "The Pusher"; Genie Award (Canada) nomination, 1990, for best adapted screenplay; SF Con Hamacon Award (Japan), 1992, for Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo; Prometheus Award nominee, best novel, 1999, for The Golden Globe; Endeavour Award, Oregon SFConventions, Inc., 2004, for novel, Red Thunder; Prix du Cafard Cosmique, Best SF Novel, 2004, for Le Systeme Valentine (The Golden Globe); Asimov's Science Fiction's Readers' Award, 2005, for novelette, "The Bellman."
"EIGHT WORLDS" SERIES; SCIENCE FICTION
The Ophiuchi Hotline, Dial (New York, NY), 1977, reprinted, Gollancz (London, England), 2003.
The Persistence of Vision (stories), Dial (New York, NY), 1978, bound with Nanoware Time by Ian Watson, Tor Books (New York, NY), 1991, published as In the Hall of the Martian Kings, Sidgwick & Jackson (London, England), 1978.
Blue Champagne (stories), illustrated by Todd Cameron, Dark Harvest (Niles, IL), 1986.
Steel Beach, Putnam (New York, NY), 1992.
The Golden Globe, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1998.
"GAEA" TRILOGY; SCIENCE FICTION
Titan, illustrated by Freff, Berkley (New York, NY), 1979.
Wizard, Berkley (New York, NY), 1980.
Demon, Berkley (New York, NY), 1984.
The Barbie Murders and Other Stories, Berkley (New York, NY), 1980, published as Picnic on Nearside, 1984.
Millennium (screenplay; based on "Air Raid"), Berkley (New York, NY), 1983, reprinted, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo (bound with The Star Pit, by Samuel Delany), Berkley (New York, NY), 1984.
Press ENTER (science fiction chapbook; bound with Hawksbill Station, by Robert Silverberg; originally published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine), illustrated by Bob Eggleton, Tor Books (New York, NY), 1990.
(Editor, with Ricia Mainhardt, and contributor) Superheroes, Ace Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Red Thunder (science fiction), Ace Books (New York, NY), 2003.
The John Varley Reader: Thirty Years of Short Fiction, Ace Books (New York, NY), 2004.
Mammoth (novel), Ace Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Red Lightning, Ace Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Also author of screenplays Galaxy, 1978, The Phantom of Kansas, and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, based on the Robert A. Heinlein novel.
Contributor to anthologies, including Orbit 18, edited by Damon Knight, 1976; Best Science Fiction of the Year Number 5, edited by Terry Carr, Ballantine, 1976; Best Science Fiction of the Year Number 6, edited by Terry Carr, 1977; The World's Best SF, edited by Donald Wollheim, 1977; The 1978 Annual World's Best SF, edited by Donald Wollheim, 1978; Best Science Fiction of the Year Number 7, edited by Terry Carr, 1978; Universe 9, 1979; The Best Science Fiction of the Year 9, 1980; Nebula Winners 14, 1980; The Best Science Fiction of the Year 10, 1981; The Best Science Fiction of the Year 11, 1982; The Road to Science Fiction 4: From Here to Forever, 1982; Nebula Award Stories 17, 1983; The Best from Universe, 1984; Terry Carr's Best Science Fiction of the Year 14, 1984; Nebula Awards 20, 1985; Great Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century, 1987; Terry Carr's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year 16, 1987; The Norton Book of Sci-ence Fiction, 1993; Simulations: Fifteen Tales of Virtual Reality, 1993; Strange Dreams, 1993; Nebula Award-winning Novellas, 1994; Reel Future, 1994; Tales in Space, 1995; Visions of Wonder, 1996; Timegates, 1997; Future on Ice, 1998; Not the Only Planet: Science Fiction Travel Stories, 1998; The Reel Stuff, 1998; Bangs and Whimpers: Stories about the End of the World, 1999; The Good New Stuff, 1999; Isaac Asimov's Solar System, 1999; and Explorers: SF Adventures to Far Horizons, 2000. Author of introduction, When Worlds Collide, by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, 2002. Contributor to science fiction magazines, including Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, Amazing Stories, Vertex, and, under pseudonym Herb Boehm, to Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. Varley's manuscript collection is maintained at Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.
SIDELIGHTS: John Varley is known especially for his inventive short stories and his three novels set on the living planet of Gaea, including Titan, Wizard, and Demon. He has often been compared to the early Robert A. Heinlein, whose science fiction adventures resemble Varley's own. The prolific inventiveness of Varley's stories has also been praised. "The man," as Algis Budrys once commented in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, "has prodigies of imagination in him."
After dropping out of college in the middle 1960s, Varley traveled around the country for several years before settling in San Francisco, where he met and married his wife. When the couple's financial situation was particularly grim in the early 1970s, Varley looked around for ways to earn extra money. Because he had read science fiction for many years, Varley considered putting his imagination to work as a writer. He followed the guidance of Robert A. Heinlein, who once advised aspiring writers to begin a story, finish it, send it to a publisher, and keep on sending it out until it was finally accepted. The method worked for Varley. Within a year he was selling his work to the major science fiction magazines. These early stories treated such subjects as feminism, cloning, sexuality, and memory transfer. "Varley's rise to prominence," J.D. Brown commented in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "was due in part to his mastery of the demanding short-story form." Particularly popular with science fiction fans, Varley's early stories won several awards as well, including the Jupiter Award and nominations for the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Varley's solid, workmanlike prose and his exuberant inventiveness were especially noted by the critics. Budrys, for one, claimed that Varley is best at "the depiction of exotic biologies. Since he also does a number of other things well, and few things outright clumsily, the total effect is first class."
Many of the author's early fans looked forward expectantly to his first novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline, published in 1977. Based in part on ideas previously explored in his short stories, the novel is set in a time when Earth has been invaded by aliens and humankind has been displaced to Mars and various satellites. A strong ecological message is apparent in the story, as the aliens save intelligent cetacean species from the humans and abolish our technology. However, the humans are not friendless; a mysterious alien source supplies the homo sapiens species with aid so that they will not become extinct. An "overcrowded but highly satisfying" tale, according to a New York Times Book Review critic, the story concerns a woman who has been condemned by a future government for conducting forbidden genetic experiments. To escape prosecution, she clones herself several times throughout the course of the novel, changing her name and personality each time. Brown maintained that The Ophiuchi Hotline is "one of the finest science-fiction novels of the decade."
With the "Gaea" trilogy, Varley found bestseller status in a unique concept involving a living creature as large as a planet and shaped like a giant wheel called Gaea. Gaea orbits Saturn, and within her body live a host of creatures, including human beings. In god-like fashion, she is able to take on the shape of any creature she pleases and secretly join the population that lives within her. When Cirocco Jones and her spaceship crew become trapped on the planet in the first installment, Titan, they must make their way to Gaea's head in a symbolic and dangerous journey. In depicting this quest Varley combines, Brown explained, "the trappings of science fiction with those of a swashbuckling fantasy." Brown found Titan to be "a feminist space epic, readable, wildly inventive, complex in plot, [and] consistent in characterization." Budrys wrote that he "liked it a great deal," and added that it is "endlessly inventive, full of the particularly attractive furnishings that Varley brings to SF."
Gaea appears again in Wizard, in which Cirocco and several other characters seek to free themselves from Gaea's overwhelming control. Their revolt fails, however, and Cirocco, in biblical fashion, is made into the devil of the planet. Displaying his imaginative skills, Varley includes such inventive tidbits as radio-transmitting plants, characters who speak only in song, and giant blimps who are living creatures. The author also reveals that the natives of Gaea, called Titanides, have multiple sexual abilities and can both conceive and carry a child. In fact, there are twenty-nine possible mating combinations between the dual-sexed creatures. Comparing Wizard to Titan, Fantasy Review contributor Michael E. Stamm called the novel "equally or more inventive and … an extraordinary feat of storytelling." Demon completes the story of Cirocco and tells of the final battle between Gaea and her inhabitants. "If you liked Titan and Wizard," Budrys commented, "you'll like Demon. It has … boundless invention of landscapes and characters worthy of pre-War Disney."
Varley spent much of the 1980s writing movie screenplays in Hollywood, an occupation that, while profitable, proved very frustrating for the author and resulted in only one film, Millennium, that was actually produced. In Millennium Varley adapts the standard science fiction concept of time travel in his own way. The novel is self-consciously in the time-travel tradition: chapter titles are taken from old stories of the type, while Varley makes many references to the usual paradoxes found in such fiction. The story concerns a group of time-travelers who rescue passengers from doomed airliners. The rescued passengers are then given a chance at a new life in a far-future world. One such rescue is marred by the loss of an instrument. If the anomalous instrument is found by air crash investigators, it can mean a catastrophic disruption of the flow of time.
Several critics found Millennium's ending to be disappointing, but judged the rest of the novel to be exceptional. "Time-travel narratives," Gerald Jonas wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "especially at book-length, are extraordinarily difficult to sustain…. Unfortunately for John Varley's novel, he brilliantly solves most of the problems inherent in the story and then throws away his achievement for the sake of cheap thrills." Similarly, Timothy Robert Sullivan commented in the Washington Post Book World that "Varley could have done without the last few pages." Nonetheless, Sullivan believed that Varley's world of the far future "becomes as real as our own. This is Varley's considerable accomplishment, and he pulls it off with admirably lean prose, realistic dialogue, and the concise depiction of sympathetic characters."
After a long hiatus from novel writing, Varley returned to the "Eight Worlds" universe he created in The Ophiuchi Hotline with his 1992 novel, Steel Beach. Set two hundred years after the alien takeover of Earth, humans now enjoy a utopian existence where they are nearly immortal and have abundant resources; even their environmental climate is controlled to perfection. Although everyone should probably be happy and content with such a situation, tabloid reporter Hildy Johnson is having suicidal thoughts. But Hildy is not alone, there are other humans who feel the same way, and even the Central Computer that is the center of human civilization on Luna seems depressed to the point where it makes designs for itself that could lead to disaster on Luna. Varley's readers and critics alike were pleased with his return to science fiction novels. A Publishers Weekly critic, for example, wrote that this "long-awaited return is one of the best science fiction novels of the year."
Varley's The Golden Globe is a more recent installment of his "Eight Worlds" series, this time featuring the colorful character Sparky Valentine, a Shakespearean actor, criminal, and con man on the run from a dangerous Charonite assassin who has been physically enhanced to be almost invulnerable to attack. While trying to escape the clutches of the Charonite, Sparky still hopes to make it to Luna, where he plans to play the part of King Lear under the direction of one of the most famous directors in the solar system. On his way to Luna, Sparky recalls many memories and has dreams which reveal the character's past, including how he was abused by his father and the lethal confrontation that eventually evolved from that intolerable situation. "The story is really in the memories," commented Tom Easton in Analog Science Fiction & Fact. "Valentine Senior was a driven, egotistical SOB. Valentine Junior was a victim who loved his daddy and knew a bit about how to get around him but could not avoid the final, cataclysmic confrontation, nor the crippling aftereffects. The rest of the book is a guided tour of a civilization as chaotic and vital as our own, which as in Steel Beach still owes a great deal to Robert A. Heinlein's precedent." "Although a tad wordy …," concluded a Publishers Weekly critic, "this is an engrossing novel by one of the genre's most accomplished storytellers."
Varley's published Red Thunder, is a story unconnected with either "Eight Worlds" or the "Gaea" trilogy. In a nod to the space race of the 1960s between the United States and Soviet Union, Varley pens a tale in which the Americans are pitted against the Chinese to reach Mars. It looks as if the Chinese are going to land first when Travis Broussard and his cousin Jubal learn that a design problem on the American spacecraft Ares Seven has put the life of Travis's astronaut wife in danger. Fortunately, Jubal is a brilliant scientist who has invented a new propulsion system that can get Travis, an ex-astronaut himself, to Mars in only three days. Building their own private spaceship, the Red Thunder, they must avoid detection by the government in order to achieve their daring mission. "With hilarious, well-drawn characters, extraordinary situations presented plausibly, plus exciting action and adventure, this book should do thunderously well," predicted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Don D'Ammassa similarly remarked in his Chronicle assessment of the novel that "Varley matches a serious literary style with an outrageous plot and he's one of the few writers in the field who could make it work."
Mammoth is a "rollicking, bittersweet tale of time travel and ecology," commented a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. Billionaire Howard Christian is a man used to having his own way and getting anything he wants. When the eccentric Christian decides that his latest, most fervent wish is to recreate the extinct wooly mammoth, he funds and mounts an expedition to recover a perfectly preserved mammoth specimen in the Canadian wilderness. As the team excavates the creature, they make another astonishing find; a pair of human corpses in close proximity to the mammoth, huddled close as though for warmth. Beside the humans is a perplexing, suitcase-sized device that seems to be a still-functional time machine. Christian hires brilliant scientist Matthew Wright, the world's most prominent physicist, to fathom the workings of the time machine and to start the process of cloning the dead mammoth. Wright hires elephant expert Susan Morgan to help with the experiment, overseeing the pregnant elephant that will carry and deliver the baby mammoth. Wright works on the machine and manages to replicate it, but still cannot get it to work. When a group of animal-rights protestors break into Wright's lab, an abrupt and unexpected temporal shift sends Wright, Susan, and the entire lab hurtling back in time. When everyone reappears, they are accompanied by a herd of live, rampaging mammoths that threaten considerable damage to downtown Los Angeles. In the midst of the turmoil, Christian continues to seek his own share of fame from the extinct creatures. Soon, however, shadowy and powerful organizations take an interest in the time machine, and Wright finds himself captured and interrogated by unknown agents. As he struggles to discern the still-shrouded workings of the device, he wonders if time can actually be changed, who built the time machine, and who the people were who died with the mammoth so many years ago. Varley "should garner new laurels with this outstanding effort," the Publishers Weekly critic concluded.
Red Lightning, the sequel to Red Thunder, finds teenager Ray Garcia-Strickland burdened with typical teenage problems—except on Mars. The son of two of the planet's famous original colonists, Ray's familial celebrity pales in comparison to his problems with school, interest in girls, and trick-riding abilities. Unexpected disaster occurs on Ray's ancestral homeland when a huge object, traveling at the speed of light, slams into the planet Earth, causing a massive tsunami that devastates Ray's grandmother's home in Florida. Ray and his parents immediately head to Earth to search for his grandmother and other survivors, but the incredible destruction wrought by the tidal wave leaves little hope. Soon after arriving, however, they discover that Ray's oddball but brilliant uncle Jubal had recently developed a device that could stop time. Already known as the demented genius behind the Squeezers technology, the source of cheap energy for the planet and the basis for space travel, Jubal has been living in the Falklands under careful government security. After the tsunami, however, Jubal has disappeared, and as Ray and his family become involved in the search for him, they realize that there are other, more powerful, more sinister groups that are equally interested in locating the eccentric inventor. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the novel a "highly satisfying sequel," and "much more than a simple adventure story, full of poignant moments and relevant social commentary."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1981, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1982.
St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1996.
Analog Science Fiction & Fact, February 2, 1981, Tom Easton, review of Wizard, p. 172; October, 1983, Tom Easton, review of Millennium, p. 164; November, 1984, Tom Easton, review of Demon, p. 164; April, 1999, Tom Easton, "The Reference Library," p. 131.
Booklist, July, 1992, Roland Green, review of Steel Beach, p. 1925; January 15, 1995, Carl Hays, review of Superheroes, p. 901; October 15, 1998, Roland Green, review of The Golden Globe, p. 407; March 15, 2003, Roland Green, review of The Red Thunder, p. 1286; June 1, 2005, Carl Hays, review of Mammoth, p. 1770; March 15, 2006, Regina Schroeder, review of Red Lightning, p. 36.
Chronicle, April, 2003, Don D'Ammassa, review of The Red Thunder, p. 40.
Extrapolation, spring, 1988, Judith J. Kollman, "John Varley's Women," p. 65; summer, 1991, Reinhold Kramer, "The Machine in the Ghost: Time and Presence in Varley's 'Millennium,'" p. 156.
Fantasy Review, August, 1984, Michael E. Stamm, review of Wizard.
Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 2005, review of Mammoth, p. 392; February 15, 2006, review of Red Lightning, p. 166.
Library Bookwatch, August, 2005, "Ace Books," review of Mammoth.
Library Journal, June 15, 1978, Steve Lewis, review of Persistence of Vision, p. 1296; September 15, 1980, Rosemary Herbert, review of Wizard, p. 1664, and The Barbie Murders and Other Stories, p. 1883; March 15, 1990, Randy Pitman, review of Millennium, p. 130; June 15, 1992, Jackie Cassada, review of Steel Beach, p. 105; October 15, 1998, Jackie Cassada, review of The Golden Globe, p. 104; June 15, 2005, Jackie Cassada, review of Mammoth, p. 66.
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October, 1980, Algis Budrys, review of Wizard, p. 59; October, 1983, Algis Budrys, review of Millennium, p. 26; December, 1984, Algis Budrys, review of Demon, p. 33.
New York Times Book Review, April 24, 1977, review of The Ophiuchi Hotline; July 31, 1983, Gerald Jonas, review of Millennium, p. 13; August 2, 1992, Gerald Jonas, review of Steel Beach, p. 19.
Omni, July, 1992, John Clute, "On the Steel Beach," p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, May 16, 1980, review of Wizard, p. 202; July 11, 1980, review of The Barbie Murders and Other Stories, p. 88; May 6, 1983, review of Millennium, p. 95; May 4, 1984, review of Demon, p. 54; May 3, 1985, "The 1985 Annual World's Best SF," p. 71; February 14, 1986, Sybil Steinberg, review of Blue Champagne, p. 73; May 25, 1992, review of Steel Beach, p. 42; September 21, 1998, review of The Golden Globe, p. 78; March 31, 2003, review of Red Thunder, p. 47; May 9, 2005, review of Mammoth, p. 51; March 6, 2006, review of Red Lightning, p. 50.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 20, 1992, J. Stephen Bolhafner, "Science-Fiction Writer Wilted in Hollywood," p. D1.
School Library Journal, September, 1978, Claudia Morner and Rose Moorachian, review of Persistence of Vision, p. 169; September, 1995, Pat Royal, "Book Review: Adult Book for Young Adults," p. 234.
Science Fiction Chronicle, October-November, 1998, Don D'Ammassa, review of The Golden Globe, p. 50.
Washington Post Book World, June 26, 1983, Timothy Robert Sullivan, review of Millennium; June 24, 1984, Craig Shaw Gardner, review of Demon, p. 6.
Wilson Library Bulletin, February, 1993, Gene LaFaille, review of Steel Beach, p. 91.
Boing Boing, http://www.boingboing.net/ (April 18, 2006), "The Novel Heinlein Would've Written about GW Bush's America," review of Red Lightning.
John Varley Home Page, http://www.varley.net (December 10, 2006).
Xero, http://www.xeromag.com/ (December 10, 2006), interview with John Varley.