© John Varley, cover by James Warhola.
Writer John Varley is best known today for his novels, but he first made a huge impact on the science fiction world with his short stories beginning in 1975. This 1978 paperback collects nine of those early stories, and I can tell you it was quite an unusual thing for such a new writer to have a short story collection published at the time. I read most of these stories in their original magazine publications (in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine) and they made a strong impression on me. I think most readers of the time felt the same way. Here was a writer who was going places. He had a fine insight into human nature, fascinating ideas about what the future might hold for humanity, and was well-grounded in science. I thought of him as an inheritor of the type of storytelling based on ideas pioneered by Robert Heinlein, and so he has proved to be.
Rereading these stories, I found them just as good as I remembered, but no longer as surprising or shocking in some ways. The world has caught up to Varley at least a little. His vision of technology as not only a tool but as something embedded in every human life has almost come to pass in our wired world. True, we haven’t gone as far as Varley’s imagination yet, but we’re getting a lot closer than we were in the 1970s.
“The Phantom of Kansas” brings us into a world where people can store their entire memory in an electronic “bank,” where gender is something that can be changed at will, where clones are commonplace, and where crime is almost unknown. Despite that, the title character has been murdered several times. She’s an artist, and her medium is weather. She creates events that take place not on Earth, but in vast underground nature parks beneath the surface of the Moon. She’s determined to get her latest creation of tumult and tornadoes performed, and to be there to see it despite the danger it will present to her life.
“Air Raid” is the one story in this collection I don’t care for. It was expanded into a novel, “Millennium” I think (without checking), and made into a TV movie I believe (also without checking). It’s about people from the future to time-travel into past airline disasters with a very complex and specific plan.
“Retrograde Summer” could have been part of the Heinlein “juvenile” series of novels for young readers, right after “Podkayne of Mars” if it were longer and by Heinlein. It reads a lot like his work, and there’s no higher praise from me. A visitor to Mercury has a tough time adjusting to the unusual living methods there, and her family has an equally hard time adjusting to her presence.
I could go on, but let me just recommend this book highly. If you’re a fan of idea-based fiction, you’ll love it.