Pluralistic: 28 Mar 2021

Today's links

On the occasion of John Varley's quadruple bypass (permalink)

John Varley, a beloved, versatile, funny, and wildly imaginative sf writer, recently had a quadruple bypass and is recovering well, but this is America, so he's also in need of financial support through his recovery.

You can donate to Varley's recovery fund via Paypal, which will support the Varley family's new expenditures (Dan Prall already helped them by buying the recliner chair John's doctors want him to sleep in).

Update: To donate to Varley, visit his site ( and click the Donate button; Paypal doesn't produce shareable donate links for this type of fundraiser.

When I heard Varley had been hospitalized, I felt that cold grue in my stomach, the dread that has haunted me not merely through the covid months, but also over the past decade, as the cohort of writers I grew up on have entered their 60s and 70s.

The news that Varley's surgery was successful came as an incredible relief – and with it, the realization that I didn't need to wait for an obit to write an appreciation of the writers whose work I love so dearly.

Varley is hugely influential upon me. I could never have written my 2003 debut novel DOWN AND OUT IN THE MAGIC KINGDOM without stories like his 1976 OVERDRAWN AT THE MEMORY BANK – a story that prefigured many of cyberpunk's central tropes.

Varley's short fiction is incredible – not just Hugo winners like THE PERSISTENCE OF VISION but also perfect gems like THE OPHIUCHI HOTLINE and THE BARBIE MURDERS – but they all add up to even more than the sum of their parts.

Much of Varley's work has been set in his "Eight Worlds" universe, where humans have been evicted from Earth by a mysterious alien race called "The Invaders," with the rump of the species being pushed out to the Moon, nearby planets, and the asteroid belts.

Varley's stories happily plunder one another for details of this scenario, lifting characters, technologies, and settings, but they make no pretense to being a "future history" of internal consistency.

The Eight Worlds stories and novels are only consistent with one another when it makes the story better – but when it doesn't, they jettison inter-tale consistency in favor of narrative. For me, the fact that writers could do this came as a jaw-dropping revelation.

Varley annihilated the pretense that an sf writer is some kind of oracle who knows the future – a bit of ghastly fatalism in that it implies that the future is knowable and thus will arrive irrespective of our choices today.

Instead, Varley treats his stories as entertainments and allegories, freed from the "Robert A Timeline" constraints, which allows him to collage his best ideas into new works, a kind of fan-service that is pure delight, freed from the tedious pretense of consistency.

This revelation led directly to my novel Walkaway, which incorporates ideas, props and scenarios from DOWN AND OUT IN THE MAGIC KINGDOM, EASTERN STANDARD TRIBE, and my other novels, without lumbering the story with the necessity to make it fit in with their continuity.

Varley is an unabashed plunderer, particularly of Heinlein, mashing up Heinlein tropes with contemporary ideas, progressive politics, and other delights to make new works that both pick apart and celebrate Heinlein's work.

This was always lurking in his work, but it became very explicit with novels like STEEL BEACH (1992), an absolute ROMP of a book that crosses THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS with the then-ascendant cyberpunk genre conventions (which Varley helped invent) to outstanding effect.

I just re-read STEEL BEACH and found it every bit as delightful as I had in the early 90s, when I hand sold hundreds of copies of it as a bookseller. It's also the direct ancestor of Ian McDonald's MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS-riffing trilogy.

Varley's work embodies the collaborative spirit of sf, as tropes are ruthlessly plundered and reworked without apology. It's a process that's wonderfully described in my mentor Judith Merril's Hugo-winning memoir, "Better to Have Loved":

"Whereas in other literary fields you wouldn’t dare take an idea from another writer and use it, because that would be considered plagiarism, science fiction people loved to build on each other’s stories.

"The business of giving away ideas and promoting other people’s work was a part of the community at large. The Futurians did this to an amazing extent. For example, every Futurian had a pen name that included the family name Conway. A good number of the stories that appeared in science fiction magazines at the time were written by someone-or-other Conway."

In other words, amateurs plagiarize, artists steal.

Think of the way that Varley's symbiotic alien spacesuits were beautfully plundered by Spider and Jeanne Robinson for their own Hugo-winning STARDANCE.

I found so many revelations in Varley's work: just the proliferation of "disneylands" on the Moon was an wonderfully economical bit of storytelling, an entire implied history of a notoriously bullying corporation in tatters after an invasion, all in a single, lower-case "d."

And then there's the RED THUNDER books, wherein Varley took apart and reassmbled Heinlein's "juvies" as parables about the paranoid, post-9/11 America, a country that occupied Iraq, Afghanistan and itself:

I don't think I'd have written LITTLE BROTHER – a book I thought of as an anti-authoritarian riff on HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL – if I hadn't read RED THUNDER.

Varley's work is worth aspiring to: a perfect mix of wildly imaginative and just plain fun. His most recent novel, IRONTOWN BLUES, is an Eight Worlds hard boiled noir novel starring an uplifted dog detective.

Varley runs a shop for signed copies of his books, though shipping is slow ("We are strictly a kitchen-table operation. Your book will be carefully selected from our shelves, lovingly hand-wrapped, and decorated with real US Postage stamps").

If you're looking for a title to order from the shop, may I recommend 2004's "The John Varley Reader: 30 Years of Short Fiction."

(Image: Arthur Jene, CC BY-SA)

This day in history (permalink)

#15yrsago Help Peter Beagle sue the film-house that made “The Last Unicorn”

#5yrsago Deathless: Cat Valente’s beautiful fantasy of Stalinist Russia and the Siege of Leningrad

#10yrsago RIP, Diana Wynne Jones

#5yrsago Saudi embassy hired mafiosi to smuggle Turkish PM Erdoğan’s son out of Italy ahead of money laundering charges

#5yrsago The “American College of Pediatricians” is a hate group with fewer than 200 members

#5yrsago Cop Cabs: The NYPD has at least three fake taxis on NYC’s streets

#1yrago Boris Johnson has coronavirus

#1yrago "Civility" and the Confederate playbook

#1yrago Plutes cash in on stimulus

#1yrago The US is now the epicenter of the pandemic

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Damien Sweet.

Currently writing:

  • My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Friday's progress: 536 words (121016 total).

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." Yesterday's progress: 1083 words (42578 total).

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Free Markets
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla