Saturday, August 09, 2008

Review: Steel Beach

Reporter Hildy Johnson has a problem: He keeps trying to kill himself. Each time he does, so, however, he is rescued by Luna City's central computer, in complete violation of his civil rights.

When I first read this book in 1994, I thought it was a great novel --- it covered all the interesting parts of science fiction --- a world in which humans had been evicted from the planet by an alien species to save the whales, a world in which humans change gender just as easily as they can change clothes, and a world where the central computer (CC) is so integral to humanity's day to day life that it was impossible to do without it.

Unfortunately, this is one of those books that don't seem to hold up to repeated reading. The libertarian creed that seems to be continuously tossed at you is really annoying, and the much of the plot is pointless --- with human life being effectively immortal, Varley seems to think we would spend our time gossiping about celebrities, getting drunk, or engage in historic re-enactments. (OK, perhaps as a D&D player I shouldn't laugh at the latter)

The plot is rambling, and the narrator is narcissistic and shallow. The world is nicely realized at first glance, but on second read through one realizes that the technology is never described, is highly implausible, and the null-suit, for instance is definitely a deus ex machina, an instance where the writer basically wrote himself into a corner and set it all up so his heroine can survive long enough to tell the story.

All the while reading this story, I tried to remember what about it that I loved so much. I think the big one is when the narrator changes gender as casually as he changed a wardrobe. It's an interesting point of divergence from other science fiction, and it was great to see Varley put subtle changes into the character's narrative to the point where you forget that the character used to be male and start thinking of her as she. I'm afraid, however, that just one writing trick does not make an entire novel worthy.

I didn't feel like I wasted time reading this book, so it comes recommended. I'm just disappointed because I expected to come back to this book enthusiastic and raving about it but ended up not liking it as much as I remembered.
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