May the Holy Flow Unite Us
February 9, 2010 7:26 AM   Subscribe

Reading the books again recently, I've been struck how progressive they are in terms of sexual politics. More so than most books and nearly all movies (esp genre) today. This series doesn't just pass the Bechdel Test they leave it completely in the dust.

(Also, I wanted my title to be a Gaean saying but I couldn't think of any. The Coven will have to do.)
posted by DU at 7:26 AM on February 9, 2010

Never heard of these. On my "to read" list now, though. Thanks!
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:08 AM on February 9, 2010

Very near the top of my list of best SF ever.
posted by localroger at 8:40 AM on February 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

Varley++ Even the new stuff which reads like a screenplay.
posted by mikelieman at 9:36 AM on February 9, 2010

Steel Beach and Golden Globe are among my top favorites. Red Thunder or whatever that really latest thing was called was....not good.
posted by DU at 9:43 AM on February 9, 2010

It's a tribute to his writing that people take on these kind of amateur projects.

Varley's possibly my favorite science fiction writer of the modern era, and it's because he creates such gorgeously messy, complex, and above all, real, characters, settings, and scenarios, where there's squalor and chaos and non-CGI filth in the corners. The Gaia books are brilliant in the way one can read them, scratch one's head a bit, then go back, and back, and back, finding new things every single time. They're metafiction in the best, and least hipster-ironic way, with all sorts of cultural in-jokes (Gaia as giant Marilyn) layered with relationships that just feel the way actual relationships feel. Even when the stories are at their most bleak and dark, they stay earnest, and don't give in to cynical detachment.

I just finished a re-read not too long ago, and it left me with that feeling you get when you read rich, detailed literature--the memory of the story feels like memory, not just the recollection of something you read, saw, or otherwise consumed as a product. It's funny, because the first time I read through the series, I didn't much care for the characters, and found it all confusing and complicated, and yet I put the books down and kept thinking about them until I picked them up and read them again. That, to me, is a sign of good writing, when you're not fully convinced at first, and yet, you're still drawn back to the work.

They're lushly-imagined, and essentially hard science without the clinical stories (Asimov) or the flat characterization (Stephen Baxter, alas) that typify the form. There's a real grasp of the value of mythos there without descending into fantasy and the supernatural. There's just so much material there, I half-wish he'd write a fourth book, but it's really not necessary.

Now I just wish he'd write another Eight Worlds book in this decade, dang it.
posted by sonascope at 9:52 AM on February 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Not just good writing following, without being lead by, hard science. But on re-reading I also finally noticed how far ahead he was on biotechnology. He was writing about genetically engineered ecosystems and DIY DNA in the 70s when other people were still hung up on computers.

(That said, he's also the author of Press Enter. Ugh.)
posted by DU at 10:00 AM on February 9, 2010

They are in their own way magnificent and far ahead of their time.

But when I first read them in the late 90s/early 00s, I found that I sometimes had to remind myself when they were written to get over some of the hippy-dippier (hippier-dippier?) elements.

Red Thunder or whatever that really latest thing was called was....not good.

Red Thunder was okay as a Heinlein pastiche; it was at least fun. Red Lightning and Rolling Thunder... less so.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:39 AM on February 9, 2010

Cool thanks. I seem to remember the illustrations from the "art collected" link being included in the paperbacks.

Steel Beach is my favorite of his novels. And Equinoctical (sp?) is my favorite of his short stories.
posted by ganatronic at 10:41 AM on February 9, 2010

I sometimes had to remind myself when they were written to get over some of the hippy-dippier (hippier-dippier?) elements.

Actually, one of the things I liked about them was that they weren't hippy-dippy (compared with most of the SF from the 60s, which is riddled with it). What elements are you thinking of?
posted by DU at 12:08 PM on February 9, 2010

One thing that bugged me when I read Steel Beach is that he broke continuity in quite a few places with The Ophiuchi Hotline and his other older Eight Worlds stories. Somewhere he wrote that he just didn't feel like re-reading all his old stuff, which is a shame because it made Steel Beach and Golden Globe a bit jarring. Good stories, but set in an alternate reality where Heinlenist Randites had to take the place of the missing Hotline.

And as for the Thunder & Lightning trilogy ... being from southern Louisiana myself, I appreciate that he is trying to depict a way of life that is disappearing fast as it is assimilated by generic suburban popular culture, I can't shake the feeling that he is trying too hard. I just can't relate to Jubal as a character I should have feelings for. His talent isn't credible given his depicted background and he's just a human MacGuffin. He should go back to future worldbuilding.
posted by localroger at 12:57 PM on February 9, 2010

I read the Gaean trilogy for the first time a few years ago, and think I'd've liked them better if I'd read them in their time. The lesbian relationship seemed to me to be presented with a "Look! How Outré!" tone that made it feel dated.
posted by Zed at 1:29 PM on February 9, 2010

And Equinoctical (sp?) is my favorite of his short stories.

"Equinoctial." And mine, too! Well, that and "The Persistence of Vision."
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:51 PM on February 9, 2010

Fantastic. I love the Gaean Trilogy, though IIRC the second book, Wizard, is the weakest of the three. These would make fantastic summer popcorn movies...if only James Cameron had put all of his energy from making Avatar into making Titan instead. The 3D worldmaking possibilities with that story are endless. And mindblowing.

Varley's older novels I read recently, and they stand up really well today--I agree that Varley was ahead of his time. Steel Beach and The Golden Globe are both extremely well-done, but rather than continuing with that world (did Varley continue after GG and I just missed it?), he gives us the retro Red Thunder, which was underwhelming to say the least. And I made the mistake of picking up Mammoth; Varley could've just as well named that one "McGuffin."
posted by zardoz at 4:17 PM on February 9, 2010

What elements are you thinking of?

There was a fair bit of "Look, it's the future, man! Everybody isn't so hung up about sex!"

I like a nice sex scene as much as the next hominid, but, following Zed, it tended to have a tone of "Look! How outre! How FUTURE!" That reminded me of the Eternals' compound in Zardoz.

And of course the Titanides sound like they're straight from a disco.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:59 PM on February 9, 2010

As I'm re-reading it, there's actually been less sex (and less sexier sex) than I remember. But then Demon was also the most outrageous of the three, so maybe all the worst bits are packed into there.
posted by DU at 6:05 PM on February 9, 2010

I feel obligated to post here, although I am tipsy and have nothing more substantive to say than the following: when I was a 15-year-old girl, I felt as though John Varley were the only person alive who thought women were capable of captaining a Deep Space Vessel. In contrast to the other SF that was popular at the time (e.g. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, which asserts that every woman feels her most powerful when dancing naked before a male audience) this was a message both reassuring and radical. Cirocco Jones forever!
posted by cirocco at 9:29 PM on February 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Having expressed a lukewarm opinion of the Gaea trilogy, let me make clear that Varley is an excellent and important writer. I've read all his novels but for Millennium and the latest one, all his short fiction save whatever might be in the The John Varley Reader that wasn't collected in The Barbie Murders or The Persistence of Vision or Blue Champagne; I recently pressed The Persistence of Vision on my wife, and was delighted by the joy she took in "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank."

If you like smart, well-written science fiction stories and you haven't read Varley, run, do not walk, to the nearest copy of The John Varley Reader.
posted by Zed at 9:32 AM on February 10, 2010

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