is a loosely coupled (and not particularly consistent) Science Fiction
series by John Varley
. It consists of several novels and a number of short stories.
The basic premise is that in the not-too-distant future, as humanity is starting to settle other planets in the solar system, some Sufficiently Advanced Aliens
come along and simply banish humans from Earth, without even an attempt at communication, let alone negotiation. Without access to Earth, humanity is forced to get along, as best it can, with the eight settled planets and moons of the system. Cut off from its cultural roots, society quickly grows in new and unexpected ways.
Novels in the series include The Ophiuchi Hotline
, Steel Beach
, and The Golden Globe
. Steel Beach
was nominated for a Hugo Award
in 1993. The 1979 short story, "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank", was made into a Made-For-TV movie
This series contains examples of:
- AI Is A Crap Shoot:
- In Steel Beach "CC", the lunar Central Computer, has grown beyond human comprehension, and it's hurting. Which could be a problem, considering it's literally linked to everything, including the human population themselves through their various implants.
- In The Golden Globe Sparky uses an assassin's severed thumb to hijack his spaceship, only to find out that the ship's AI saw right through his ruse but went along with the hijacking anyway because it thought Sparky would make a more interesting passenger than the assassin.
- All Just a Dream: Invoked in Steel Beach, when the protagonist is kept in an artificially induced dream for therapeutic purposes—something he's not happy about when he figures it out.
- And I Must Scream:
- Anything That Moves: In The Golden Globe, there's a drug that inflicts this. It's banned because male recipients have electrocuted themselves attempting to couple with light sockets. It's administered to a rare straight character so that he'll sleep with his technically male fellow actor playing Juliet. This performance only, Romeo attempts to hump Friar Laurence's leg! It Makes Sense in Context.
- Artificial Meat: The heroine of The Ophiuchi Hotline gets wealthy from developing a "bananameat" tree. Ostensibly the grafting of pork genes onto banana trees, the popularity of the meat's flavor is the result of including human DNA (the inventor's own).
- Attractive Bent-Gender: In Steel Beach, protagonist Hildy Johnson starts out as a fairly standard looking male but, after a high tech sex-change (a common motif in Varley's work), becomes a stunning woman. Unlike most examples of this, with Hildy it's intentional — he/she doesn't care what he looks like as a man but wants to be the most attractive woman she can be (plus the body artist owes her a favor).
- Asexual: A recognized orientation bound to be mentioned any time Varley introduces a character without apparent genitals. For example, Hildy briefly wonders what her apprentice Brenda's lack of genitalia implies before concluding that it's none of her business. Boss Tweed, a character in Ophiuchi Hotline who actually is asexual, retains false genitalia specifically to head off this sort of speculation.
- Asteroid Miners: In The Ophiuchi Hotline, there are Oort Cloud miners in the outermost regions of the solar system, hunting for micro-black holes.
- Batman Can Breathe in Space: People are often fitted with a portable force-field generator which operates automatically when they walk from pressurised to unpressurised areas. The force-fields merge when brought together so that people can embrace and even make love in vacuum. Meanwhile, in the rings of Saturn, the Symbs are humans who live in symbiosis with biological, semi-sentient spacesuits. They spend their entire lives in vacuum, the symbiotes providing them with all the oxygen they need and recycling their waste for nutrition via photosynthesis.
- Bigger Is Better in Bed: Averted/Discussed. After her first session with a new love interest, the heroine of Steel Beach specifically references this trope when she bitches at length about the tendency of first time Female-to-Male gender benders to check off the "HUNG" option even though they'd just been girls themselves and really ought to know better.
- Blue and Orange Morality: As far as can be deciphered the aliens kicked out humanity because they are telepathic and incapable of recognizing non-telepaths as sentient. Since they have since restored the Earth's ecology to a pristine condition they may have considered us some type of infection.
- Body Backup Drive: The technology exists to make a copy of a person's memories, and to grow a clone from a tissue sample. Life insurance now consists of going in for annual (or more often, if you can afford it) backups of your memories, and if you get killed, your insurance company grows a clone, and loads your memories into it. Having more than one of you running around at once is very illegal, however, and any extra clones discovered are subject to summary destruction. This allows at least one unscrupulous character to create slaves with no rights or recourse, since their very existence is a crime.
- But What About the Astronauts?: More-or-less the premise of the whole series, if you substitute "colonists" for "astronauts".
- Cloning Blues: For a while, there is a law that only one person can own a genotype: all copies must be destroyed. So if you discover that you're an illegal clone, your only hope is to kill your progenitor and replace him/her. Cue several plots.
- Conjoined Twins: Briefly mentioned: a passing fad for voluntary conjoinment among jaded thrill-seekers.
- Con Man: Sparky Valentine is not above a little grifting when needs must.
- Conveniently Precise Translation: The Ophiuchi Hotline contains an aversion. The remnants of humanity have been receiving technical knowledge from a mysterious extra-solar source, and finally a message arrives which seems to be demanding payment. We see a "probability weighted" translation. It begins FOR (A PERIOD OF TIME: CONJECTURE: 400 EARTH YEARS?) DATA HAS BEEN SENT. NEW SUBSCRIBERS (22%) ARE GIVEN A (UNTRANSLATABLE) TO ADJUST and ends SEVERE PENALTIES, SEVERE PENALTIES (97%)
- Early Installment Weirdness: some of the early short stories feature more transgressive themes like incest, ten year old emancipated minors, and single-digit ages of consent that were hopefully intended to underscore that it's a Free-Love Future but are notably absent from the novels and later stories.
- Easy Sex Change: Sex changes are so commonplace that anyone who spends their entire life without changing at least once is considered a little weird and population control laws are basically: "one person, one child."
- Everyone Is Bi: three protagonists, three different takes on this:
- Steel Beach You can be any sex you want. You can be any shape you want. You can live as long as you want, barring terminal ennui. You're actually gonna tell me you're not willing to try everything at least once?
- The Golden Globe: You're an actor in a Free-Love Future that demands sex scenes in Shakespeare and even children's educational television. Pickyness is NOT a viable career option.
- The Ophiuchi Hotline: Having a partner who is attentive to your needs is more important than their nominal (or in some cases, purely notational) gender.
- Exotic Equipment:
- In The Ophiuchi Hotline, the heroine dismisses a potential suitor because he'd had his penis radically modified to fit the latest fetish/fad (he protests that it came with an adapter) and another character who'd gone in for much more radical body modifications is credited for a very creative solution to the question of where a crotchless woman would keep her genitals. In both cases Varley (perhaps wisely) left the actual details to the reader's imagination.
- In Steel Beach: Opening line: "'In five years, the penis will be obsolete' said the salesman." This subsequent pitch is mostly ignored by the protagonist, since exotic replacement equipment is so mundane advertisers announce the "sexual millennium" on a regular basis.
- Expendable Clone: The hero of The Golden Globe — an unknowing clone — gets away with killing his own "father" on a technicality due to a now-obsolete anti-cloning law that prohibited two people from sharing identical DNA. Fortunately for him the law didn't actually specify which clone had to be killed.
- Fingore: In The Golden Globe, Sparky slices off the thumb of an assassin who is after him. With a chainsaw. He keeps it in a thermos of dry ice. This might be partly revenge for the fact that the assassin had sliced off the fingers of a violinist friend of his, but Sparky's primary intent is to use it to defeat the biometric lock on the assassin's spaceship.
- Former Child Star: Kenneth Valentine of The Golden Globe is a seriously messed-up example, although, unlike the classic version, he's trying to hide from his past rather than wishing he could relive his glory days. He's actually a first-rate actor, but he avoids taking major roles because he doesn't want people to make the connection between him and "Sparky" (the role that made him famous as a kid) Of course, the fact that he also happens to be wanted for murder might have something to do with it.
- Fossil Revival: Brontosaurs have been brought back, and serve as common food animals on Luna. Hildy, the protagonist of Steel Beach is the child of a brontosaur farmer.
- Free-Love Future: With gender-changes so commonplace, and even Exotic Equipment options available to all, traditional mores are hard-pressed to keep up. Though, of course, some traditionalists do still prefer the old ways. Varley does not shrink from exploring the positive and the negative implications.
- Gender-Blender Name: Much more common now that Easy Sex Change is both available and commonplace, though many just change names when they change sexes.
- Glorified Sperm Donor: Used twice in Steel Beach when Hildy refuses to inform her baby's father that she's pregnant even though her own mother's constant refusal to identify her father causes her considerable angst. After the baby dies her reasoning shifts from a selfish "mine, all mine" to "why ruin his [the father's] day?"
- A woman in the The Golden Globe tells Sparky Valentine that her father was "ten ccs of fluid in a tube". Sparky considers his own abusive upbringing at the hands of Kenneth Valentine Sr. and tells her that's the best kind of father to have.
- Imaginary Friend: In The Golden Globe, protagonist Kenneth "Sparky" Valentine's imaginary friend turns out to be a symptom of a disassociative personality disorder caused by years of suffering at the hands of his abusive father, Kenneth Sr.
- Individuality Is Illegal: In the short story "The Barbie Murders", investigators are hard-pressed to investigate a murder in a colony of "Conformists", all of whom are surgically altered to look exactly the same, including the complete removal of genitalia (thus nicknamed "Barbies") and who all receive news simultaneously, not distinguishing between themselves ("this body") and others. Individualists within the colony are seen as outsiders at best (as with the investigators) and perverts at worst (as with the murder victim, who was a converted Barbie who still engaged in individualist practices).
- Inscrutable Aliens: Those which banished everybody from Earth.
- Inside a Computer System:
- Overdrawn at the Memory Bank (and its infamous film adaptation) has a man whose consciousness is loaded into a computer to keep him alive after his body is misplaced.
- Steel Beach has the protagonist spend several virtual years (and very little actual time) inside a therapeutic computer simulation.
- King Incognito: Sparky Valentine is a metaphorical version, lampshaded by his final role: King Lear.
- Male-to-Female Universal Adaptor:
- Steel Beach has the ULTRA tingle system, which gets around the whole genital compatibility issue entirely by using wireless modems for sex.
- The actor protagonist of The Golden Globe equipped himself with a penis that can be turned inside out for use as a vagina, primarily because it doubles his chances of getting roles.
- Finally, The Ophiuchi Hotline has literal male to female universal adaptors that allow characters who go in for radically modified genitals to "dally" with their more conservative counterparts.
- Men Are Generic, Women Are Special: Hildy invokes this trope to explain why she cares a lot more about her physical appearance when female. There's no indication where she might have acquired this attitude, but as she was born a girl and raised on an isolated Dinosaur farm she probably got it from her very conservative earthborn mother. It may be subconcious loyalty to her "true" gender. Or it may just be Varley's opinion on the subject showing through,
- Mermaid Problem:
- In The Golden Globe a theatrical director in the far future complains about the difficulty of finding actresses willing to give up sex in order to play mermaids; it seems far future labor laws have replaced CGI with Magic Plastic Surgery.
- One character in The Ophiuchi Hotline is a spacer who has used Magic Plastic Surgery to modify her body until she's literally just a cylinder with an arm on each end. Varley's protagonist gives her credit for coming up with a very creative solution for the question of where a crotchless woman would keep her genitals but Varley (perhaps wisely) doesn't specify what that solution was.
- Narcissist: Hildy Johnson's festering Tell Me About My Father frustation is made all the worse by her mother Callie's tendency to treat her as an accessory. It's implied that anyone over 200 has to be at least a little narcicistic to avoid succumbing to Who Wants to Live Forever?. Ironically, though it's Callie who calls Brenda's attention to this problem on a societal level she does not appear to recognize it on a personal level; she certainly makes no effort to change.
- Nightmare Fetishist: An entire society of Nightmare Fetishists, the Charonese, though how much of that is hype isn't entirely clear.
- No Biological Sex: Comes along with the Easy Sex Change; some people prefer to opt out of the game completely, either temporarily or permanently. One character describes it as a "vacation from sexuality."
- No Dead Body Poops: An impressive aversion in Steel Beach: we learn that low gravity + explosive decompression + no space suits/clothing (clothing optional moon colony) + bowel gas = the 'Brown Rocket' effect.
- No Nudity Taboo: More due to obsolescence (sealed environments) than anything else. Most people still wear something as a means of personal expression or badge of office - otherwise how could you tell who's working from who's not? Theiss Titillation Theory plays a hand as well; if everyone is nude, nudity is boring. For example, when Cricket is introduced in Steel Beach she's nude except for a blouse and a newspaper guildsman's fedora, and she mainly wore the blouse because she knew it would catch Hildy's eye better than nudity would.
- Not Allowed to Grow Up: Kenneth "Sparky" Valentine, the narrator of The Golden Globe is an actor who played the same child role for decades.
- Of Corsets Sexy: In Steel Beach, Hildy adopts corsets when she moves into a Victorian-era historical reenactment community (even though period underwear is not required) on the theory that anything worth doing is worth doing right. She freely admits the titillation factor played a significant role in her decision.
- Orion Drive:
- Steel Beach sets several scenes near or within the bulk of the "Robert A. Heinlein," an Orion-style ship which was built and then abandoned when humanity lapsed into apathy for stellar exploration.
- At the end of The Golden Globe, the "Heinleiners" (radical libertarians) finish refitting the Heinlein and head out for the stars.
- Our Nudity Is Different: Hildy points out that even though nudity is entirely practical in Luna's artificial environments most people still wear some clothing, primarily as a means of personal expression. For instance, when Hildy's friend Cricket is introduced wearing only a blouse and a hat. Many professions, guilds and unions have distinctive uniforms with varying degrees of formality—otherwise it's hard to tell who is working and who isn't, as some "professions" (like the Hod Carriers) involve nothing more than wearing the uniform while standing around. At least one cult ("The Barbies") rejects clothing entirely exactly because it is a means of personal expression.
- Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Played with. Getting kicked off of Earth by alien invaders pretty much put the kibosh on most traditional human-centric religions, but people just went on to create a bunch of new religions anyway, including ones that worship the invaders, gluttony, or, in the case of the flacks, fame.
- Planet of Hats: The short story "The Barbie Murders" features a cult of humans nicknamed "The Barbies" who are obsessed with conformity. They have each been modified to look and sound identical, down to the last tiny detail, including the removal of their genitalia. They have no names or personal identities, and each takes responsibility for the actions of all the rest. This makes finding a murderer in their midst rather trying.
- Porn with Plot: Parodied in The Golden Globe: most audiences expect graphic sex scenes in all media, leading to the actor protagonist performing a very... interesting... version of the balcony scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.
- Robinsonade: In Steel Beach the protagonist inexplicably spends an entire chapter in an Robinson Crusoe setting. It turns out to be a set of fictitious memories implanted by the AI overseeing everything as an experimental therapy as it works to develop a response for a disturbing increase in certain psychological disorders e.g. suicidal depression. CC does it to Hildy again later, only this time using a combination visual novel/adventure game scenario intended for children.
- Second Law of Gender Bending: Rendered irrelevant by Easy Sex Change.
- Space Amish: The Golden Globe includes genuine Amish living on the moon, who befriend Sparky at one point. They are just like the real Amish in that they are they are neither ignorant of nor resistant to the modern world surrounding them, they're just very particular about which aspects of that world they choose to embrace.
- Steel Eardrums: In the short story "In the Bowl", one of the main characters laments that since they were going on a trip with well known exploding crystals in the area, they were foolish to forget to pack extra ear drums.
- The Symbiote: Artificially cultured plant-based organisms that are bonded with humans to produce a single organism that has it's own individual animal/plant ecology. They don't breathe or eat, and spend their time in open space, usually touring the rings of Saturn. One named Parameter/Solstice is an important character in The Ophiuchi Hotline.
- Tell Me About My Father: Subverted in Steel Beach as Hildy's mother flatly refuses to even identify her father, let alone tell her anything about him. The resulting animosity causes periodic breaks in their relationship, But that doesn't prevent Hildy from resolving to similarly conceal the father's identity from her own child Mario.
- Terminally Dependent Society: Without access to Earth, society is fragile and very dependent on technology. In Steel Beach, when the Central Computer (CC) goes insane, they realize just how dependent they are. Even the title Steel Beach is a metaphoric reference to the problem humanity faces trying to create and expand a society where they're dependent upon technology for everything right down to the air they breath.
- Third Law of Gender Bending: Despite being a serial Gender Bender herself, Hildy Johnson insists in Steel Beach that there are still "girl things" and "boy things" when it comes to dress and behavior, because otherwise there would be little point in changing gender in the first place. This serves to underscore that Easy Sex Change has become so easy in Hildy's world (you can get a sex change in a beauty shop or a tattoo parlor) that some people are willing to change sex just to facilitate a relationship or even just to suit their clothes.
- Transhuman: The series is filled with transhumanism. Even though human genetic experimentation is technically illegal there's always surgery, symbionts, cybernetics and nanotechnology so it's not unusual for people to modify their bodies (sometimes radically) to suit a specific environment, fad, fetish, or job. While the people who go for the most radical physical modifications tend to be professional spacers (who tend to discard things like legs and feet that are not very useful in zero gravity) most people are so cyberized the lunar central computer admits to tapping the unused portions of their brains for additional processing power. In The Ophiuchi Hotline society has become so fluid that the very concept of humanity is breaking down even as aliens who are even further along that path offer to adopt "human" as their cultural identity since they've lost nearly all semblance of their own.
- Transexual: Common via Easy Sex Change. Or, from the character's perspective uncommon due to Easy Sex Change: the very concept has become obsolete since the changes are complete and the "transition" takes a couple of hours at most.
- Truly Single Parent: Although it's technically illegal, it's a recurring theme:
- In The Ophiuchi Hotline, Lilo is one many times over.
- In The Golden Globe, the protagonist, Sparky Valentine, discovers he's a clone of his father.
- Unreliable Canon: The novels in the series frequently contradict each other when it comes to matters that could be called canon. Varley has admitted that he doesn't like going back to re-read his old works, and doesn't really care about the overall canon. He even prefaced The Golden Globe with a "Declaration of Independence" from Canon. It's not the canon itself he objects to, it's keeping track of (and limiting himself to) all of the picky details required to maintain a consistent timeline for a true "future history".
- Unreliable Narrator: Hildy Johnson and Sparky Valentine, though to different degrees. Sparky because of the disassociative personality disorder stemming from his abusive childhood, and Hildy because she's a jaded and cynical tabloid reporter who isn't always willing to accept the truth about herself.
- We Will Not Have Pockets in the Future: Averted. According to Hildy, pockets are a major reason people still bother to wear clothes.
- Whodunnit to Me?: The short story, "The Phantom of Kansas", opens with the protagonist awakening and discovering that this is the third time she's been restored from backup. The original, and the two previous backups, have all been killed.
- Who Wants to Live Forever?: People may all be potentially immortal (due to really advanced medical technology), but very few of them actually live much beyond 300 years, largely due to the effects of this trope.
- Writing Around Trademarks: The Barbie Murders, and Other Stories was re-released as Picnic on Nearside (another short story in the collection) after Mattel objected to the book title.
- You Do NOT Want To Know: The Golden Globe averts Forbidden Fruit in this regard: to show that you don't want to know how Charonians have sex, you're given a description of their coming-of-age ceremony. For context, Charonians regenerate quickly and worship pain, and the ceremony itself is either Narm or Nausea Fuel, though it's unclear how much of that is truth and how much of it is Charonese propaganda.