Picnic On Nearside / John Varley

This review appeared on my previous blog, Rat's Reading.

Friends have been recommending for years that I read John Varley. When the Arizona Cowgirl moved to London a few months back, I picked up her copies of several John Varley books, including this one. And now I can make my Varley-fan friends proud.

Picnic on Nearside

Picnic On Nearside is a collection of short stories published in the late 1970s in the various and sundry science fiction magazines of the time. From what I can tell so far, most of them are set in the same future. Humans escape from Earth and found colonies on the moon and later around the solar system. At some point, an alien species that I think no one has ever seen invades and conquers Earth, but not the rest of the solar system. And in fact, seems to have made no attempt to do so. I may be getting some of the history wrong. Folks who have read his novels first will probably have a better idea of the time line than I do. That’s a risk one takes when reading short stories. They aren’t long enough to impart a huge amount of back story.

Bagatelle
This guy is a cyborg gone wrong story. A vacationing bomb expert is asked by the police in the lunar city Dresden to assist when a talking nuclear bomb announces it will go off in approximately three hours.
The Funhouse Effect
The ultimate space ship and the ultimate thrill ride would be to snag a comet, hollow it out, and then let people ride in it as it approaches the sun and back around. The comet in this story is nearing the end of it’s useful life, and the folks on the last trip find that to save money the proprietor has stripped the ship of all equipment, including safety equipment. A harrowing ride follows, including several terrorist groups taking over the ship at various points. The name of the story comes from the space suits worn by the passengers. They are force fields a few millimeters around the body which protect the wearer from vacuum and all sorts of other bad effects. They also distort vision.
The Barbie Murders
Now this was a fun story. Originally the collection was named after the story, instead of the Picnic On Nearside story. I suspect Mattel had a hand in Berkley renaming later printings with a different title. Perhaps I’ll even get a letter from them. Anyway, the premise here is a religious sect that abhors uniqueness. They’ve transformed themselves into sexless copies of each other. Only one of them is murdered, in front of cameras no less. The outside police are called in, but the video is no use. Each person, or unit, is exactly the same. And they all consider themselves the same as well, so many of them try to confess to the crime, despite not being the actual unit that murdered the other. The detective in the case goes undercover with some severe plastic surgery to discover the secret barbie killer.
Equinoctial
I didn’t really get into this story, though it is inventive. Parameter has lived a long time and done everything worth doing in the solar system. Rather than die, she signs up as a Conser. Consers are a group of people who roam the rings of Saturn solitary like. No space shit. No space suit. They just bounce from rock to rock contemplating life and art. The means they use is a symbiotic lifeform that protect them from the vacuum of space and other dangers. Basically, it’s a huge pile of goo that envelopes every surface of the wearer, internal and external. It’s alive, and mind-melds with the wearer as well, providing all sensory input to the person. Parameter has children, but a rival group (the Engineers) steals her children and her symbiont, then leaves her to be found by her own group. The adjustment to a new symbiont is not smooth, but afterward she sets off on a mission to recover the children and exact revenge on the Engineers.
Manikins
This story is about a visit to an insane asylum. A woman imprisoned there has decided that men are actually women who have been infected by a parasite. It’s an old joke taken to it’s logical extreme. Well, except the woman isn’t correct, and she’s gotten her delusions set up so that she can’t be convinced otherwise. Or something like that.
Beatnik Bayou
This story got really creepy for me. The world now has humans able to modify their bodies at will. Well, we saw a bit of that in The Barbie Murders. Now we’re introduced to sex changes and people regressing their bodies to younger ages. It’s mostly the story of Argus and his teacher Cathay. Teachers are elevated in status well above what they are now. Only their job is much different. Substitute parents really. Except it gets creepy. Puberty is accelerated to happen at age 7 or so. And the teachers are lovers with their students. Seems like people have sex about as easily as we shake hands. Anyway, the teacher Cathay and his group commit a crime and the feedback from that threatens the relationship. Some interesting ideas on a benevolent dictatorship, but really, my mind kept going back to that sex with children thing. Ewwww. I suppose in the constructed reality of this universe it’s acceptable. But still… ewwww.
Good-bye, Robinson Crusoe
Deep in the bowels of Pluto, a Disneyland (basically a zoo other other recreated habitat) is being constructed that is the South Pacific. Tropical islands and coral reefs. Piri is a regressed kid. He’s actually 100+ years old, but had his body returned to young child age and had most of his memories buried. In other words, he’s experiencing a second childhood purposefully. The ultimate mid-life crisis I guess. Of course, there’s an older woman who initiates him into sex again. Tragedy threatens to extract him from this second childhood sooner than expected and return him to his previous life as an economist. I’m starting to sense a preoccupation with sex.
Lollipop and the Tar Baby
Zoe is a black hole hunter. She seeks out pin-sized black holes, which she captures to be used as energy sources on Pluto. Of course they are hard to find and the search can take years if successful. Like prospecting for gold. If you find one you are rich. On this trip she clones herself and raises the kid as Xanthia. Then they find a black hole but it speaks to Xanthia, telling her all sorts of things that may or may not be true about Zoe. Who does Xanthia trust, the black hole or Zoe? Also, more sex obsession.
Picnic On Nearside
After an argument with his mother Carnival, Fox and his best friend Halo (newly switched over to being a female) decide to get away from mom for a while by heading to the moon’s nearside. Nearside is abandoned since Earth was conquered. The moon’s residents don’t want to be reminded of their former home world, or something like that. Only it’s not completely abandoned. Lester still lives there and surprises Fox and Halo. The two of them then must come to grips with the archaic beliefs that Lester holds (i.e., the social mores of today). And again, more incest and pedophilia and well, ewww.

I have to say Varley is an inventive writer. And he does an interesting thing in that with each story he takes some technology possibility and then explores how that would affect relationships. Every single story is really about relationships, not the technology. But he’s constructed a universe where some things that are just repugnant to me are acceptable. I kept thinking about how Heinlein in his later years got sex obsessed. As if our current problems are an extension of some problem we have with sex and that if we were all just more free with our sexuality we’d be hella better off.

Also, I noticed one other thing about Varley’s future. Despite from pretty big problems like Earth being conquered, his solar system is essentially a Utopian one. A lot of problems that humans encounter now are solved. People get along for the most part, except the misfits and they have a place as well. A lot of science fiction is very centered on dystopias, so this is a nice change. Still, I have to close with one last ewwwww.

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