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Steel Beach, John Varley

This has one of the most audacious beginning lines–an opening worthy of Harlan Ellison, famous for his eyeball-kicking first lines. “The penis will be obsolete within 5 years.” What a great line. Unfortunately, Steel Beach is downhill from there. It’s a slow downhill slope, and I kept expecting for the novel to start moving upward as I was reading through it, but a downer it is.

Somebody on rec.arts.sf.written had heard that this was a Heinlein pastiche, but couldn’t reconcile that with their experience of Heinlein, because, they said, “Steel Beach was boring, filled with long monologues on immortality.” Ha, I say. Name me a better description of Time Enough for Love, I dare you. In fact, if we compareĀ Steel Beach with later Heinlein, Steel Beach really shines. There’s enough thought and adventure here for any Heinlein fan who can stomach all the extraneous words. And, better yet, there’s at least an ending here that is consistent with what went before. The conclusion is long and anti-climactic, but at least it is there, which is more than can be said about The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

Maybe I’m being rough on Varley. This novel came out against some stiff competition, including Connie Willis’ wonderful Doomsday Book and Michael Bishop’s satiric view on art in Count Geiger’s Blues. Maybe–probably–I expected more after a ten-year hiatus. I should remind myself that Varley spent a large part of those ten years toiling in Hollywood, not necessarily conditions conducive to improving or even maintaining one’s artistic merit. Maybe I should be thankful that Steel Beach isn’t any worse than it is. And, if Varley’s learned his lesson, maybe there won’t be a ten-year gap before the next.

[Finished 26 June 1993]


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