Okay, let's play a game that writers have been at since forever, centuries before Hugo Gernsback started churning out "scientifiction" and imaginary perfect human environments proliferated in the popular culture. What would the world be like if you could solve humanity's more obvious problems: What if you could defeat death, remove hunger, take away the basis of racial and sexual inequality, and the worst of economic want? What would you have to change to do it, and what would the world be like?
What separates the good from the great at this game (cutting some slack, perhaps, to the earliest utopian authors) is a certain depth of scale, one that maintains a real fidelity to the human spirit. The absence of this can be particularly frustrating, when the author is trying to prove some philosophical point or other that requires characters to forget to be corrupt and foolish (or maybe forget to be wise and generous) when under the influence of some airy Ism or other. Fiction based heavily on the setting can more mundanely fail to imagine its environment very thoroughly, where no conversation fails to allude to the warp core, star drive, or some damn thing. Better authors will employ various tricks to evade these shoddy universalisms, of course, and we've been in the business of imagining idealized places for a while, and some authors these days are quite good indeed. But how perfect an environment could we devious apes really devise?
And that's what I like about John Varley, or at least what I like about his "eight worlds" stories. It's got all the science fiction settings you've seen before--it's a colony on the moon (and a few other bodies), medical science is nearly perfected and computer science is through the roof, cheap energy has been figured out--but I want to convince you it's better. The difference between Steel Beach and a hundred other pieces of space-colony wankery you could name, is just how well thought out it is. Or maybe how strange it's not. This world is built to the level of complexity that a humanity, with all its endless banality, requires (and provides some avenues for new deviations just for fun). Things happen (or fail to happen) for economic or bureaucratic reasons, not based on some eggheads working against the clock, or some pilots aiming their proton torpedos just right. People are ruled by the bread and by the circus and mostly live for fostering their shallow individual desires and idiosyncracies. The serious trappings of life are treated with some appropriate cynicism by those who bother to pay attention. Our hero (or heroine--medical body alteration of all kinds is feasible, and transsexuality is simple, complete, and relatively routine), Hildy* is a reporter, well versed in the differences between what people consume and what matters. She (let's go with "she," accurate for about 2/3 of the book) is a character who loves life, but who also observes life, and after a long run, that dichotomy has been dragging her down from cynicism into real depression.**
There are kludges in this world of course, and the big one is that shit works, but by and large, the technology (at least at the beginning of the novel), while extrapolated to near-perfection, is nothing we wouldn't recognize today. To keep track of the mind-boggling details of it all, a computing system was implemented and has since evolved to the level of ubiquity and benevolent control that a whole society perching on the cusp of the airless void would need to actually function. The central computer is often a character in these stories, and generally a good one, which (since its archicture, purpose, and learning modes were originally engineered by humans) succeeds in being human-like in its thought and manner, while still being computer-like in it's thoroughness, precision, and scope. He's both more complicated and more capable than your typical emotionless robot, convincingly so.
I really enjoyed Hildy's narrative style (and if it's very similar to Sparky Valentine's in the sequel, The Golden Globe, it's entertaining enough to forgive). It's full of wit, exagerration and what seems like an unintentional honesty, the voice of the loveable wiseass. Her observations appear to belie technical and philosophical grounding on the author's part too--unreliable narrators can be used to imply a lot more than they show--and Varley gets tagged as a "hard" science fiction writer sometimes, but what I find much more important, is that the perspective is less about providing the answers than it is naturally rich in observation, and in Hildy's case, observational humor.
And when you get to the thematic meat of the book, the light tone helps. There's a lot going on in the novel (and this is already a long review), but the recurring thing is that Hildy has gone down past jaded. There have been suicide attempts, one obvious complication of a long, safe life. When everything is solved, what do you live for? The idea that we might need risk is thrown around, or some sense of living life with consequences maybe, but the undiscussed truth about Lunar society is that it's a fragile bulwark against an environment perfectly inimical to life, maintained by something complicated enough to go wrong. Which is damned depressing in a different sense. And what happens if the enormous mind running everything starts sizing up the hose against the exhaust pipe as well?
I don't know if this situation can have any satisfying resolution. Varley gives us some good closure at least, appropriate to his imagined setting. [Note: spoilers follow--you may not want to me to kill 450 pages of buildup here.] Hildy comes off (and is) a bit selfish in her fickle will to live, but she makes it through. She learns loss from several angles, and redisovers the preciousness of her own life. The central computer, however doesn't fare as well. It's explicit in some sections, but Varley runs some rather clever parallels with the computer's mood and Hildy's. The computer ("he") is faced with an intimate knowledge of, and, since the population is in no small sense himself, love for humanity, even with all its nasty streaks, much as Hildy goes on about it below. That love is bumping up against his more analytical sense of justice (which so far as the locals is his application of the law, and in the reach of the CC's many governing arms) and duty (which is to keep the species, and himself, alive for the long haul), and he reacts badly to these conflicts. His growing suicidal urge results in negative attention (observed by some, including Hildy), and by injuring himself. And he goes through with the suicide, or lobotomizes himself anyway (at least in a monster-movie fashion***), letting the autonomous functions continue. Ex-Deus Machina as it were, and damn if there wasn't some real pathos in those moments. That broken symmetry of fate betwen the two characters is one literary twist, but there's more: for the computer, death really was the solution, it was a sacrifice for the species, no matter how his mind felt about it all. The absence of his gentle authority gives humans some sense of the survival challenge they're really living, and the collective spark they need to realize it matters. And it may also doom them all.
*Something of a scholar, the character Hildy Johnson named herself from the movie His Girl Friday, which was an ancient movie by then. Looking this up, I was pleased to learn that the character in the movie had undergone a sex change as well, from a man in the original play. Clever reference.
**A quote I particularly enjoyed, in its context, and a little long for up there. I hope the author doesn't mind me excerpting a couple paragraphs:
"And that's the thing really, I can't imagine [killing myself]. You know me; I get depresed. I have been since I was ...oh, forty or fifty. Callie says I was a moody child. I was probably a discontented fetus, lord love us, kicking out at every little thing. I complain. I'm unhappy with the lack of purpose of human life, or with the fact that so far I'le been unable to discover a purpose. I envy the Christians, the Bahais, the Zens and Zoroastirans and Astrologers and Flackites because they have answers they believe in. even if they're the wrong answers, it must be comforting to believe in them. […] I'm generally pissed off at the entirely sorry existential state of affairs of the universe, the human condition, rampant injustice, and unpunished crimes and unrewarded goodness, and the way my mouth feels when I get up in the morning before I brush my teeth. […]"
"[But] by and large, I find life sweet. […] I keep living for the same reasons I think so many of us do. I'm curious about what happens next. What will tomorrow hold? Even if it's much like yesterday, it's still worth finding out. My pleasures may not be as many or as joyous as I'd wish them to be in a perfect world, but I accept that, and it makes the times I do feel happy all the more treasured. Again, just to make sure you understand me ...I like life. Not all the time and not completely, but enough to want to live it. And there's a third reason too. I'm afraid to die. I don't want to die. I suspect that nothing comes after life, and that's too foreign a concept for me to accept. I don't want to experience it. I don't want to go away, to cease. I'm important to me. Who would there be to make unkind, snide comments to myself about everything in life if I wasn't around to tackle the job? Who would appreciate my internal jokes?"
***His complete loss is unlikely. And he shows up in later version of this universe (which has shitty continuity by the author's own admission. Some of the computer's sins were unethical--in his own eyes--experiments to accurately transcribe memories of a conscious being.