Monday, February 27, 2012

Review: The Ophiuchi Hotline, by John Varley

The Ophiuchi Hotline is one of John Varley's "Eight Worlds" novels, which share a common setting in which humanity has been exiled from earth to populate (gradually, and with difficulty) the moon and surrounding planets. The novels and shorts tend to focus on related themes: the meaning of life when it is indefinite; the meaning of sexuality when the body becomes easily reconfigurable; psychological exploration when boundaries of brain and body are expanded; of species survival in a hostile world; of the relationship between culture and the individual. Varley consistently does a difficult thing very well: creating social thought experiments in a society that is convincingly complex, with only the necessary minimum of sf kludges, and comprised of people who act like people, and he does it with interest and humor, with a real joy in the details, pointing out weird but sympathetic variations on human behavior. He's a bit less good at creating a setting which is consistent among the various stories, and even though the backstory and themes are very similar, The Ophiuchi Hotline has some big issues of chronology and emphasis with Steel Beach and the other books he wrote in the nineties to make the meaning very different, but maybe given the long intermission he took in writing, we can consider the later ones sort of a reprise.

It's a few centuries after human technology (and terrestrial humanity, very nearly, as a consequence) has been eradicated from the home planet. The marginal Lunar settlement was able to survive for awhile, but things only really started moving forward for the species when they were able to intercept and decode a broadcast, apparently from a good 70 light years out, beaming out endless technical information to get the hairless apes up to speed. This novel, quite unlike the others (in fact, I think the hotline isn't a feature of any of the other stories at all), puts a focus on the various extrasolar denizens of the universe, a brief light on what they're like, and what they want. The invaders, never observed but in this one, are cetacean-like species, incomprehensible consciousnesses that perceive the universe in some fundamentally different ways, endemic to gas-giant planets (including Jupiter), and the motive for wiping out people was sympathy for their ocean-dwelling cousins. The broadcasters of the hotline are different kinds of beings, and the mechanics of the plot are driven by a sudden change in the message: after 400 years of free information that got the last shreds of humanity to thrive across the solar system, they are now presenting us with the bill. I won't spoil the resolution very much, except to say that it kind of maps an ecology of life and culture in the broader universe, but not in a very resolute way, and it's not as satisfying as in the usual Eight Worlds story, where the invaders are mostly considered a fait accompli, and humanity is left to be its own worst enemy.

The plot itself is plenty people-centric. We're introduced to convicted felon Lilo, a scientific pioneer whose research has run afoul of the few hard and fast rules of the Eight Worlds society. The science of cloning and memory recording is a serviceable way to extend life of the individual, but the society has strict population rules, and even when everything goes, where outward morphology and internal plumbing hardly matters anymore, people remain squeamish about the philosophical consequences of duplicating yourself, and of losing whatever genetic heritage makes us uniquely human. Normally, death of the body gets you reset at an earlier point, from whenever you were last recorded, more or less like a video game death. For her crimes, however, Lilo faces a grim sentence, execution of her body and erasure of the record of her mind, and the opening of the book, presents the first of her desperate evasions of fate. The first dodge is sacrificing an illegal (fully sentient, fully Lilo) clone in her place, and it starts the exploration of lives bifurcated, survived, and lost. Outside the law now, she's conscripted to join a team of similarly shanghaied individuals to work on (it turns out) the mystery of the changed message from mankind's benefactors. The trip's a compelling one, and it presents plenty of details to explore a strange, but familiar world.

For someone who's presented with a strong sense of individuality and will to live, there must end up six or seven Lilos by the end, each, convincingly a little bit different in character (or differently influenced by her surroundings). It's a little bit cruel of the author to do this to her, and it makes for a disjointed reading experience as well, making it hard to connect to the character or the story, especially as she changes subtly. An intentional irony, and Varley emphasizes it further here and there by jumping the style: sometimes a point of view is presented as a journal entry, and occasionally as a deposition (but these don't distinguish a different Lilo, as is only very clear near the end). Some Lilos meet the respective interfering cultures, and the kaleidoscope of her character is also meant, in part, to tie in to the unexplainable way that Varley tells us the invaders experience time. For the confusing style, and for the more outward-looking (and, strangely enough, consequently weaker) emphasis, and for the unsatisfying resolution, I rate The Ophiuchi Hotline lower than most of the stories I've read in this setting, but it's still a thought-provoking read.


Michael said...

Enjoyable as always. Thanks. I have a hard time getting into the intercepted tech from aliens genre, especially after watching Contact. Such a great premise, but the payoff never meets the potential. We learn how to travel through wormholes, but they take us to a beach that looks just like on we can better understand. Even 2001 left me wanting. (ck last last sentence for typo, and fiat accompli? Even if a typo, I like it)

Keifus said...

Based on how I've read the books and stories (randomly), I don't mind that this guy is loose with the chronology, but here, teh focus was a lot different. I'd swear that in the other books, he has humanity surviving, luckily, in the vacuum thanks to computer technology that works better than politics. In this one, the solution has come from outside. I think it ends up making it less of a book.

But let's note that in either case, the species has gone on in spite of itself, as it almost would have to. I think this guy's a clever writer in that he likes to remove the limitations on the human experience, without more than the necessary skiffy bullshit, only to find that we're still our own worst enemy. Also, he's pretty entertaining.

I'd go with Steel Beach or The Golden Globe, were I recommending.

Also, it was a typo. Will fix just as soon as I get around to it.