Friday, August 4, 2017

FFB: THE BARBIE MURDERS aka PICNIC ON NEARSIDE by John Varley (Berkley 1980)

In 1980, after the publication of his first three somewhat disappointing novels (to most if not necessarily all his fans) and the all but intolerably brilliant first, 1978, collection of his shorter fiction, Berkley, which was publishing his trilogy of novels beginning with Titan, decided to release The Barbie Murders, which appeared to be meant as the B-side collection of his shorter works. The Persistence of Vision (aka In the Hall of the Martian Kings in the UK; the two longest and most widely-hailed stories in the earlier volume thus vied for collection title for, no doubt, Publishers' Reasons), had been seen as kind of the cream of his shorter work published up to 1978; the weakest story in the book was also one of the most popular, "Air Raid," one of two Varley stories in the first issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and the source, after a torturous years-long process, of a not-bad short novel by Varley and a somewhat more disappointing film, script by Varley, starring Daniel Travanti, Cheryl Ladd and Kris Kristofferson, both entitled Millennium. "Air Raid" had been the one of the two in that IASFM issue published under a pseudonym (in longstanding bad magazine-publishing tradition, that would suggest two stories by the same writer in an issue Would Be Wrong), while "Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe" (the better story, I'd say, and perhaps Varley would, too) was published under the John Varley byline. 

So, these were the stories published in this volume, most of them also pretty damned brilliant, and certainly better, at very least on average, than the novels Varley was publishing in those years (as did his occasional editor Damon Knight, Varley showed a remarkable tendency to slough off good sense or believable character development at novel length, despite being so very good at both in even novellas as well as shorter fiction; both would eventually get past that, Varley happily rather sooner in his career than Knight in his): 
    The Barbie Murders John Varley (Berkley, Sep ’80, pb) (1984 Berkley edition retitled Picnic on Nearside)
While these had been the stories gathered in The Persistence of Vision, one of the several volumes published in a new and sadly short-lived program edited by D, R. Bensen, who had been Pyramid Books' primary editor for more than two decades, and who had been rewarded, after Harcourt Brace Jovanovich bought up Pyramid and rebranded it as Jove Books, with the new Quantum imprint, with some serious promotion and editorial budget, the books published by a consortium of James Wade and Dell Books (and Dell's subsidiary hardcover line the Dial Press), duly reprinted in Britain by Sidgwick & Jackson. (Quantum launched with the first and probably least bad of Varley's first five or six disappointing novels, The Ophiuchi Hotline.)
    The Persistence of Vision John Varley (Quantum/Dial, 1978, hc)
    UK editions (Sidgwick & Jackson/Futura 1978) as In the Hall of the Martian Kings.
    • Introduction · Algis Budrys · in
    • The Phantom of Kansas · nv Galaxy Feb 1976
    • Air Raid · ss Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine Spr 1977, as by Herb Boehm
    • Retrograde Summer · nv F&SF Feb 1975
    • The Black Hole Passes · nv F&SF Jun 1975
    • In the Hall of the Martian Kings · na F&SF Feb 1977
    • In the Bowl · nv F&SF Dec 1975
    • Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance · nv Galaxy Jul 1976
    • Overdrawn at the Memory Bank · nv Galaxy May 1976
    • The Persistence of Vision · na F&SF Mar 1978

It's not putting it lightly how mind-blowing Varley's short fiction, up to novella length, was for me as 13yo reader, digging deeply into the new fiction magazines for the first time in 1978, and in my first new issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction finding Varley for the first time with the novella "The Persistence of Vision" and needing to see as much of his fiction as I could gather. He was doing what Heinlein could no longer do, and had been less adept at even at his best (and in establishing a template, or further establishing that of H. G. Wells and other forebears), in providing glimpses of actually lived-in futures, and ones where technological quantum leaps had had concomitant effects on the lives and behavior of the characters, including no little their sexuality. Varley had a very 1970s-era sexual libertinism inherent in much of his work (which also didn't offend me at all at thirteen, relatively alienated and well into puberty) but managed to express it for the most part naturally through a sophisticated take on his characters' lives and interactions, in posited worlds where changing bodies was only mildly more difficult than changing clothes, and (in many of his linked stories) humanity had been displaced from Earth by alien invaders, who came to save the cetaceans, and thus the human diaspora was spread across the other planets and other bodies of the Solar System, giving Varley a lovely assortment of (then up-to-date-detailed) environments on those planets, etc., to explore. Joanna Russ noted that his female characters were unusually good for a male writer, perhaps for all writers (given how there simply was less tradition of good portrayal of women in fiction, not least fantastic fiction, to draw on); Algis Budrys suggested that at his best, Varley was drawing together all the things that science fiction, at least, could do best and uniquely. Even as a new reader of the new work in the field, it felt to me like Varley, while perhaps not the best creator of lapidary prose in the field at the time, was nonetheless otherwise ahead of (nearly if not) everyone else's curve in showing how a future life might be, indeed a quantum jump of his own in the way that, say, Stanley Weinbaum's work had been in the late 1930s in sf, albeit Varley was innovating in a now much richer and vastly more sophisticated tradition. 

And while the stories in the earlier collection averaged a bit more brilliant (and the next collection, Blue Champagne, would also have a slightly better if less startling batting average), the majority here are more than fine, such as "Robinson Crusoe" or "Picnic on Nearside", and the intentionally outrageous "Lollipop and the Tar Baby" (which features among other things a sentient black hole and is one of the most explicitly sex-driven of Varley's stories); all are worthy of standing with his other early short fiction (and most of it has been offered again in Varley's most recent and retrospective collections, The John Varley Reader and Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe and Other Stories). Original title story "The Barbie Murders" was the second account, after introduction in "Bagatelle", of police officer Anna-Louise Bach, whom as Varley has noted lives in a somewhat grittier future than that of most of his human-diaspora stories (I believe Mattel, the doll line's manufacturer, took issue with the book's first title, in part driving the retitling, not that the second title isn't a better one for the collection...wish we could say the same for the new cover). Both Berkley editions were released to coincide with first releases of the latter two novels cited in the blurb between Varley's name and the book title on the cover below.

But I will grant it's better than the Orion/Futura UK paperback cover on the first collection:

Though even that is vastly better than what Futura did with The Barbie Murders in their edition:

For swank, and eyewash, here are the somewhat more dignified and better covers Varley has had on his collections since: 

Though I will grant that none of the covers are absolutely brilliant, and this one particularly seems to me could've used another draft...

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.


Rich Horton said...

Those stories really were brilliant -- as it happens, Varley's first sale (or, really, "tied for first" with the execrable "Scoreboard" in Vertex -- no surprise that Varley has not allowed that one to be reprinted AFAIK), "Picnic on Nearside", was in the very first issue of F&SF I bought. (I can't say that story -- though it is good -- really made me aware of Varley as special, rather it was the 1975 stories ("In the Bowl" and "Retrograde Summer") and perhaps especially "The Phantom of Kansas" in 1976 that sealed the deal for me.)

I confess I found "The Persistence of Vision" disappointing -- too much woo woo mysticism -- even as it was still well done.

I though "Air Raid" was the only story Varley published under a pseudonym?

Mathew Paust said...

The SF bug never got its proboscis under my skin. Way too late, I fear, for catching up.

Jerry House said...

Varley's early stories hit me like a sledgehammer, their impact on me as strong as Tom Reamy's work a few year's earlier.

George said...

Like Jerry House, I was dazzled by John Varley's early short stories. His novels disappointed me.

Todd Mason said...

Rich--Yea, "Air Radi" is (as far as I know) the only story he hasn't published as by John Varley. I'll doublecheck to make sure I don't say otherwise above. I haven't read enough of VERTEX to have come across "Scoreboard," but I now I must.

"The Persistence of Vision" is a fantasy, as was clear to me on first reading, and even from the beginning I didn't see the advantage to being blind and deaf that the story posits, but the nature of the community it describes was certainly fascinatingly alien to me, and in some ways attractive, even if not so much in other ways. And the sexual libertinism, as I mention, between adults and teens seemed a bit less out of the question to me at the time, in that context, than it would've then or certainly now in real life.

Matt--It's less a matter of embracing all sf, so much as finding good sf which does reach with every other kind of fiction, there's bubblegum and trash and art, and some of that art will likely move you...even if some of it might build on other work you don't know. But, say, do you Need to read Robert Coover to read Don DeLillo? (Though it can't hurt.) I'm always ready to put certain Theodore Sturgeon or Damon Knight stories down in front of a reader like yourself.

Jerry--I was in the fortunate position of discovering and deepening my knowledge of the folks who were just coming into the field in various sorts of fiction as well as the Old Hands, in the mid/late '70s. The Tokien and STAR WARS/STAR TREK and early stirrings of the Stephen King explosions (and King after Ira Levin, then William Blatty and the Gothics) made all sorts of fantastic fiction suddenly a hot commercial prospect, and they couldn't throw enough of it out onto the stands fast, too, crime fiction and contemporary/mimetic fiction were booming, and only westerns seemed to be still on the downslope...and so went the fiction magazines I could find, and the books I'd supplement them with. But Jorge Luis Borges and Fritz Leiber and Robert Bloch and Joanna Russ and Phyllis Eisenstein and Joan Aiken could be found, suddenly, by the books-full, along with story by story in anthologies, and this was Very Good News...and these new-to-me folks, such as Terry Carr and John Varley and Kate Wilhelm, along with these folks I'd read a bit of such as Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon and Avram was quite something. People from Jack Ritchie on over to Alix Kates Shulman had something interesting to say...and Muriel Spark and Kit Reed had even more...

Todd Mason said...

Cleared up, I'd say, the vague syntax in the "Air Raid" passage....

Todd Mason said...

George, his later novels, starting with THE GOLDEN GLOBE, seem to me to be less prone to the foolishness that somehow crept in to the early ones. But I'd also suggest I like his short fiction better, and he's now reached the age where he might not be writing too much more.

Rich Horton said...

Reamy actually debuted in the same magazine (F&SF) only a month later (September 1974). (Also in the anthology NOVA 4 at about the same time, and that's not counting a couple of stories in fanzines.)

I'm not a horror liker, in general, but "Twilla" was pretty impressive.

Todd Mason said...

Though Varley's strong impact started coming mostly with, as you note, his 1975 and particularly '76 stories, while Reamy (with the advantage of Big Name Fandom preceding his pro career, and TRUMPET being a very impressive fanzine for some years) was making more obvious waves immediately as he turned pro, as your reaction to "Twilla" least for readers such as Jerry. I had to play catch-up on Reamy later on...

Paul Fraser said...

Varley provided, in my late teens, the first pure sense of wonder hit I'd had since the likes of 'Desertion' when I was ten. For me, the stand out story in that collection was 'Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance,' although all the Eight Worlds stories were pretty good. My feelings about 'Persistence' are the same as Rich's. The subsequent first novel, trilogy and second collection brought varying degrees of disappointment. After those, I pretty much gave up on him, and got an affirmation of that from a friend's 'bloated' comment about 'Blue Steel.'
I thought he was also a good example of those post-New Wave trad SF writers who managed to absorb the freedoms and advances of that movement but also avoided the pitfalls (George Martin, Joe Haldeman, seventies Fred Pohl are other examples).
I didn't think much of the Reamy story in Nova 4, so it took me a while to catch up (I subsequently read 'The Deitweiler Boy' in F&SF and then 'San Deigo Lightfoot Sue.' Losing Reamy was a big loss, as if Ray Bradbury had died in the late forties/early fifties.

Todd Mason said...

And even then Bradbury was bit precious in a way Reamy was not (but, as Varley had Heinlein, Reamy had Bradbury's example to learn from...and that of Bradbury's chief study, Theodore Sturgeon).

Jeffrey Cantwell said...

I came to Varley late, only reading The Persistence of Vision and The Barbie Murders in the last decade. But whatever shine these stories had upon publication still sparkled for me. I devoured them--and later The Ophiuchi Hotline (which I did not realize is held in lesser esteem...?). The sense of place, however diffuse, in these works felt fully immersive at the time.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

First came across his work in the movies (of course) with MILLENNIUM, his feature-length re-writing of AIR RAID. The short story is better, but the central conceit and the nice time / perspective shift in the narrative still works in the film (despite the 80s fashion, silly robots and diabolical hairdos). I have PERSISTENCE on the shelves, not sure about BARBIE actually .. Time to go hunting!

Todd Mason said...

I can't speak directly about OPHIUCHI, Jeff..I was so disappointed by TITAN as it was being serialized in ANALOG (that it was censored didn't help matters) that I heeded warnings that the first novel was a bit of a disappointment as well, compared to the brilliant short fiction. But the consensus at the time was that Varley's first novel was not up to his best work...and TITAN Really wasn't.

Sergio--I'd have to agree, "Air Raid" is better than novel or film MILLENNIUM...and while both the latter are pleasant enough, neither is Varley at his finest, either...and neither, for me, is "Air Raid"...though that it's a clever idea with some pathos and not too many challenging notions about society nor sexuality I think helped make it a very popular Varley story, with both fans and Hollywood, compared to most of his work. And as pleasant/not superb as the film is, it is vastly Vastly better than the misbegotten AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE adaptation of "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank"...the only PBS programming to be featured on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 and deservedly so, and quite a comedown for its producers after their very good adaptations of Ursula Le Guin (THE LATHE OF HEAVEN) and Kurt Vonnegut (OF TIME AND TIMBUKTU), both also for PBS.

Todd Mason said...

And given how I haven't yet tried OPHIUCHI (and should) after my severe disappointment by the serialized form of TITAN, and flipping through the sequels, I've edited the review above to make it more accurate.