Irontown Blues, John Varley (Ace 978-1-101989-37-1, $16.99, 304pp, tp) August 2018.
John Varley’s Eight Worlds sequence of stories and novels – not really a series, since it’s less a consistent future history than a shared conceit among several stories and novels – dates back to the beginning of his career in the 1970s, when he seemed like the hottest new voice in SF since the arrival of Delany, Disch, Le Guin, and Zelazny more than a decade earlier. He probably was, but for all his innovation in matters ranging from gender fluidity to digital backups as a hedge against death, he was also an unabashed heir of the Heinlein tradition – not to mention even earlier traditions ranging from Chinatown to Raymond Chandler all the way back to Hecht and MacArthur (the reporter protagonist of 1993’s Steel Beach was named Hildy Johnson, after the reporter from The Front Page). All these influences are fully in evidence in Irontown Blues, which not only features Hildy Johnson and an offstage character known as Valentine Michael Smith, but Anna Louise Bach from earlier stories like “The Barbie Murders”, a dog named Sherlock, and a private eye named Chris Bach (Anna Louise’s son). Bach has turned his entire life into a cosplay of Philip Marlowe, complete with trench coat, fedora, and seedy office with a neon light blinking through the window – even though the window is a video display, and Bach is living in a vast Moon colony some centuries after aliens have evicted humanity from Earth, leading to a Solar System diaspora that gives the Eight Worlds stories their name.
Unlikely as it may seem, Bach gets a client apparently as committed to “retro-noir” as he is, with the unconvincing name of Mary Smith. She wants him to track down the man who deliberately infected her with a designer disease, “para-leprosy.” His investigation leads him to a seedy underground district called Irontown, and, not surprisingly, to the discovery that Mary Smith is not who she pretends to be, nor are her motives what she claimed. It also leads him to visit his mother, a former police chief who now runs a dinosaur ranch (apart from Irontown, Luna is an elaborately post-scarcity economy, and dinosaurs serve not only as tourist attractions, but as pets and even food). His mom had been responsible, years earlier, for a paramilitary raid designed to clean up Irontown of its various squatters and undesirables, which quickly went south and became known as the Big Glitch. Bach’s own involvement in the raid led to his being almost fatally injured, before he was rescued by a ten-year-old girl named Gretel. That infamous raid, which became the subject of a bestseller by Hildy Johnson, appears to be centrally involved in the mystery Bach now faces, and by the end of the novel, the stakes are far higher than he (or we) might have suspected.
But as entertaining as Bach’s hardboiled adventures are, properly spiraling outward from an apparently straightforward investigation to a broader web of conspiracies (the movie Chinatown is invoked), there are two real stars of Irontown Blues. One is the elaborately imagined society of Luna, with its disneylands, vast caverns, dinosaurs, and replica neighborhoods; Bach himself lives in an area called Noirtown, where each block recreates a different decade of 20th century Earth culture. The other is the Cybernetically Enhanced Canine Sherlock, who, in a rather bold tour de force of nonhuman storytelling, narrates his own chapters, which in turn are translated by a specialist named Penelope Cornflower, whose asides about the difficulties of representing canine perception are oddly charming, and wildly at odds with the overall noir tone of the novel. Writers from Olaf Stapledon to Virginia Woolf have had a go at portraying canine viewpoints, usually as a means of social commentary, but Varley brings his classic hard-SF skills to bear on the task, with the result that Sherlock is a far more fascinating character than the rather feckless Bach, and even a bit more interesting than the tough and competent girl Gretel, perhaps the most Heinleinian of his characters here. Despite its modest beginnings and various narrative byways (Sherlock in particular is easily distracted from the tale he’s telling), Irontown Blues is a worthy successor to Steel Beach and a timely reassertion of Varley’s reputation as a worthy, but not slavish, heir to the Heinlein tradition.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the August 2018 issue of Locus.
While you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.