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30 September 2004




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John Varley: The Wonderful Alarming Future October 2004

John Varley was born in Austin, Texas, attended Michigan State University in East Lansing, and traveled the country for several years before becoming a full-time writer in 1973. His first story, "Picnic on Nearside" (1974) was one of a series of colorful interplanetary tales comprising his "Eight Worlds" future history that included his first novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977), and numerous stories gathered in collections In the Hall of the Martian Kings (1978), The Persistence of Vision (1978), The Barbie Murders (1980; reissued 1984 as Picnic on Nearside), and Blue Champagne (1986). His "Gaea" trilogy, about explorers who discover a sentient satellite orbiting Saturn, consists of Titan (1979), Wizard (1980), and Demon (1984). Varley won the Hugo and Nebula awards for 1978 novella "The Persistence of Vision", and won both awards again for 1984 novella "PRESS ENTER []". Short story "The Pusher" (1982) won another Hugo.

Varley took a 10-year hiatus from fiction to work in Hollywood, writing numerous
Photo by Charles N. Brown
scripts, only one of which was produced: Millennium (1989), based on his 1977 story "Air Raid".

He returned to full-time writing in the '90s, with two more novels in the "Eight Worlds" setting, Steel Beach (1992) and The Golden Globe (1998), and Heinlein-homage Red Thunder (2003).

His essential short fiction has been collected in The John Varley Reader (2004). Forthcoming are Mammoth and a sequel to Red Thunder. Varley now lives on the California central coast.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I guess I'm worried about the whole thing crashing, the whole system. How intricate it is, and how vulnerable at so many points: the electricity grid, the communications.... The 9/11 attacks cost the terrorists around $400,000 to put together, and cost us well over a hundred billion dollars. That is so amazing! And we've only just begun to taste that. Seeing airplanes flown into buildings, I wonder 'What about a space ship flying near the speed of light and crashing into the Earth?' If you had a space ship returning from Alpha Centauri, say, and everybody died aboard, and instead of turning around and starting to decelerate it just kept on accelerating because the navigation system is good enough to bring it to the Earth but not to slow it down -- maybe star travel's not such a great idea! Maybe that's where I'll be going with this new novel: the real downside of having power like that.”


“I got into writing for the money. It worked for a while. Call me naive! You might say I wasted a lot of time in Hollywood over the past 20 years. I've probably been trying to put most of it out of my mind. I worked on a lot of scripts, five or six screenplays, but just one of them (Millennium) got made and it was not very good. At the time, I was excited about it, and making good money as well. Then I just reached the point where I couldn't work on any more. I wanted to get back to the novels, which have been a lot more gratifying. I've been very happy with Steel Beach and The Golden Globe and Red Thunder.”


“Probably everything I've written has been influenced by Heinlein, because I've read everything he's ever written and he was the very first science fiction writer I read. He's like the Shakespeare of the field, because Heinlein came up with so many of the ideas basic to science fiction, one right after the other. It was just an intense period of creativity, in the '50s and the early '60s. I've read his previously unpublished first novel For Us, the Living -- full of great ideas, but it's amazing how ineptly written it is, because very shortly after that he was writing things that were just wonderful! Somehow he went from that dry lecture to understanding how to write characters and make a plot readers are interested in.”


Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, and a planned third book called Irontown Blues have a reporter, an actor, and the next one will be about a detective. (I've also been wanting to write a straight detective novel for years -- got a character all worked up, and a plot, but not the time to do it.) They will form not really a trilogy but a group of three books where some of the same characters meet each other. They're not consecutive stories, but sort of all happening at once, all drawing toward an end point at the same time, where they will all take off on the same starship, because things are going to be looking kind of bad for the human race by the end of the third book. It will give you a better reason why you need to get in a starship and get the heck out of Dodge Solar System!”


“I've recently turned in a novel called Mammoth, originally Fuzzy, but that was too close to the H. Beam Piper Little Fuzzy for Ace. It's a bit of a departure, completely separate from anything else I've ever written. It's about time travel and a baby mammoth, kind of complicated but a lot of fun to write. I had been trying to come up with movie ideas, didn't get anywhere with this as a movie proposal, but thought I could make a pretty good novel out of it. At the beginning of the book, a frozen mammoth is discovered in the far north, up in Canada. It's lying on what appears to be a cave man, but he has a time machine with him. Somebody gets the machine to work again and goes back in to the past, then is pursued back into the future by a herd of mammoths who are slaughtered on Wilshire Boulevard at the La Brea Tar Pits. The baby mammoth, called Fuzzy, survives, and eventually some people want to set it free -- sort of like 'Free Wooly'!”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the October 2004 issue of Locus Magazine.

You may purchase this issue for $7.95 by sending a check to Locus, PO Box 13305, Oakland CA 94661; or via credit card submitted by mail, e-mail, or phone at (510) 339-9198. (Or, Subscribe.)


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