Tuesday, 10 May 2011

John Varley: The Ophiuchi Hotline (1977)

The Ophiuchi Hotline is one of the great idea based novels of the science fiction genre, but was not even  nominated for either the Hugo or Nebula awards - clearly 1977 was a strong year for SF. The novel is set in a future where human technology is dominated by ideas derived from a stream of data received from an alien civilization (from the direction of the Ophiuchi constellation), hence the book's title. As the back of this edition says, the story is about what happens when the latest message from the datastream turns out to be a bill for the service - a great idea for a science fiction novel.

But the importance of the Hotline is not really seen in the first half of the story. This is about one woman's involvement in a campaign to overthrow the four hundred year old rule of a different group of aliens over the Earth, using the Hotline data to try to match the far superior technology of the invaders. Lilo is an unwilling participant in this revolt, secretly led by a flamboyant retired Lunar politician. She was a genetic biologist who strayed into forbidden areas of research into the human genome, who was sentenced to death as an Enemy of Humanity, only to be rescued by the leaders of the revolution who sent an illegal clone to be killed in her stead. Each time she tries to escape, she is killed and a new clone is grown to take her place, using memory recordings to bring them more or less up to date. Together with other illegal clones Lilo had created when she realised that she was under suspicion, the number of different Lilos could become extremely confusing, but this difficulty is well handled by Varley.

There are some occasional poorly written details, including some transitions between scenes (particularly when one of the Lilo clones ends up on Earth, forbidden to humans since the invasion). The news clips used as headers for some chapters are irritating, less than convincing, tabloid satire; this is a device which has been used better by others, and just seems out of place here. While many elements of the novel would not be out of place in a satire, The Ophiuchi Hotline is mostly serious in tone, which is one major reason why the frivolous news clips are a problem. There are also inconsistencies, such as for example travelling speeds through space. These seem to vary somewhat with the demands of the plot (which is not particularly unusual in the genre). The beam which forms the Hotline seems to be aimed at a particular point outside Pluto's orbit, but this point also seems to be fixed relative to Pluto itself, which is a bit strange. Indeed, though Varley is described as a "hard" science fiction writer, which means that he sticks close to known science and should have meticulously worked out explanations to back up his speculations, he does seem to me to be hard only when it suits him to be so. He is certainly not as interested in physics and engineering as some of the other writers who are considered to be part of this subgenre. Which is a fair enough attitude, but one which contradicts the label he has been given.

The most interesting character, whose treatment is rather less than serious despite what I have just said, is a deep space pilot named Javelin who appears about three quarters of the way through the story. She combines extremely radical body modification - looking more like a snake than a human being - with a conservative environment. (Both these ideas would have been unusual in seventies science fiction). Her ship is named The Cavorite, after the weightless material used to propel The First Men in the Moon in H.G. Wells' 1901 novel. It is designed to look like one of the pictures of spaceships on the covers of pre-spaceflight pulp SF magazine covers, and has a water based recycling system which doubles as an aquarium and an organ in the cabin which doubles as a computer input station.

A clear influence on Varley's début novel is Robert A. Heinlein, combined with something of the inventiveness of Philip K. Dick.Very unusually for someone thought of as part of the hard science fiction subgenre, he has been praised by non-genre writers: the blurb on the cover of this edition is by thriller writer Tom Clancy, describing Varley as "the best writer in America". Although he went on to have several nominations nominations for major awards, his career hasn't really lived up to that kind of encomium. The Hotline idea became a minor variation on the "uplift" described by David Brin and others, though 2001 is more of an influence on Brin than it is here. Additionally, Varley seemed old fashioned once cyberpunk became influential in the 1980s. Never as popular as Heinlein or as hip as Phil Dick, Varley  has perhaps been rather forgotten, but in fact his later novels are also enjoyable and interesting to read: I particularly enjoyed Mammoth. My rating - 7/10.

Edition: HarperCollins, 1994 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1421

No comments: