Book Review: The John Varley Reader

I hadn’t intended to review this book at all.  I bought it at the Seattle Public Library book sale for a dollar because I noticed that it had “The Persistence of Vision” in it, a story I have been wanting to read for years.  I was planning to read just the one story.  But then a few things tipped the scales, and I realized I had to say a few words.

By the way, I picked up a big pile of books at that sale.  From a writer’s viewpoint, I am sorry I cannot help the writers make their living by buying their new books, but on the other hand, I am just too damn poor now to be able to afford new books.  And I have to have my reading fix one way or the other.

Anyway, as I said, I bought the book for just the one story, but I recognized a few other award winners in the mix, so I thought maybe I’d read a half dozen stories or so and leave it at that.  The first things that hooked me, though, were not stories at all – they were the introductions to the stories.  In them Varley doesn’t really talk much about the stories.  He talks more about his life, and his trials and tribulations as a young writer.  And a lot of it clicked with me, especially when he shares anecdotes of his time as a hippy.  He lived in Haight/Ashbury; he attended Woodstock, albeit by accident.  I can relate to that.  I got involved in the hip scene myself in the Bay Area in the early seventies, right around the time I realized I wanted to be a writer and began to compose stories.  I wasn’t successful by any means, as Varley was almost right away, but still there was that common immersion in the scene and fascination with science fiction and writing.  I was so impressed by our similar backgrounds that I thought I’d write him a line and say so.  However, the mail link on his website didn’t work, at least not for me, and he wasn’t listed in the SFWA members directory.  Ah, well.  I had to let that one go.

Anyway, “The Persistence of Vision” is a very good story, although not what I expected.  It tells of a commune established out in the wilderness of New Mexico by deaf and blind people, and how they cope, how their social structure evolves, and how their handicaps become a gateway to something greater.  Another award-winning story, “Press Enter”, I have read before.  It’s a very creepy story with very well-drawn characters about a murderously nasty computer network.  A good read.  The third award-winning story, “The Pusher”, I had never read, but when I did I was somewhat disappointed.  It’s okay, but mainly a fairly light gimmick story.

Having read all the stories I had intended to read, I went through and read the rest of the introductions until I came to the last story in the book.  This was the story, says the introduction, that Harlan Ellison requested when soliciting stories for “The Last Dangerous Visions”.  If you haven’t heard of that, you don’t know much about the history of the science fiction field.  “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions” were important anthologies in the New Wave era of the late sixties and early seventies.  Full of award-winning original fiction, they pushed the boundaries of the genre.  It was Ellison’s intention to publish stories that no one else would touch at the time, on themes radical and even taboo.  When I attended Clarion West in 1973, “Again, Dangerous Visions” had just come out.  Everyone was aware that Ellison was seeking stories for the next volume and had already bought a good number from Clarion students.  It was the highest dream of all of us to sell a story to “The Last Dangerous Visions”.  I didn’t even come close.  I didn’t write any really good stories until decades later.

But then, something happened with that last volume.  It got delayed, and then delayed some more.  Ellison hung on to the stories, obviously intending to get the work done, but now four decades have passed and “The Last Dangerous Visions” has yet to be published.  Even knowing about the delay, back then I think I would have sold Ellison a story if he was willing to buy it because I respected his opinion so much.  But anyway, as the years passed, some writers hung on with Ellison, while others pulled their stories from the anthology and published them elsewhere.  Varley describes how he respectfully approached Ellison to withdraw the story as it had been so long, and finally Varley published it for the first time in “The John Varley Reader”.  It’s the only original, never-before-published story in the anthology.

This piqued my interest.  I decided to read “The Bellman” to find out what made it so dangerous.  Some of the stories in “Dangerous Visions” are no longer as controversial as they used to be, and I wondered how Varley’s had fared.

Well, I have to say that Varley really knocked it out of the park with this one.  It’s a great story, though intense and gruesome, and it would still be considered extreme today.  It concerns a pregnant woman police officer investigating some very unusual murders in a moon colony, but…  I will say no more.  This story is worth the price of the book.  It’s that good.  I don’t want to spoil it for you by giving too much away.

So, “The John Varley Reader” has some great stories and some so-so stories, but that’s true with almost all anthologies.  It’s partly a matter of reader’s taste, and partly the fact that almost no author gets it spot-on every time out.  Still, the good stories in this one are very, very good.

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