Visions of Paradise

Saturday, January 29, 2005

The Golden Globe

In the 1970s and 1980s, John Varley was one of the finest science fiction writers. His strength was his short fiction, with nearly every one of his stories overflowing with creativity and fast-paced narrative. His novels suffered slightly in that he was not strong enough as a plotter to carry a novel, but he still wrote such exciting scenes that his novels flowed wonderfully. Perhaps the best example of this was his Gaea Trilogy consisting of Titan, Demon and Wizard, three novels whose plots were almost incidental compared to the explosion of ideas which issued forth page after page.

After a decade spent playing around in Hollywood, Varley returned to science fiction with decidedly positive results. First came Steel Beach, which I thought showed signs of Varley shaking off the creative rust. Its successor The Golden Globe showed a step forward in Varley’s development though since it holds together as a novel better than any previous Varley book. It is not tight with multiply-intertwined plotlines, and the individual scenes themselves are still its main strength, but the fast-pacing is wrapped around a storyline whose denouement is both satisfactory and mostly successful.

The story concerns Sparky Valentine, an itinerant and slightly-disreputable actor who works the Pluto circuit of legitimate theater. Somehow he incurs the wrath of a world of gangsters who send a hired killer after him. Meanwhile, Sparky receives an offer to play the lead role in King Lear back on Luna–the “center” of the solar system since Earth is off-limits to humans in Varley’s future history–provided he reaches Luna in time for rehearsals. That is not an assured thing considering (a) Sparky’s lack of funds for spacefare and (b) the urgency of keeping one step ahead of the hired killer.

Most of the book features two parallel stories: how Sparky struggles to reach Luna alive and on time, and flashbacks telling Sparky’s life as a famous child star. The former story is much more interesting. At times the latter story dragged endlessly, and for most of the book does not seem too important. Only as the novel reaches its climax does Varley gradually reveal the importance of his childhood on Sparky’s future life, but I still would have been happier if the novel was 100 pages shorter.

As I mentioned earlier, Varley writes terrific scenes. The novel’s opening scene of Sparky playing two roles simultaneously in Romeo and Juliet, one female, the other male, is hilarious. I cannot imagine anybody who reads that scene not finishing the book. And scenes in which Sparky visits his Uncle Ed for help and goes to the artificial wheel-shaped world Oberon are nearly as good.

And I cannot forget to mention Toby, his dog and best friend, and ultimately one of the most important characters in the novel.

There are a few weaknesses in the novel. The extended backstory. The various confrontations with the Charonese killer prove that too many writers are frustrated thriller authors. But overall the novel should satisfy all Varley fans and make them anxious to read his next novel Red Thunder as well. It certainly had that impact on me.

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