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John Varley

June 21st, 2006

Yes, I know I’ve been reading the Farmer book To Your Scattered Bodies Go for months and months now, just like I was reading Conason’s Big Lies for more than a year before that. I should really get rid of the “What I’m Reading Now” panel, since I rarely update it. Truth be told, I’ve been reading parts of Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe and V.S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain up until last week, as kind of a nostrum to get me to sleep faster. Not that the books are boring–far from it–but they aren’t page-turners that’ll keep me up all night. So when I start reading something good but not great after midnight, I’ll get to sleep pretty soon. And the books last a long time that way.
But like the Grisham novels that kept me awake earlier this year, I have started on a few new novels ordered from Amazon Japan. One of them is Varley’s recent novel, Mammoth.

For quite some time, Varley has been one of my favorite authors. My brother-in-law got me started on Varley’s Titan trilogy years ago, and since then I’ve tried to read everything he’s written. One of his more recent series was based on his dominant “Eight Worlds” future history, including Steel Beach and The Golden Globe, both masterful cacophonies of absurdly delightful entertainment. There’s supposed to be a third book in that series called Irontown Blues, but Varley seems to have set that aside for the moment.

And that’s where we come to his most recent books. Varley’s past novels have always had a certain weight to them, a seriousness and gravity despite the madness. With his last three novels, however, he has bucked that trend. It has long been clear that Varley is a big Heinlein fan, something made abundantly clear in Steel Beach. But somewhere around the year 2000, Varley’s writing turned away from his Eight Worlds depth and transformed into a Heinleinesque juvenile science fiction vein.

His first book in this trend, Red Thunder, was essentially a retelling of Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo. Varley’s book had a group of youngsters getting mixed up with an ex-astronaut and his crazy-genius relative and making a backyard spaceship that would take them to Mars–to beat out the Chinese mission vying to be the first humans to set foot on the red planet.

Red Thunder kind of startled me when I read it, as it seemed like it wasn’t Varley at all. It was almost like Heinlein and Varley had collaborated to make the piece. In a way, I guess you could call it “Varley Lite”–less filling, but still tastes great.

I didn’t entirely expect Mammoth to follow in that vein, but it did–at least as far as I’ve read through it so far (200 of the 340 pages). It’s light reading, but quite a lot of fun. Not as thick and rich as Varley usually does; his prior novels held much more punch and value in every page. It’s almost like Varley consciously toned down his writing to fit a more Grisham- or Chricton-like popcorn pace, either to sell more copies, or possibly even in search of the one that will be bought out by Hollywood and made into next summer’s blockbuster.

It’s still fun, though. Mammoth begins with the title character, a hybrid Columbian and Wooly Mammoth being found encased in ice in Manitoba, like the Discovery Channel special on the Siberian mammoth unearthed a few years back. Except next to this mammoth, they find the frozen corpse of a human being, wearing a wristwatch and bearing a metal briefcase. Time travel pandemonium ensues. And don’t worry, I didn’t give away anything that’s not in the blurb on the back cover.

Varley’s latest book, Red Lightning, is a sequel to Red Thunder, but is still in hardcover, so I’m waiting on that one.

I wouldn’t mind, of course, if Varley came back and at least finished of Irontown Blues before continuing on his old-age juvenile kick.

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  1. John Varley
    January 10th, 2007 at 03:24 | #1

    Glad you have enjoyed the books. I’m having too much fun right now finishing the third and last of the Heinlein Tribute books to get to IRONTOWN BLUES, but that’s next in line, I promise. Just didn’t have any good ideas for it. And that’s really why I’m writing the RED THUNDER series, I never expected any of them to be best sellers. It’s just heaps of fun. I’m enjoying myself more than I have in years.

    John Varley

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