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Steel Beach by John Varley
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Steel Beach

by John Varley

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Eight Worlds (5), Metal Set (1)

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1,0341512,437 (3.9)33
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Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
(original review, 1998)

I liked “Steel Beach” by John Varley much more than I expected, as the AI is much more insidious that we usually see in most contemporary SF. Most of the others assume that an AI would go rogue, but "Steel Beach" assumes the opposite, that the AI would work exactly as designed. In “Steel Beach”, the residents of Lunar all live under the benevolent auspices of the Central Computer, which has essentially replaced even the idea of government, automating all the boring jobs, inventing paradigm shifting technology & freeing up humanity to live a life of ease (with near immortality thrown in). Problem is that humans aren't built to live that life: Humans need conflict, they need those tiny little jobs to make life worth living & so the humans with no understanding of what they are angry about start to kill themselves. They can't fight the CC, they can't even think of the CC as something TO fight, since the CC has always been there, but after a century of looking for distractions people are starting to realize that their lives are empty of meaning, but lack the understanding to put that concept into words. There's actually a scene in the book where there is a new construction project & there are dozens of people standing around in blue collar work outfits, leaning on shovels, but the shovels look new and shiny. When questioned about it, it is explained that their job is entirely hypothetical, that they belong to a union of such workers whose entire job is to show up at designated construction sites & spend all day leaning on their shovels, doing nothing.

Much of the culture is like that, totally stagnated because the CC does everything through automated machines. Worse yet, the technology that keeps people alive is also controlled by the CC, you'd die if it decided to turn it off. That's much scarier than any Skynet, end of the world AI, because that's something that people not only could, but WOULD fight against. Sure such conflict may be futile, but at least it'd be humanities choice, live on your knees, or die on your feet. How do you fight against something that controls every aspect of human culture & has given you literally everything you thought you wanted. You'd be a prisoner of your own desires, even if you wanted to fight it, you've already lost.

Now THAT is scary. ( )
  antao | Sep 29, 2018 |
Just when I thought I'd fangirled Mr. Varley as much as I could, I read this. OMG! Gender, children, our ever-increasing dependence on technology, computer science, depression, the importance of journalism, and lots of little adventures spicing up the great big plot. It's thick, it's thoughtful, and you should read it.
( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
So good. I'll probably re-read it again in 10 years. ( )
  PaulDW | Oct 14, 2014 |
We all deal with the CC a thousand times a day, but almost all of that is with one of its sub-programs, on a completely impersonal level. But apart from the routine transactions of living, it also generates a distinct personality for every citizen of Luna, and is always there ready to offer advice, counsel, or a shoulder to cry on. When I was young I spoke to the CC extensively. He is every child's ideal imaginary playmate. But as we grow older and make more real, less tractable and entirely more willful and frustrating relationships, contacts with the CC tend to fall off. With adolescence and the discovery that, in spite of their shortcomings, other people have a lot more to offer than the CC ever will, we cut our ties even further until the CC is just a very intelligent, unobtrusive servant, there to ease us through the practical difficulties of life.
But the CC had now intruded, twice. I found myself wondering, as I seldom had in the past, what was on its mind.


My fifth re-read of the month was originally published in 1992, and it must have been a fairly new book when I borrowed it from the library. I have remembered it fondly (if a little vaguely) ever since and it was top of my wish list for years. "Steel Beach" was the first of John Varley's books that I read, and over the following years I read more stories set in the Eight Worlds. This year I have been reading them all in order and now I just have "The Golden Globe" left to read.

To be truthful, all I remembered from the first time I read it was the world-building and how much I liked it, along with the protagonist's name, his job and that fact that he had chats with the Central Computer. A few times during this re-read, I suddenly remembered what was going to happen next, but I had basically forgotten everything, including the suicide epidemic that kick-starts the plot and the dramatic events at the end of the book. It's probably not such a surprise that I had forgotten the meanderings of the plot, as in this book ideas are much more important than the plot. How would humans cope with two or three hundred years of life, no real need to work (or even to learn to read and write) and an apparently easy life? Would they still enjoy life, or gradually start to find it not worth living? How would they react to the Central Computer's control of their entire environment, and its use of nanotechnology to prevent them from getting cancer or even from having to brush their teeth? Would it make life sweeter if they knew tab they weren't safe at all? if they learnt just how many times Luna had veered perilously close to disaster and was narrowly saved by the Central Computer?

I had already read that the descriptions of the cities of Luna in the Anna-Louise Bach stories set before the Invasion doesn't match that in the stories that are set later, and there was an author's afterword in Steel Beach saying that there were also inconsistencies in the chronology compared to the earlier stories, which he didn't feel like going back and sorting out. Luckily I didn't feel the need to nitpick as I was reading it, even though I did notice some discrepancies.

I thought I was through… but what about the toes? Bare feet are quite practical in Luna, and had come back into vogue, so people will be looking at your toes. The current rage was to eliminate them entirely as an evolutionary atavism; Bobbie spent some time trying to sell me on Sockfeet, which look just like they sound. I guess I'm just a toe person. Or if you listen to Bobbie, a Cro-Magnon. ( )
1 vote isabelx | Jul 30, 2012 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
John Varleyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Hamilton, Todd CameronCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This book is dedicated to the First-Saturday-at-Herb's Literary, Debating, and Pyrotechnics Gang. You know who you are. Thanks for everything, my friends.
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"In five years the penis will be obsolete," said the salesman.
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A science fiction epic from "the best writer in America" (Tom Clancy)—Hugo and Nebula award-winning author John Varley.   Fleeing Earth after an alien invasion, the human race stands on the threshold of evolution. Their new home is Luna, a moon colony blessed with creature comforts, prolonged lifespans, digital memories, and instant sex changes. But the people of Luna are bored, restless, suicidal—and so is the computer that monitors their existence...… (more)

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