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Steel Beach by John Varley

Steel Beach (edition 1994)

by John Varley (Author)

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

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1,1251914,214 (3.91)37
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)
Title:Steel Beach
Authors:John Varley (Author)
Info:Harper Collins Publishers (1994), 568 pages
Collections:Your library

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Steel Beach by John Varley


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Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
Kind of torn in reviewing this book -- it had some really good elements, as well as some recurring lame elements, an interesting but only hinted at universe in a lot of areas, reasonably good characters (especially for SF), and a good (if not great) plot.

The best parts of the book were a somewhat-post-scarcity world (on the moon, after the earth had been rendered inaccessible hundreds of years in the past) -- AI doing most of the real work, some high-level human work remaining, but a lot of people either being put into "goldbrick-enabled" type jobs (there was a union of electricians who literally got dressed up in uniform/equipment and then stood around doing nothing, and this was a long-term career...), or living in "disneylands" which were historical recreations (such as a Texas/old west universe) with limited overt tech but without true hardship (they could still "mail order" things produced using high tech as historical replicas, e.g. cast iron stoves and locomotives). Some humans went out to the asteroids, etc., but primarily in this book (unlike some of the others in the series) humans were post-growth.

Most of the book was about the psychological impact this and some other changes had on characters, and the overall impact on society. The "central computer" which ran everything was both a background mechanical process and essentially a sentient AI (or collection of AIs), and interacted meaningfully with every individual. One interesting thing was it was forced to firewall itself -- it could be used by a criminal to support ongoing criminal enterprise, including very odious interpersonal violence, as well as by a victim, as well as by a police, and each got full service from the system, and no information was (supposed to be, and generally actually) shared.

The main annoying recurring part of the book was that characters could gender-swap at will (or asexualize, although this was rare), and the author went extensively into detail in all this implied. The idea of extremely long lived (and age-invariant) characters being able to change gender with minimal effort is somewhat interesting, but I could do without the extensive sex/other gory details aspects. It wasn't too badly done, though.

Another interesting element: due to extremely good medical technology (essentially anything but brain destruction was survivable), and the ability to turn off pain, there were extremely bloody sports which were viewed as "non-violent" because people could be restored fully afterward. There were a few other interesting ideas throughout the book (brontosaurs, presumably from DNA, used as the main source of meat...), but the core element of the Eight Worlds series was only very minimally addressed (the invaders who took over Earth and essentially locked down humanity.)

There was a major hat tip to Robert A. Heinlein in the book -- probably the best that I've seen so far.

Overall, I liked it, but it just wasn't good enough (and was too long) to really be a 5-star book. ( )
  octal | Jan 1, 2021 |
The plot is very... "ambient". At face value you'd think it was mostly about gender swapping, having babies and midlife crisis but there was also a lot of imaginative stuff that kept me reading. ( )
  Paul_S | Dec 23, 2020 |
When the terribly, terribly fashionable decide the old genitals are getting to be rather a bore, don't you know, they phone the chauffeur and have the old bones driven down to Change Alley.

John Varley, Steel Beach

Hildy Johnson, sometimes reporter for The News Nipple on Luna, may not be John Varley's first character to switch genders in the middle of a story, but he's certainly the most memorable. (In the film His Girl Friday, the character of Hildy was switched to a woman because the director loved the sound of the secretary filling in for the character during rehearsals.) Most of Mr. Varley's work to this point has indicated that gender is possibly one step deeper than a new coat. Hildy shows us that, at least from the inside, The Switch changes outlook and social and sexual dynamics.

The Eight Worlds, of which this book is a vague, out-of-continuity episode in, is a future in which The Invaders -- shadowy, never-seen aliens -- have taken over Earth. But rather than enslave or eat humanity, or abduct and torture us with turkey basters, Varley's aliens don't even notice humanity. The human race is evicted off of Earth like you might sweep ants off your porch.

And so the human race lives on the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, on Mars, Pluto -- pretty much anywhere else in the solar system with a solid surface. And these societies are kept alive and running smoothly by superintelligent machines. In the case of Luna it's the Central Computer, who is a friend to anyone -- on an individual level, in fact.

The CC directs the lives of the teeming multitudes on Luna. It keeps them happy, comfortable. One of the universal rights past basic survival is the right of a job. In an automated society run by a powerful, supposedly benign, CC, people must find their own purposes in life.

Steel Beach is unarguably Mr. Varley's greatest novel among a career of excellent -- and too few! -- books. The question of what is means to be human after the need to survive has been removed, after death has been virtually exterminated, is foremost in the plot, but this is not a preachy book. The characters -- the stubborn, staid Walter Editor; young cub reporter Brenda, Hildy's longtime rival and crush Cricket, Liz the drunken, British royalty -- these people are all cliches out of films and comics. But in the hands of John Varley, they are wonderful, horrible, fascinating people. Dissatisfied with being set pieces in the show run by the CC -- particularly Hildy.

No summary does this book justice, and any synopsis of it sounds like a '40s serial. On a level with Dune, Perdido Street Station, and Hyperion, Mr. Varley's magnum opus should be read by anyone with an interest in science-fiction, any fiction, or just plain being a person. ( )
  neilneil | Dec 7, 2020 |
What a delightful surprise! Varley is one hell of an idea-prolific SF author who never rests on any old plotline but continually stretches his wings over new shores.

So far, I've read five of his novels and I'm frankly rather blown away each time by each in turn. Why? Because he's more interested in telling great character stories with depth and emotional importance than he is about amazing worldbuilding.

Huh. So what? A lot of modern SF does that all the time.

Ah, but a lot of modern SF doesn't go hog wild with amazing worldbuilding and tech and implications the same way as these older SF novels do.

So wait, what? Is this a novel of ideas or a great story about suicidal characters living in a utopia on the Moon after being ejected from the Earth after an alien invasion there? Or is this a story about a schizophrenic AI gone crazy from loneliness and who decided to experiment heartily on the post need-based humanity for the fuck of it? Or is this a delightfully deep and clever and thoughtful sexual identity SF that explores a lot of the pitfalls of being able to swap sexes for yourself almost on demand?

All of the above. Plus there's wonderful media quips, journalism commentary, wild west nostalgia, and an amazingly funny romp with Heinleinesque libertarians who have their own movement on Luna and who embody the heart of RAH's writings without precisely going into the truly weird shit. :)

Varley goes in his own direction there and it's never preachy and it's genuinely thoughtful. Am I charmed? You bet I am. But then, I loved seeing all the homages to RAH and the way Varley bounces off them in strange and wonderful ways.

One thing that should be remembered: RAH died right around the time Varley would have been writing this. Varley is too good a writer and thinker to pull off a straight homage to the Grandmaster. He wrote a great novel all by itself that is equal to anything Samuel Delaney ever wrote and did it with a great hard SF bent, but tipping his hat to the old master was quite delightful and heartwarming. :)

That being said, I loved this novel! I laughed many times and that's impressive when we're in the heart of depression, ennui, and suicidal thoughts. :) ( )
  bradleyhorner | Jun 1, 2020 |
(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 |
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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...

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