/ Cory Doctorow / 3 am Wed, Aug 29 2018
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  • John Varley's "Irontown Blues" - noir doggy science fiction from one of the field's all-time greats

    John Varley's "Irontown Blues" - noir doggy science fiction from one of the field's all-time greats

    John Varley is one of my all-time favorite authors, whose "Eight Worlds" stories and novels have been strung out over decades, weaving together critical takes on Heinlein and other "golden age" writers with mindfuckingly great technological/philosophical speculation, genderbending, genre-smashing prose, and some of the most likable, standout characters in the field.

    The premise of the "Eight Worlds" is that humanity has been traumatically evicted from Earth by the "Invaders," and the stories that follow track hundreds of years' worth of rebuilding, from early skin-of-teeth bare survival to a flourishing human race that sprawls across the solar system, replete with odd political cults; interplanetary sex cults; weird, multigenerational art movements; genetic sports and their associated cuisine, and a lot of larping and leisure activity that gives it all a kind of Weimar avant-garde air of dance and music and literature.

    Varley's got many innovations to his credit, but my favorite is his admirable lack of concern about continuity. In some sense, all the Eight Worlds stories form a piece, but not a continuous one. When Varley has an idea for a story that contradicts some earlier detail, he just writes it. I don't know if the official explanation for this is that real history is big and weird and shot through with contradictions, so these internal inconsistencies are just there for consistency's sake; or whether it's something like "I made that other story up, so I get to decide whether I care about its details."

    In 1993, Varley published Steel Beach, a brilliant homage to/critique of Heinlein and "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," a book that has inspired political movements and critical pastiche (one such is up for the Hugo Award this year). Five years later, he followed it up with "The Golden Globe." Now, a mere 20 years after that, he's back with Irontown Blues, which shares a continuity with Steel Beach and The Golden Globe, but does not require that you have read either of them, and doesn't particularly spoil them if you want to read them afterward (as you most definitely should!).

    Irontown Blues is the story of Christopher Bach (the somewhat estranged son of Joanna Bach, a heroic Luna City police officer who appears in many of Varley's stories, and who is now retired to farm transgenic pterodactyls to serve as pets), a private detective who lives in a semi-permanent LARP in which it is eternally the 1940s of Raymond Chandler. Bach's partner is Sherlock, a genetically engineered dog whose neural implants allow him to go places and do things that no baseline human or canine could accomplish.

    Bach's PI business is more hobby (or affectation) than career, because in the post-scarcity, there-is-such-a-thing-as-a-free-lunch world of Luna, he doesn't really need to work, but that doesn't stop him from being sucked into a classic noir mystery, kicked off by a gorgeous dame in silk stockings who wants him to track down a pug who done her wrong: in this case, infected her with recreational transgenic leprosy, a new and illegal strain that requires extraordinary measures to be shut of -- and which has already cost her half her face and most of her fingertips.

    From that setup, we're off on a story of crosses and double-crosses, uglies and double-uglies, Heinlein cults and hired goons straight out of Starship Troopers, and lots and lots of awesome dog-related material.

    Sherlock, you see, is a very smart dog, and his neural implants let him talk to specialized canine interpreters, and one such person has gone to the trouble of transcribing Sherlock's (hilarious, charming, delightful, weird) interpretations of the adventures of Christopher Bach, interleaving these accounts with Bach's own affected, hard-boiled version of events.

    This is vintage Varley: supremely weird, superbly told, and with nary a lull in the action. It ends in a way that might invite a sequel and I'm dearly hoping that's the case, and that it won't take 20 years to get it.

    Irontown Blues [John Varley/Ace]

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