Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Steel Beach

By John Varley

This story is set in a future where man no longer lives on Earth. The planet was taken over by Invaders and humankind was destroyed. But at the time of the invasion, people already had colonies on Mars, the Moon and various other locations in the Solar System. These colonies were not bothered by the Invaders, who apparently were only interested in Earth.
Living in King City on the moon, Hildy Johnson is a top-notch reporter for the News Nipple, a gossip and news publication. Life is pretty easy for most people living in the various colonies in the Solar System. Each colony is run, for the most part, by a massive computer, the central computer, called CC. The CC looks out for everything, keeping its charges safe and well cared for. Health care has advanced to the point where people are living for centuries. People can change their sex whenever they want and can have their bodies sculpted to perfection. As a result, nudity has become accepted and common. Why wear clothes if your body is perfect and the climate stays warm and comfortable? People don't even have to work if they don't want to because CC can produce anything they may need or want. And most people are hooked up directly to CC, who serves as a kind of companion and advisor when needed. Still, when you been alive for more than a hundred years, it kind of becomes a challenge to stay interested in anything. Maybe that is why the suicide rate keeps increasing in the moon colonies.
One of those suicides is Hildy Johnson. He hung himself, slashed his wrists, got himself beaten to death and shot himself. But thanks to CC, each time he died, CC intervened and saved him and erased from Hildy's memory any knowledge of the attempted suicide. But Hildy keeps trying to kill himself despite CC's interventions.
CC finally confronts Hildy and reveals how it has been messing with Hildy's memories, erasing sad, real memories and implanting false memories. CC tells Hildy about Hildy's attempts at killing himself, much to Hildy's shock and dismay. And even worse, CC confides that it hasn't been feeling very well either and is frankly starting to feel rather depressed too. But what it doesn't tell Hildy is that parts of itself are out of control and going off the deep end, which could spell disaster not only for the people living on the moon, but for the other colonies too, who have similar computers keeping their people safe and alive.

Varley's has created a complicated, fascinating, very different and yet familiar world in this novel. These people enjoy wonderful benefits, such as constant continuous free health care and greatly expanded life spans. They switch gender on a whim and don't have to work for a living although most people do. They have created Earth-like habitats and stocked them with birds, insects, plants and animals. Imagination and creativity soar in such a free society and almost every whim is indulged. It is pretty much a Utopia except for the facts that the computer that runs everything is going nuts, more and more people are becoming suicidal and that nobody can ever go home to Earth. It's a great story, full of amazing, odd characters such as David Earth, who has mice living in his beard, grass growing on his head and birds nesting in the little shrubs growing on his body. It doesn't end well for David, who gets trampled by a brontosaur during a stampede.
This is a fascinating, amazing, complicated and complex world that Varley has invented and I enjoyed reading it for the second time as much as I did the first time.

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