I hate giving up on books I plan to review but, unfortunately, this is the second one in a month that I’ve had to abandon.
Steel Beach (1992) is the second in John Varley’s stand-alone novels set in his EIGHT WORLDS universe in which vastly superior aliens have kicked humans off of planet Earth so they can commune with the dolphins and whales (who are more intelligent, in their eyes, than humans). I liked the first EIGHT WORLDS book, The Ophiuchi Hotline, because, though it had its share of problems — weak characterization, confusing plot, uneven pacing — it was full of interesting ideas. I have also greatly enjoyed a couple of Varley’s award-winning novellas.
Steel Beach, though, in my opinion, committed the worst of literary sins: It’s boring. It’s about a man named Hildy Johnson who is a reporter on Luna where most of the surviving humans are now living. When we meet Hildy in the first scene, he and other reporters are in the audience at a demonstration by a tech company that claims it has made the penis obsolete due to their new advances in human morphology and sex (which they call “Ultra Tingle”). Hildy is unimpressed — he’s seen it all before — and walks out early.
Then Hildy’s boss asks him to do a year-long series of stories about what life used to be like on Earth before the alien invasion. Reluctantly, Hildy goes to live in Disneyland’s version of Texas in the 19th century. He and his protege, a tall young woman who has had her sex organs removed (it’s fashionable) and seems to know nothing of life on Old Earth, also try to recruit others to write stories for them.
But instead of getting an interesting Wild West story, we instead wander around with Hildy as he tells us about how things used to be on Earth and compares them to how they are now (in Hildy’s time). Medicine, food, weapons, fighting, sex and gender, etc. These discussions are interspersed with Hildy’s occasional suicide attempts and his occasional discussions with the Central Computer (an almost god-like piece of software that runs human society and seems to care for them).
Then Hildy decides to change into a woman and now she’s interested in men and fashion and talks for a long time about how certain articles of clothing (like long slim evening gowns) are not suitable for a man’s body (the penis would show).
There’s basically no plot to Steel Beach, and that’s the problem. I got 51% of the way through and was just so bored listening to Hildy talk about sex, people being naked, human morphology, fashion, and how he feels when he’s one sex or the other. Hildy tends to overshare.
My dislike for Hildy’s story has nothing to do with the focus on sex and gender. I think those are fascinating topics and, in fact, just last week I spent two hours discussing sex and gender with my Introduction to Psychology class and it was interesting. Hildy’s thoughts on the subject, however, sound a lot like Heinlein’s adult novels that are full of stuff that may be titillating to 15-year-old boys (cuddle rooms, breast fondling, orgies, spanking), but that seem puerile and creepy to me. And boring.
I thought the Central Computer was cool. I was interested in the alien invasion. There were a few things that happened that made it seem like a plot was developing, but then they’d be dropped and Hildy would be back to his thoughts on sex, or his depression.
Some of Varley’s ideas in Steel Beach would have worked well in a shorter form. He just seems to lose control and keeps dropping the ball in this long (23 hours on audio) format. Perhaps it gets better after the halfway mark, but I had already spent 12 hours on the book when I felt like I had given it enough time.
The audiobook edition, which was recently released by Tantor Audio is pretty good. The narrator, David Stifel, has a voice that fits my perception of Hildy (or perhaps his voice is partly responsible for my perception of Hildy). He sounds like a 1970’s gumshoe.