Dr. Lilo Alexandr-Calypso, a brilliant geneticist who lives on the moon, has broken the law by fiddling with the human genome. Just as she’s about to be executed, she is saved by a group of vigilantes who want to use her skills to help them free the Earth from the alien invaders who’ve taken over and kicked the humans off.
Lilo doesn’t want to serve anyone, but their leader, a former president of Earth, has captured a clone of her and says that either she or the clone will be executed for Lilo’s crime. It doesn’t seem right for the clone to live on, so Lilo agrees to participate, thinking she’ll escape. She’s taken to a secret hideout located on a Jovian moon and set to work for the Free Earthers. She doesn’t like the work, which involves experiments designed to discover how to kill the invading aliens, but every time she escapes (or dies trying), she just gets cloned again. Now there are three Lilos running around the galaxy and trying not to be discovered. If their DNA gets noticed (pretty easy in their society), they’ll be caught and killed because Lilo was supposed to have been executed.
Meanwhile, some unknown aliens have sent a bill for all of the scientific information they’ve been sending to humans for the past few centuries via a radio signal called the Ophiuchi Hotline. The information they provided taught humans to develop technologies and tweak their genes to allow them to survive and even thrive after being kicked off Earth. Humans didn’t know where the information was coming from, but now a bill is due and the aliens have sent a threatening warning with it. One of the Lilos goes to talk to the aliens.
The Ophiuchi Hotline, John Varley’s debut novel, and part of his EIGHT WORLDS universe, is entertaining, totally original, and wonderfully weird. What I liked best about it was that it, like his other work I’ve read, is full of interesting ideas and, though the book was published in 1977, it doesn’t feel dated at all. (Partly because his brilliant criminal geneticist is a woman.) In Varley’s future world, people can store information around their spinal cords, can change their sex whenever they want, computers take milliseconds to determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence, a criminal’s sentence might involve being cloned and sent for rehabilitation before the crime occurred, and meat grows on trees. Humans can be genetically combined with other species. For example, Lilo’s friend Parameter-Solstice is part sunflower and spends her time floating in space, soaking up the sun.
Sometimes other parts of the novel suffer, though. Characterization is often weak, the pacing doesn’t always flow well, some transitions are rough, and occasionally the plot is confusing. I didn’t mind these issues too much because I know what Varley is capable of and I enjoyed reading this debut mostly for his bizarre visions of the future. I’m not surprised that, the year after The Ophiuchi Hotline was published, Varley won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for his fascinating novella, The Persistence of Vision.
The audiobook version of The Ophiuchi Hotline was produced by Audible Studios and read by Gabra Zackman who gives a wonderful performance. It’s about eight hours long. I recommend this version.