The Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Ophiuchi Hotline by John Varley

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.

Published in 1977. After the effortless capture of Earth by vastly superior aliens, humanity is forced to fight for existence on the Moon and other lumps of airless rock. The invention of the Hotline — a constant stream of data from a star in the constellation Ophiuchus — facilitates survival and enables the development of amazing new technologies. Then, after 400 years, humanity’s unknown helpers send a bill for their services… and suddenly everything is threatened once again…


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.