A Review of John Varley’s Slow Apocalypse

(Also published on goodreads.com)
Three and a half stars out of five. It’s been a while since I last read read anything by Varley, the last time being the early to mid nineties and the Book was Steel Beach. I’m familiar mainly with his “Eight Worlds” stories which include Steel Beach, The Ophiuchi Hotline and The Barbie Murders. This is the first book I have read by him set outside of that universe.

I want to quickly address what I didn’t like about the book and get that out of the way, because there are some redeeming things to say about this work of apocalyptic fiction. My main dislike of the work is his characters come across as flat and two dimensional. Varley seems to have come up with a very good premise for and end of the world story, which is well researched and thought out, but then didn’t take enough time to fill his story with believable and sympathetic characters. He resorts to stock characters. (Somewhat ironically, the main character is a screenwriter living in LA, who makes a living writing sitcoms filled with stock characters.) If you are expecting (as I was) richly developed if somewhat eccentric characters from the Eight Worlds series, you might be a little disappointed with this book. It is difficult to care about what happens to them or to sympathize with their struggles. In short: a plot driven story with very little character development.

Having said that, what I did like about the novel and what earns it an extra star and a half, is Varley has a very different take on the apocalyptic genre than other writers. Much of what passes in the sf field these days as apocalyptic literature incomprehensibly seems to celebrate the decline of civilization into complete chaos and focuses on the theme of solipsism. One particular sf writer who has written a number of apocalyptic novels (whose name will go unmentioned because I don’t find anything redeeming in anything he has written) has a tendency to group his characters on the basis of race. His villains are almost invariably Hispanic or Asian and his protagonists are always Caucasian of Euro-American descent.

Fortunately, Varley has better sense than to devolve into stereotypical racism or even thematic solipsism. Although his main characters seem to be white (he really doesn’t mention their race), ultimately racial descent is not a factor in determining who’s good and who’s evil. Good and evil are both equal opportunity employers in this apocalypse, recruiting impartially among all races and ethnicities. I find that fact commendable in a sub-genre often too filled with works that provide a platform for writers (and their readers) to give vent to their most base emotions and vile opinions.

What determines who is good and who is evil in Varley’s take on the end of the world (or at least of civilization) is a willingness on the part of the characters to pitch in, work together for the common good, and realize that the survival of the human race depends on community. Throughout the story, the characters struggle with the tension of looking out after themselves vs. helping others in need. Sometimes those others in need are neighbors and friends, sometimes they are strangers met on the street in their travels. In this sense, Varley turns his story of an apocalypse into a parable of our own pre-apocalyptic civilization that also struggles with this tension on a daily basis. <

One final note concerning the word “apocalypse.” In our modern world, we define “apocalypse” to mean something akin to the end of the world. In reality it’s a Greek word that means “revelation,” implying that something which has been hidden is now being revealed. In ancient times, apocalyptic literature (e.g. The Book of Revelation in the New Testament) was always a coded message about the current time, sometimes projected into the future, and ending with a message of hope. What Varley reveals to us in this novel of the near future is the state of the current human condition. True to the ancient tradition, he leaves us with a message of hope and not despair.

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