Oct 032016

steel-beach Steel Beach, by John Varley

Synopsis: A tour of a transhumanist future on a lunar colony, where Humanity struggles against the ennui of irrelevance, and a sovereign Friendly AI struggles against value drift.

Book Review: It is really impressive how ahead-of-its-time this novel was. It was published in 1992, and for the most part I felt like it could have been published last month (with a few notable exceptions–the “we update our news sites every hour” must’ve seemed like a lot back then, nowadays we update in real time…)

I was wary at first, because the story starts with a journalist being told to write a series of articles about how life is different now than it was 200 years ago (due to the approaching bicentennial of humanity’s exit from Earth). That just felt like a very ham-handed way of saying “I, the author, shall now pontificate on my personal vision of what a cool future would be for hundreds of pages.” But I was pleasantly surprised. The world is indeed pretty cool, and its oddities and quirks kept me interested in the initial chapters. The plot, while it does flag in a few points, keeps things moving pretty well. Varley’s style totally steals the show though! He writes with a very strong voice that really brings his protagonists personality to the fore and lets it shine. I may not like everything about the protagonist, but I feel like I know who they are after spending this novel with them.

The big draw with this book is Varley’s dive into the meaning of life. Not in the pretentious “Let us ponder upon the meaning of life” way, but in a somewhat-more-intelligent-than-average character trying to figure out what exactly to do, and how to be meaningful, in a world that doesn’t really need humans anymore. Let me take that back – not just “try to figure out”, but actively churning his/her life experiences in multiple attempts to try stuff and find a thing! It’s cool to see someone actually make efforts and go through several feedback loops.

Hell, the protagonist even falls back on the old “revert to survivalism” and “have children” clichés, and fortunately doesn’t come to the conclusion “It turns out we all just need to go back to living like our ancestors.” :)

Most interestingly, the book doesn’t really give any answers. Varley certainly doesn’t have any method to push, aside from the usual “keep seeking, there’s gotta be meaning somewhere.” It’s more of an exploration of ennui than a refutation of it, and has a bittersweet taste throughout. If that thought turns you off, this is not the book for you. But I enjoyed it.

One big downside—most of the climax happened off-stage. That’s a storytelling sin, IMHO. But the book wasn’t really about that plot, so I’m more forgiving of it than usual.

This is not a book that I would give a hearty “You must read this as soon as you have free time!” endorsement of. However I’m glad I read it, and I would recommend to my past self to read through this at some point, when there’s a lot going on in my life and I need something to bring me some calm for a bit. So, a Mildly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Holy crap, there is so much in here to talk about! The entire novel is a comment on modern life and how we deal with it. There are so many hooks for conversation you may have to choose to focus just on the ones most interesting to your group. This will spark a lot of discussion about human nature, the coming age of automation, the banality of modern news media, the ethics of X and/or Y, and so forth. It is absolutely fantastic.

And it does so in a way where the focus is on the fiction, not where the fiction is just some thin excuse for the author to expound on how much Kids Suck These Days or whatever. It’s got a legit good story with good characters, who happen to be wrestling with those issues, but who were written for their own sake. Not to serve as mouthpieces.Quite well done.

One would be excused in thinking that this book was written specifically for book clubs that like read a neat story and then discuss cool things. Highly Recommended!

  2 Responses to “SF/F Review – Steel Beach”

  1. You appear to never get any replies to these book reviews, so I figured I’d reply and let you know that people (meaning myself but I assume I’m not the only one) read them and appreciate them. I bought Ancillary Justice because of your recommendation for example and haven’t regret it.
    It’s just difficult to reply to a review when we haven’t read the book yet. :-)

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