Good-bye Robinson Crusoe and Other Stories
by John Varley
Cover Artist: Vincent Chong
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596065284
Date: 30 April 2013 List Price $45.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Goodbye Robinson Crusoe and Other Stories collects eleven previously out of print stories by John Varley. Nine of these take us on a tour of the solar system, starting at (or near) the sun and moving all the way out to the far reaches of the Kuiper belt. Most of these stories take place in Varley's eight planets setting, in which highly intelligent aliens who live in gas giant planets have evicted the human race from earth, and humanity now lives on and around the other eight planets in the solar system. I loved this setting when I first encountered it in Verley's novels The Ophiuchi Hotline and Steel Beach, but this time around the thinness of the prose and characters, combined with somewhat aimless plotting, left me disappointed, and the other stories share the same faults. There are some nice moments here, particularly in Varley's descriptions of alien environments, but these stories feel like they have not stood the test of time.
Varley's strength is in his vivid imagination and depiction of alien environments. His settings range from a comet on close approach to the sun that has been converted into a luxury cruise for wealthy tourists, to the earthquake-riven surface of Mercury, to recreation of earth's biosphere beneath the surface of Pluto. Varley's descriptions stem from a mix of scientific fact and informed speculation, but they always feel real. It is impossible to read these stories and not wish that you too could stroll across the surface of Venus, seeing in infrared.
However, it often feels as if Varley spent more attention on the settings than on the stories he tells within them. Many of the stories share a common plot structure. There is a brief set up of the characters, with some sort of interpersonal conflict. Then, some sort of external hazard interposes itself, putting the main characters in (usually mild) physical danger and giving Varley a chance to explore the particular hazards of the chosen setting. The characters ride out the disaster, with little direct agency, and in the process resolve their interpersonal conflict. This basic plot arc is repeated in "In The Bowl", "Goodbye Robinson Crusoe", "The Black Hole Passes", and "Retrograde Summer". It is a threadbare plot structure, since the natural disasters and interpersonal conflicts are relatively unconnected, so that the story ends up feeling like two different plots uncomfortably shoved together. It is further hampered by the fact that in many of these stories Varley's characters feel emotionally shallow and unengaged. I never really invested in most of the characters.
There are exceptions to this. "Blue Champaign" creates a more fully rounded character in Megan Galloway, a star of a new form of media that can capture and replay emotions. She is a quadriplegic who relies on an advanced mechanical prosthesis to move, and her chosen career also makes her a captive of her public persona. Megan's love-hate relationship with both her own body and her public image make her a compelling character. However, this is mixed with a rather vicious and vitriolic critique of mass market entertainment, which felt overdone and extremist. Still, the emotional heart of this story raises it above the others in the collection.
"The Manhattan Phonebook (abridged)" is the other stand-out story of the collection, a brutal attack on the mentality that makes nuclear war seem to be an acceptable option, and of the the optimism of 'after the bomb' stories in SF. Varley does away with standard literary techniques, talking directly to the reader. The story is unconventional and effective.
Sadly the other stories in the collection do not live up to this standard. Too often the characters feel thin and unconvincing, and the plots seem like flimsy excuses for sighting in some exotic local. Varley has a good grasp of how to bring the various exotic locales around the solar system to life, but there are other SF authors who can do the same but combine it with more cohesive plots and more interesting characters. After reading this collection, I can't help feeling that most of these stories were out of print for a reason.