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The Ophiuchi Hotline
John Varley
Gollancz paperback £9.99

review by Patrick Hudson

In the mid-21st century, humanity is unceremoniously evicted from Earth by mysterious aliens known only as the Invaders. The remnants are pushed out to the moon and then to the other planets of the Solar system. Humanity has an ally, however, in the shape of the Ophiuchi Hotline, which beams advanced scientific data to Earth from an unknown benefactor in deep space. By the 25th century, this has enabled humans to develop advanced technological solutions to the problems of living off Earth and medical knowledge to relieve the effects of aging, disease, injury and even death. Biological and medical advances provided by the Hotline have given people the ability to transmute their bodies for particular environments or merely for aesthetic effect, and Varley's future is colourful and vividly described.
   Lilo is a scientist on Luna, the oldest of the new colonies, who has broken laws regarding research into changes to germ line human DNA, a grave taboo for the struggling human race. Facing execution, she's given a chance to escape by Tweed, a shady politician working in secret to rid the Earth of the Invaders at whatever cost. Lilo unwillingly agrees and story follows her to death and rebirth several times as she tries to break free of Tweed's influence.
   Varley takes a fairly straightforward setup, and adds layers of surprise and complexity that frequently amaze and bedazzle the reader. Lilo and her allies display considerable cunning, matched only by Tweed's single-minded pursuit of his goal regardless of the human cost. This forms the kernel of the plot, and the mysteries of the Invaders and the Hotline are tied up somewhat hastily in the final few chapters, having little impact on the main conflict between Lilo and Tweed.
   If the eventual climax falls a little flat, it is perhaps because Varley seems to be winging it for much of the novel. The thread of plot is somewhat twisty and the intricate, and the complex plotting we are used to from, say, Alistair Reynolds or Ken MacLeod is here replaced by a more relaxed, improvisational approach. This distinguishes it from its contemporary equivalents, which are highly influenced by crime and thriller writing, using an elegant investigatory framework to hang the action and speculation. The current crop of space opera writers knit clues and hints early into their plots, to be brought out later and shown to be part of a grand scheme, whereas Varley seems to be thinking on his feet, retrofitting what has gone before to meet the needs of the story as it develops.
   This does not prevent The Ophiuchi Hotline from being an enormously enjoyable work. Varley examines the philosophical implications of broken and multiple lifelines with great insight and manages to tie it to the nature of the Invaders and the Hotline. Although it seems forced in terms of plotting, it is so right thematically that the reader is willing to forgive the contrivances that pull it all together.
   Varley's debut novel, The Ophiuchi Hotline was first published in 1979 and despite being over 20 years old (a long time in science fiction) the radical post-human future it portrays is at least as fresh and convincing as today's new hard SF. This and Varley's early short story output marked him out as a writer to watch, but his subsequent work never really lived up to this potential. Perhaps his vision was just a little too radical for a market that embraced Greg Bear and Orson Scott Card, and maybe his natural audience in the 1980s was caught up in the cyberpunk writings of Gibson, Sterling, Rucker et al, and he fell between two stools.
   This is part of the Gollancz Science Fiction collector's edition series, being published in trade paperback size with distinctive yellow covers that hearken back to the old Victor Gollancz editions of the 1960s and 1970s. Gollancz (part of the Cassel group since the early 1990s) has always had a strong commitment to new SF, and it's heartening to see some of these books back in print in such fine editions.
The Ophiuchi Hotline

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