Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe and Other Stories by John Varley (book review).

Amongst Subterranean Press’ massive output of limited editions is this one, ‘Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe And Other Stories’ by John Varley. What makes this one particularly unique is that the eleven stories used are ones that are currently not available in book form, which tends to me mean, I haven’t read them neither. Not so. Some I have, some I haven’t but then I was reading John Varley back in the 70s and positively hooked by some of them. You’ll have to decide for yourself depending on how comprehensive your Varley book collection is. If you’re a fan of Science Fictions author John Varley’s work and missed some of them then you will want to go after this particular book. More so because they are here in, as Varley describes in the introduction, in order of a Grand Tour of the Solar System and still maintains some semblance of chronological order. As I only have an advanced uncorrected proof, there is no way of checking the copyright dates, although Varley does indicate that they were all printed originally in the 1970s. Every story has an introduction by him giving some insight as to what was intended. They’re also mostly set in his reality where surgical implants are common and gender frequently changed an made his reality distinct from any other SF author. Here’s a selection of some of my favourites.


‘The Funhouse Effect’ is almost a Titanic-scale disaster about to happen as an SF writer in the future is on-board the last voyage of a manned comet on its last trip through the sun’s corona before it is broken up. Think of a ship in a similar situation, only having equipment being dismantled that is considered not vital to be voyage and dropped off along the way. Things like engines and life-boats being left. Understandably, there are a series of revolts. It would be too much to explain the ending although from the time period, it wouldn’t be inappropriate but today, I suspect even Varley would go more towards the edge than here.

‘Retrograde Summer’ is set on Mercury. Varley explains the bane of SF writers is having an acknowledged fact, like Mercury never rotating, being disproved. I’m not sure if I agree that it messed up some stories before it was known. About the only one I remember reading who used that was Asimov and when it was reprinted in one of his anthologies, he said the story was still too good to waste rather than apologise. With this story, also the origin for the book cover, has twin clones finally meeting on Mercury, a little secret kept from one of them and the joys of swimming in liquid mercury, providing you’re suitably attired. Of course, there’s more to it than that. If anything, the story is more about the social amours of Varley’s reality than the dressing around it.

I have vague memories of reading Varley’s ‘In The Bowl’ back in the 80s. A Mars settler goes to Venus for some excitement by collecting some rare blast jewels, they aren’t that stable until they explode because of their nitro-glycerine content. With the help of a young girl, Ember, he achieves his ambition and discovers these jewels can grow over-night and they’re surrounded. The story is as gripping as I remember it but it is characterisation of Ember who is prepared to do anything to leave the fiery planet that I always remembered. Added to my list of questions now is whether or not her head feathers stayed up or down in her automatic microskin spacesuit.

‘Blue Champagne’ is the longest story here and set in Earth orbit with a swimming pool in freefall. It’s also the setting for a romance between feelie media star Megan Galloway and lifeguard Q.M. Cooper. Megan without her sidekick exoskeleton would be a complete invalid and sharing her feelings and reaction to things pays for its enormous cost. Into this mix, the romance becomes strained. Considering how advanced surgery is in the Varley reality, I’m still pondering after all these years why they could never just repair the nerve tissue considering how advanced the surgery was. At the start of this story, Varley explains how his first wife was disabled by polio so I can understand how repairing such damage had a big part of his reality.

The lunar story is ‘Bagatelle’ where a cyborg atomic bomb has announced its countdown to detonation. Police Chief Anna-Louise Bach has to enlist holidaying terran bomb expert Roger Birkson to sort things out. Bach doesn’t like the flippant Birkson and there is a weird chemistry between them as the later does his job. The ending felt a little rushed but we’ve all been guilty of that. Someone really ought to look at this story as film potential.

The title story, ‘Good-Bye, Robinson Crusoe’, is more a coming-of-age story, although in the Varley reality where age is indeterminate, things are never quite what they seem. Although the setting is Pluto, Varley admits that the setting could be anywhere. What makes this story fascinating is how Varley describes how Piri’s in-build mechanisms allow him to change into a water-breather.

‘The Black Hole Passes’ is another example of Varley giving emotional content to his characters. Jordan and Treemonisha are out beyond Pluto and whose only communication between the two is by hologram connection. Jordan is feeling the intense loneliness and things aren’t helped with the discovery of a talking black hole and Treemonisha has to rescue him. In some respects, I wish Varley had done a little more with the story as to whether the actual talking done by the black hole was real or imagined but the depiction of loneliness and creature comforts sets the standard for a significant problem in space.

The final story, ‘The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged)’, was written at the height of The Cold War and the effects of a nuclear strike. No last minute rescues. No survivors at ground zero. It could apply to any city and should still be required reading.

You might have noticed that I’m a fan of John Varley’s stories. As such, I’ve probably got all these stories already. If you haven’t, this collection of eleven stories is worth considering adding to your bookshelves. He’s often over-looked as one of the greats which is a shame because he has a bevy of interesting characters here that you aren’t likely to see elsewhere. Just be careful when signing up for his revolutionary surgery.

GF Willmetts

(pub: Subterranean Press. 338 page deluxe hardback. Price: $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-528-4)
check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com
released: 30 April 2013


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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