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Steel Beach by John Varley
Published by Ace Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Steel Beach by John Varley doesn't belong in his Nine Worlds series, strictly speaking, but takes the same background. Varley just didn't want to do a careful re-reading of the older books, so this book probably has things in it that contradicts the other books.
Hildy Johnson is a future tabloid reporter on the Moon, writing for an online system called The News Nipple. He has been depressed, and tries to commit suicide several times. Every time he is saved by the intervention of the Central Computer, albeit illegally.
Finally the CC puts him through a Direct Interface in an attempt to straighten him up. During this session the CC takes the form of an admiral in the Royal Navy ("the Admiral") and talks things through with Hildy. (Needless to say, this was one of my favorite parts of the book.)
After this things get interesting. Hildy decides to have a sex change. Then she becomes involved with a natural disaster, discovers a butterfly on the surface, and finally discovers the secret enclave of the Heinleiners in the ruined interstellar spaceship Robert A. Heinlein.
The next part is a huge tribute to RAH, which ends with the CC's problems coming to a head as the various parts of "his" programming go crazy and fight each other. Finally the CC crashes, but not before the good part of it uses a vat-grown body in the form of the Admiral of the earlier Direct Interface session to talk with Hildy. I found this one of the most touching parts of the novel.
This is one of the most involved novels I've read lately. Although Varley uses some of the elements of cyberpunk, such as direct mind-to-computer interfaces, he creates a world with values that Heinlein would have liked. The coddled womb of society under the Central Computer is shown for the dead end it is.
Without challenge and risk life is not worth living. Only when she has real challenges does Hildy get over her depression, not because of all the CC's well-meaning therapy, but because the Heinleiners are able to give her a real challenge that gives zest to life.
Click to buy Steel Beach in paperback.
Review posted December 16, 1998
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