I read a lot. An average of a book every two days (I’ve slowed down a bit over the years). And while I love finding new authors, new series to get lost in, sometimes there’s nothing better than realizing it’s been just long enough to go back and reread an old favorite.
At the moment I’m rereading Steel Beach by John Varley, for perhaps the 15th time. Hard to say why it appeals to me so much — along with its companion/sequel Golden Globe — without saying “everything,” but it works for me on a lot of levels.
Quick synopsis: Humans occupy the other planets and moons in the solar system, which is good because the Earth was invaded by aliens so powerful they won in less than a day and may never have actually noticed we were there. A hundred years later on the moon, intrepid and increasingly dissatisfied reporter Hildy Johnson shares her time between the hustle and bustle of Luna City and the untamed wilderness of the fake Texas inside of the maintained Disneylands, tracking down stories and dealing with the near-godlike Central Computer that keeps this idyllic life going. No one is hungry, almost every injury can be healed instantly, gender choice is purely optional and as easy to change as buying a new car, and Hildy has amazing luck when new stories break. So in a world with virtually no death and no want, why does he (and so many others) keep trying to commit suicide?
A huge, rambling book, Steel Beach lets us listen in on the wiseass thoughts of a world-class cynic as he (and later, she) investigates the underbelly of the perfect world. Lots of sex but no real sex scenes, lots of philosophical musing, plenty of action, some great characters, a fully-developed and utterly believable future world, and the best opening sentence of any Hugo- and Locus Award-nominated book, ever: “In five years the penis will become obsolete!” There’s a strong Heinlein feel here — along with some obvious homages to the master — but with more laugh-out-loud humor and people you might actually imagine meeting.
An excerpt: Hildy, flush from a big story, has decided to change genders to female, having been male for the last 30 years (he’s 100) and has gone to see an old friend who is currently in vogue:
When you get the full treatment from Bobbie, no bodily detail is too small. The big, gaudy, obvious things were quickly disposed of. Breasts? What are people wearing this year, Bobbie? As small as that? Well, let’s not get ridiculous, dear, I’d like to feel a little bounce, all right? Legs? Sort of . . . you know . . . long. Long enough to reach the ground. No knobs on the knees, if you please. Trim ankles. Arms? Well, what can you say about arms? Work your magic, Bobbie. I like a size five shoe and all my best dresses are nines-and thirty years out of date, enough time for some of them to be stylish again-so work around that. Besides, I feel comfortable in a body that size, and height reductions cost out at nearly two thousand per centimeter.
Some people spend most of their time on the face. Not me. I’ve always preferred to make any facial changes gradually, one feature at a time, so people can recognize me. I settled on my basic face fifty years ago, and see no need to change it for current fashion, beyond a little frill here and there. I told Bobbie not to change the underlying bone structure at all; I feel it’s suitable for a male or a female countenance. He suggested a slight fullness to the lips and showed me a new nose I liked, and I went flat-out trendy with the ears, letting him give me his latest design. But when I showed up for work after the Change, everyone would know it was Hildy.
I thought I was through . . . but what about the toes? Bare feet are quite practical in Luna, and had come back into vogue, so people will be looking at your toes. The current rage was to eliminate them entirely as an evolutionary atavism; Bobbie spent some time trying to sell me on Sockfeet, which look just like they sound. I guess I’m just a toe person. Or if you listen to Bobbie, a Cro-Magnon. I spent half an hour on the toes, and almost as much time on the fingers and hands. There’s nothing I hate like sweaty hands.
I put considerable thought into the contemplation of navels. With the nipples and the vulva, the navel is the only punctuation between the chin and the toenails, the only places for the eye to pause in the smooth sweep of the female form I was designing. I did not neglect it. Speaking of the vulva, I once again proved myself a hopeless reactionary. Lately, otherwise conservative women had been indulging the most outrageous flights of fancy when it came to labial architecture, to the point that it was sometimes difficult to be sure what sex you were looking at without a second glance. I preferred more modest, compact arrangements. With me, it is mostly not for public display anyway. I usually wear something below the waist, some sort of skirt or pants, and I didn’t want to frighten off a lover when I dropped them.
“You won’t frighten anyone with that, Hildy,” Bobbie said, looking sourly at the simulation of the genitals I’d just spent so much time elaborating. “I’d say your main problem here is boredom.”
“It was good enough for Eve.”
“I must have missed her last showing. Can’t imagine why. I’m sure it will prove quite useful in the circles you move in, but are you sure I couldn’t interest you in-”
“I’m the one that has to use it, and that’s what I want. Have a heart, Bobbie. I’m an old-fashioned girl. And didn’t I give you a free hand with the skin tones, and the nipples, and the ears and the shoulderblades and the collarbones and the ass and those two fetching little dimples in the small of the back?” I turned at the waist and looked at the full-body simulation that had replaced one of the mirrors, and chewed on a knuckle. “Maybe we should take another look at those dimples . . .”
When you’re looking for something to read, what are your fallback books, your old favorites you can read again and again? I have plenty more…