John Varley Steel Beach
author image book cover

First hardback published in the US by Ace Putnam (also by Easton Press of Norwalk, Ct), 1992 July 1. US Ace paperback (also Harper Collins) 1993. First published in Britain by Haper Collins 1993 (hardback) and 1994 (paperback).

Charles Daney's Being and Nakedness site provides information about John Varley and his novel Steel Beach. It sounded good, so I got hold of a copy.

According to the "Author's Note" at the end of the book: "This story apears to be part of a future history of mine, often called the Eight Worlds. It does share background, characters, technology with earlier stories of mine ... Steel Beach is not really part of the Eight Worlds future history." So, if you've read other John Varley Eight Worlds books such as Titan, you'll know what to expect. Mostly. The general scene is the solar system in the not-too-far future, where cosmetic surgery has evolved into total body-modification, and is the norm. Sex-changing is common, and the same individual can be a mother and a father at different periods of their life. Steel Beach is set on the moon, where standard communitities exist alongside "Disneylands" - recreations of Earthly societies and environments from various locations and periods.

The lead character of Steel Beach is Hildy Johnson (a very intentional reference), journalist and general searcher after information. When he (and, later, she) starts researching himself / herself and how he / she fits into the larger picture, various cans of worms come to light, including some neat variations on the lunar society created by Robert Heinlein in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Heinlein achieves a more substantial presence later in the book, giving his name to both a substantial artefact and a loose collection of non-conformists.

Partial and total nudity are entirely acceptable in this society - and can be desirable, to show off one's latest body. As you can see from the extracts, it is clear that this is only within the context of an Eight Worlds version of our current cult of the body beautiful. Ugliness should be covered up or disguised. However, Varley acknowledges that nudity can be practical, with one character spending her whole life nude. Anyone for brontosaur farming? Ignore the dinosaurs, the special features of a lunar colony, DNA-modification and all the other SF constructs and the attitudes to nudity are not disimilar to those found in current non-SF novels of many differing styles, eg Nicola Barker's Wide Open and Leslie Meier's Star-Spangled Murder. Put another way, in terms of social nudity, Varley isn't delivering (particularly) speculative fiction. Which is in no sense a criticism, merely an observation.

Steel Beach is a hefty tome, with my paperback having almost 600 pages. This bulk may be the root cause of some discontinuities and other indications of editorial sloppiness. Given that Varley has a whole series of plots to work through, and a substantial cast of characters to occupy the reader's attention, the book's size is justified. For those with only a passing interest in SF, it may be too large a dose of the genre to swallow. Otherwise, dive in.

Ratings:

NudityNaturist nudityA good read?
barebum graphic naturism graphic book graphic
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