I’ll admit up front that I’m a big John Varley fan. I only keep books on my shelf that I reread periodically, and I have TWO Varley books on prime real estate, Millennium and Persistence of Vision. When I discovered his bio-science fiction short stories, I’d never read anything like it. Gender-swapping, body modifications to live on barren worlds, and Moon disneylands. They were all new concepts to someone who had been raised on spaceships and little green men.
When I saw a John Varley novel I’d never heard of at my local library’s $1 used book sale, The Golden Globe, I bought it with great expectations. It was a slow start. An actor, performing Romeo and Juliet on Pluto, uses his face and body augments to change his appearance to put on a show as Juliet AND Mercutio. It’s painful and it’s low paying, and he gets out of town before the police track him down for his various scams that he uses to stay alive.
It’s rambling, and the first-person point of view doesn’t help. The actor and writer, Sparky, loves breaking the fourth wall, nudging the reader in the ribs, and talking about himself. He mails himself to Uranus in hopes of getting a famous acting job after swindling a rich family protected by the mafia. Only his faithful trunk saves him in time for him to escape.
Fortunately for us, the reader, Sparky doesn’t give us his daily routine en route (mostly he sleeps). Instead, he explains how he came by the name of Sparky and how he created himself as a child star. Not lacking for brains, he not only becomes rich and famous, he also ditches his overbearing father (a theater actor) and takes over the studio that owns his show. Since this is third person, it’s much cleaner and more focused. Sparky’s an interesting kid. While all this is exciting and well-written, we still don’t know Why. Is this book a biography of an actor in the future or is there a reason for his visit to Uranus?
Turns out the plot is the unkillable assassin chasing a hapless actor. Sparky has a few tricks up his sleeve (as does the author). During the first assassin attempt, Sparky’s Smart trunk saves him. The second time, the killer tortures and murders Sparky’s girlfriend. That time he’s saved by his Swiss Army Knife’s chain saw function (!). It takes a lot to kill someone in the future, and the girlfriend is resurrected. She and Sparky steal the assassin’s space yacht to make it to Luna in time for him to appear as Lear.
Sparky’s beginnings as a precocious child star dealing with his domineering father is interspersed with their adventures fleeing the assassin (there are tigers on the yacht). I generally don’t like authors who mix first person and third person points of view in a novel because you get one outlook where you’re the main character and another where you’re watching someone else. But Mr. Varley makes it work because the third person POV is the main character’s past, and the first person is his current dilemma. Very slick.
The first person exploits of Sparky as a beleaguered adult does meander and break the fourth wall too much, but I adjusted to it in the 527-page novel. “I won’t describe everyone in the meeting because none of them affect the story.” Oh, and the assassin is from Charon, a moon of Pluto, where they never lose a contract.
Like the con-man actor, Mr. Varley has a few tricks up his sleeve. I was shocked two thirds of the way through the book to discover that Earth and Jupiter had been taken over by alien invaders, and that’s why most of the actor’s work takes place on other planets in the solar system. Alien invaders! Don’t you think that would be the main lead for the book? No. It barely gets a mention. Also, around this point, we’re suddenly in the viewpoint of a gunslinging doctor in the Wild West disneyland. It’s only a couple pages and completely unnecessary as young Sparky is the one getting patched up. Interesting.
After getting his girlfriend killed (he did come back for her) and spending time with her on the fantastic yacht, Sparky dumps her when he reaches Luna, and she doesn’t make a reappearance. Unexpected. On the first night of performing Lear, the assassin shows up in Sparky’s dressing room, and we learn why Sparky had to flee Luna seventy years earlier after dealing with his father. Sparky’s dog helps him survive the day, and the assassin becomes a dead body in the play.
But that’s not the climax. No. Sparky is arrested after his outstanding first performance and put on trial for a murder he committed before fleeing Luna decades earlier. That scene is very dramatic and theatrical. I won’t spoil the ending, but Jimmy Stewart is involved, Sparky’s three-thousand-pound uncle appears, and an old girlfriend has an explosive revelation for the computerized Judge.
I appreciated the author bringing in his earlier concepts from other stories such as the disneylands, body mods, and resurrections. It was an exciting read. I’m not sure the hero is someone I’d want to read more about, but I devoured the novel, a sign it held my attention. I skimmed over the lengthy science explanations (with diagrams!). Goodonya, John!