io9 Talks to John Varley About Climate Disaster and Space Opera

Science fiction author John Varley has been seducing readers and boggling their minds since the 1970s, when he began publishing his Gaean Trilogy (Titan, Wizard, and Demon), as well as other novels like The Ophiuchi Hotline, set in his posthuman 8 Worlds universe. His most recent novel, Rolling Thunder, came out last week. It's the third in a trilogy that marks a departure for the author: set in the near future, the books explore what happens when environmental disasters force part of Earth's population to settle on Mars. In Rolling Thunder, a woman born and raised on Mars has to deal with the fallout of the perhaps-final assault on Earth's biosphere from giant, incomprehensible aliens. We caught up with Varley on email to ask him about the new book and what he thinks of contemporary space opera (hint: he hates it).

After the epic disasters and hard science future of the two novels that preceded Rolling Thunder, this novel feels almost like an idyll, or a romantic comedy. How do you see the story of Podkayne fitting into the larger questions about the way Earth handles environmental disaster and space colony politics that you raised in the first two novels of the series?

I don't, really. Podkayne is a Martian, through and through. Though she is saddened and horrified by events on Earth, she is more concerned with how it will affect Mars. She's not a scientist, nor is she political. Her only concern about the ongoing destruction of the Earth is for the people being uprooted, displaced, and killed, and with what she and her fellow Martians can do to help. The fate of the planet doesn't much concern her. You could think of her mission to Earth late in the story as being like the Concert for Bangladesh. She's doing what she can, but knows she can't stop anything.

You've talked about how Heinlein is one of your influences, and certainly critics have compared your work with Heinlein's. When it came to writing a novel that is overtly an homage to a specific Heinlein book, why pick Podkayne of Mars? What is it about that novel in particular that drew you in?

It really wasn't the novel itself, it's all the juvenile novels. I believe I mentioned six of them in the last chapter. (Can you find them all?) I don't think Heinlein's Podkayne is like my Podkayne.

One of the compelling aspects of your writing is that you're never afraid to bring romance and sex into your hard SF space opera scenarios. But the romance has changed a lot over the past 4 decades. You've gone from tales about alien-human sex, lesbian lovers, and people who get sex changes as easily as haircuts, to tales about much more conventional, heterosexual human marriages like the one Podkayne has. What's changed for you? Will you ever bring your readers back to worlds where aliens with three sets of genitals cavort with sex-changed humans, or are you more interested in dealing with human relationships that more closely resemble those that exist on Earth now?

Different things are appropriate to different stories. These novels are set in the near future, whereas the others are set in the distant future. I don't see things changing that much in 50 years. So I don't think anything has changed for me. When I get back to that other universe, there will be more unusual sex. One of these days I hope to write a third novel in the Steel Beach, Golden Globe trilogy, entitled Irontown Blues. The reason I haven't written it is that I don't yet know what's going to happen.

There's an overarching pessimism to Rolling Thunder and the rest of the series regarding how humans deal with climate disaster. Did the recent disasters in New Orleans and after the Asian Tsunami affect your perspective in these novels?

As I said in the Afterword to Red Lightning, I had already begun writing about a tsunami (which was originally going to hit Indonesia) when the real tsunami arrived ... in Indonesia. It scared the hell out of me. I'm not in the prophesy business, I'm a writer, I tell stories. I had hoped that would never happen again, but it did, in the same book. This time I had completed writing about the tsunami in Florida and the breakdown in social order that resulted, when Katrina hit New Orleans, and I found myself looking at the very scenes I had described. I wondered if I had been unreasonably pessimistic in my descriptions, but must say I felt vindicated, because Katrina was not one ten-thousandth as destructive as the disaster I described ... and yet, things fell apart. "Y're doin' a heckuva a job, Brownie!" So am I pessimistic? What has happened in the last seven years that would lead me to optimism?

Mutterings among critics and writers indicate that space opera may be on the rise again. What are some themes from classic space operas of the 50s and 60s that you'd like to see SF writers taking on again? And what are some themes you'd just as soon leave behind?

Space opera has not only arrived, it has conquered all, since the release of Star Wars. Don't get me wrong, I loved that movie (and none of the sequels), but I don't see it as science fiction. The 50s and 60s, as I remember them, was the time when SF was moving away from the pulp crap of L. Ron Hubbard and hacks like him, and into more concerns of sociology and character. I frankly don't read much SF, haven't for a long time, so I don't know if space opera has taken over the written word, but it sure dominates on the silver screen. Even one of the few movies I've seen recently that seemed to be trying for at least a smidgen of scientific accuracy, Sunshine, was pretty stupid.