Persistence of Vision, The (novella) by Varley, John, 1978

Persistence of Vision, The (novella) by Varley, John

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Though the Utopian sub-theme is popular in science fiction, I think it is right to say that most of the so called "utopia" books out there actually have a dystopic slant, in that they tell the story of a failed utopia. That certainly is the kind of situation that lends itself to drama, but after completing John Varley's The Persistence of Vision, I must say that if you have a neat enough idea, you can make a utopia tale work without being reduced to a travelogue or boring descriptions of what travelers see. This one suffers just a tiny bit because it drags a little in places, and because the story just kind of wound out in the end. Four out of five stars.

The Persistence of Vision takes place in the near future, in an ecologically, economically and socially ruined U.S.A. There are refugees fleeing local wars, there are food riots in all the major cities, a big depression is in full swing, and a China Syndrome type meltdown has occurred in a south east state, earning virtually every town there the nickname of "geigertown." The protagonist of the story sets out from Chicago after being RIF'ed from his current job. He sets out on foot to the west coast where he intends to get a job on a ship headed to Japan, where things are better. Along the way he falls in with several communes in New Mexico and Arizona. Most of the communes are holdovers from the 1960's. For the most part they are self sufficient because they grow their own food. So as he travels, he stops for lengths of time and learns how the various communes live. He leaves each time because for one reason or another, usually drugs and/or laziness, the communes fail, or he gets tired for a while of the orgiastic lifestyle. As he walked across the Hopi and Navaho reservations in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona, he came across a beautiful walled commune that was home to a population of people who were blind and deaf. The mothers of the commune's inhabitants had contracted a form of Rubella during an outbreak decades before, and had all been born without the ability to see, hear or speak. Many of the children were abandoned, so the government at the time set up a place for them to live and gave them all stipends and disability benefits. The children saved their money, and with the aid of patient and loving teachers they devised a method of communication with their hands, called "touch speak." Some graduated from the program and became rich and famous and the group eventually saved up enough money to buy the commune, and had local contractors and attorneys build it for them.

The commune itself was a marvel of design, well planned out for the blind to tend to the work of maintaining it. Paths were well set out and were etched with specific icons that could be felt with the toes. Rows of crops were marked with touchable signs and everything was kept in certain locations. Kitchens, lavatories, baths and all manner of buildings were set up so that the blind could function without need of assistance. Varley spent a lot of time describing the commune, as well as how it was built. The purpose of all of it was to show how self sufficient and motivated the people who built it were. But the greatest thing about these people was the way that they communicated. It must have been a sensual and wonderful way to communicate. They were masters of body movement and could ask questions of those with ordinary senses such as "where did you go to college," without words. But amongst themselves they had multiple levels of "touchspeak." The first level involved finger movements in each others palms. More advanced methods of touchspeak could occur with different body parts. The people, who Varley referred to as "the students," since they taught themselves virtually everything they needed to know about how to survive on a commune, could quite literally not cease communicating with each other if they were touching. They had large communal, orgy-like sessions where the purpose was not to copulate (though some would, or course), but to communicate with each other with touchspeak. A flutter of a particular muscle against a certain body part sent a precise message, as did flutters of eyelashes against the eyebrow, or the cheek, or what have you.

As I became more fluent in handtalk, "the scales fell from my eyes." Daily, I would discover a new layer of meaning that had eluded me before; I was like peeling the skin of an onion to find a new skin beneath it. Each time I thought I was at the core, only to find that there was another layer I could not yet see.

I had thought that learning handtalk was the key to communication with them. Not so. Handtalk was baby talk. For a long time I was a baby who could not even say goo-goo clearly. Imagine my surprise when, having learned to say it, I found that there were syntax, conjunctions, parts of speech, nouns, verbs, tense, agreement and the subjunctive mood. I was wading in a tide pool at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

And of the language itself:

Now this is going to sound crazy, I know. It sounded crazy to me when I thought of it. It dawned on me with a sort of revelation that (Pink's) word for talk and mine were miles apart. Talk, to her, meant a complex interchange involving all parts of the body. She could read words or emotions in every twitch of my muscles, like a lie detector. Sound, to her, was only a minor part of communication. It was something she used to speak to outsiders. Pink talked with her whole being.

Soon after arriving on the commune the man met a 14 year old girl, and they fell in together. The girl, whose name was sometimes Pink (names were fluid things to the Students) was a child of two of the Students, and could see and speak. She was his indoctrination to the culture and rituals of the commune, and eventually they fell in love. Pink was also the man's language teacher. The man did not mind being touched; if he had, he would not have survived a day at the commune. But as he spent more and more time at the commune, he gradually found himself wanting to stay there more and more. Eventually he made up his mind to give up on outside society altogether, and petitioned for admission. But a problem arose. The society of the Students was the most open that the man had ever encountered, and he found that as he learned more of the language, and progressed to the upper stages of the language, he had trouble with the idea that he was always communicating and could hold nothing back. That phase of the language was a subjective mode of communication, where the "speakers" would build up their own lexicon to communicate ideas that they would understand. That was the nature of higher level touchspeak. To touch was to tell, and those who were touching others could not hold anything back. The man found this disconcerting, and he just could not get over it. So with great sadness he left.

The story does not end there, but I think I've spoiled enough for today. Varley created something really beautiful here. The Students are some of the most wonderful people I have ever found in SF. There was a hippy loveliness about them that really made the pages of this story glow with an aura as I read it. I found them to be very reminiscent of The People from Zenna Henderson's stories, and I found strong similarities also with Well's race of sightless people from In the Country of the Blind.

Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4.5 star(s)


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