Ophiuchi Hotline, The by Varley, John, 1972
John Varley, like for example M. J. Engh, is one of those competent, award winning authors whose first work brightly outshines just about everything else he has since put out. It seems that every time I pick up a new Varley book, I am more disappointed than the last time. But Ive said in the past that based on the strength of the Ophiuchi Hotline, that I would give Varley a pass on most any mediocre piece he manages to crank out in the future. The problem is, finding this book these days is next to impossible. The only version I am aware of that is currently in print is the UK's Gollancz edition in their Masterpieces of SF line.
The Ophiuchi Hotline is a first contact/alien invasion novel. Written in 1977, it takes place approximately 500 or so years in the future. In the late 20th century, just after mankind had started populating a moon base, a silent and ultra powerful armada of ships lands on the earth, and in the gas giant Jupiter. We approach the ships with an open mind, and when they get no response, they attack. The ships basically shut down all power sources on the planet in the blink of an eye, cut off access to the moon, and begin to remake the face of the planet. They knock down cities, dig up crops, and begin to plant odd trees and grasses. Within 2 or 3 years 10 billion humans starved to death, leaving only the moon as a stronghold for humanity. Sometime after the end of the "war," humans begin to receive a signal from the direction of 70 Ophiuchi. The signal is largely untranslatable, but the 10% or so that we can decipher was full of useful information in all sorts of fields, especially genetics. For the 500 years up to the time of the novel humans received and deciphered the hotline and completely remade their society into something called the Eight Worlds, which appears to be made up of all the major planetary bodies in our solar system, including the moon, but not including Earth or Jupiter.
The Invaders motivations are not clear, though they are somewhat explained at the end of the book. It seems that they are members of a race that developed in a gas giant. They have apparently invaded our system to first husband, then uplift sea mammals on Earth, and a race of leviathans that live in Jupiter. Apparently there are no intelligent beings in Saturn, Neptune or Uranus, as those bodies are left alone.
The book tells the story of the fate of humanity through the eyes of multiple clones of a character named Lilo. The human society left after the war understandably becomes quite conservative, and in the intervening 500 years between the Invasion and the action of the book, really has only begun to loosen up. After the Invasion and receipt of the Hotline the government passed strict laws about the manipulation of DNA out of a concern for some disease or condition that could destroy the fragile remnants of humanity. Even after the spread of the human empire to 7 other celestial bodies and growth to trillions through cloning and reproduction, the laws were never changed out of fear that someone would invent a weapon that would only annoy the Invaders and humanity would be extinguished. Lilo is a rogue geneticist who was caught doing illegal experiments and sentenced to death. On the eve of her execution a Luna politico named Tweed breaks her out of jail and leaves a clone of Lilo to be executed. Tweed wants Lilo to go to a far distant satellite of Jupiter named Poseidon where he runs an illegal weapons development lab. Her job there will be to make sure that the researchers have enough to eat, a task she is suited to as her original training was with GM foodstuffs. Tweed also fabricates another clone of Lilo and sends her to the Hotline receiver. It appears that after 500 years of transmission the Ophiuchites are now sending a bill for services rendered, and nobody has the language skill to translate the bill 100%. Tweed wants the raw data from the hotline, which the government carefully guards, so he can determine what is really going on. To add to the confusion a third clone of Lilo wakes up in the rings of Saturn in a container that holds her illegal DNA project.
Things get a little confusing from this point on, as there are so many Lilo teams running around. Varley made the unfortunate decision to populate these teams mostly with clone versions of the same assistants, so when reading the book, its not immediately apparent which team he's writing about. However, the Lilo on Poseidon learns that Tweed plans on dropping a quantum black hole into Jupiter to see if the Invaders react. She tries to stop him, but gets trapped on the ship holding the hole and goes into the Jovian atmosphere, where she meets an Invader and is teleported to Earth. There she learns that there are still humans on Earth, but they are living the lives similar to early hominids with no technology. She walks from NYC to Miami where she lives for a number of years. Ultimately out of frustration she fashions a harpoon and attacks a whale, which starts the Invaders on a slow course to ridding the solar system of humans for good.
The Lilo that awakened in Saturn's rings drives her ship to Poseidon, mates it with the satellite, and boosts it to 1/2 C towards Alpha Centauri in an attempt to give humanity a new home.
The Lilo that Tweed sent to the terminus of the Hotline learns that the transmission is not coming from 70 Ophiuchi, but from 1/2 a light year out from our system in the direction of that star. She hires a modified being named Javelin to take her and her party out to where they think the transmission is coming from, and actually meet their benefactors. The meeting spells big, big changes for humanity. The Benefactors want our genome to strengthen their own, and advise us that if we fail to join them, we are doomed as there is no place for intelligent creatures of our type in the universe, which is dominated by much more intelligent creatures of the Invaders type.
The hardest part of getting through this work was the set up. Varley went out on a limb with such a grand background, and unfortunately took way too much time setting up the action in the book. Of a 180 page novel, fully 80 are dedicated to setting up the history of the system and introducing the characters. This leaves only 100 pages or so for the major action. Varley apparently had a B-12 shot or something after page 90 or so, because the action and plot become riveting after that point. If you decide to read this book, keep in mind that the plodding set-up will reward you greatly in the end.
Overall I am torn about this work. Varley's prose is simple and easy to understand, but the complexity of the subject matter robs from an overall clear understanding of what he is truly saying. For example, the multiple copies of individuals in virtually identical parties doing different things in complete ignorance of the others is pretty confusing from a storytelling point of view. Another element of complexity I actually found quite interesting was the description of humanity. People have figured out how to do virtually anything they want with their bodies, and changed sexes, skin colors, and limb configuration every so often. As a result sexual stereotypes had pretty much been done away with. Varley could have gone many directions with a society of equals, and he did give his female characters strength overall and confidence in their feminine traits, but in the end he wound up with an oversexed society with little inhibition. Rape seemed to be the only taboo. At first the open and frank sexuality of the characters seem a little overdone and stereotypical for a post-pulp era SF novel. And within the context of a conservative society this kind of sexual experimentation seems a little counter-intuitive. This seems to be Brian Alsiss' opinion on the matter, but I think now I see something different. Conservatism as a political goal was not the end-all-be-all of the Eight Worlds success strategy. Keeping conflict of any kind from arising between the surviving humans and the obviously superior Invaders was, and in that context, satiety, I think, goes far to accomplish that goal. Society had completely re-engineered itself in its 500 year history not only to survive in a vacuum or near vacuum, but with the threat of the Invaders being so close to them. I think now that the sexual behaviors of the citizens of the Eight Worlds were part cause and effect of that particular stress. Anyway, since this re-read my opinion of this book has gone up. Four stars out of five.
Copyright © 2007, Gregory Tidwell