by Michael W. Bard
©2006 Michael W. Bard -- all rights reserved
"In five years the penis will be obsolete."
Got your attention, didn't it?
Steel Beach, by John Varley (a fairly well known SF author branching out into SF-influenced modern thrillers), is sort of the capstone of his future history colloquially known as 'The Eight Worlds'. Except that it isn't. As he states, it shares ideas, but is not internally consistent with those other works. So, it stands alone as a capstone of a major branch of ideas.
It also has a reputation as a sex novel. In the sense most people believe it, I have to strongly disagree. Yes, sex does occur, but while biological coupling does occur, it's not described. This book is not porn.
What it does deal with is human sexuality -- that is to say, what it means to be woman, what it means to be man, and what we consider each to be. It's about sexual identity, about human sexual relationships, but not about human sex. Got it?
Anyway, the story is about one Hildy Johnson, tabloid reporter on the moon after the Invaders have contemptuously kicked humanity off of Earth. The immediate survival of humanity is no longer in doubt (the struggle to make the off-world colonies self-sustaining has already been accomplished before the novel starts). Instead, humanity is going on with its own little concerns, mostly selfish, as everybody wants to make sure that the survivors aren't noticed and then squashed.
Society on the moon is run by the Central Computer, and sex change is frequent and common. Surgery exists to transform individuals into other forms. In fact, surgical technology is so good that a human can easily be expected to live for centuries. As long as death isn't immediate, and medical aid is nearby, horrible maiming wounds can be fully healed in hours.
The novel follows Hildy as he (and later she) experiences news stories, and deals with her life, where she's going, and why she wants to kill herself. If she even does. For it turns out that the Central Computer may also be malfunctioning, but even it doesn't know for sure. Halfway through the novel Hildy undergoes a mid-life crisis, becomes female, and eventually joins the Heinleiners, a group of rugged individualists who live outside of the civilization maintained by the Central Computer.
And then all hell breaks loose.
I must admit that this has always been one of my favourite novels. It's a big one, and is widely considered Varley's tribute to Heinlein. There are lots of ideas in it, bits of wonder, lots of wacky weirdness that seems all too likely. And yet, ultimately, it's a novel that explores what it means to be a human male, to be a human female -- to be, above all, human.
So, unless you're uncomfortable with descriptions of human body parts, read this. It's well worth the time. But if you're looking for porn, then go elsewhere.
P.S. The line that opens this review is the same line that opens the novel. That's about as 'dirty' as it gets.