BOOK REVIEW: “Irontown Blues” by John Varley (2018)

Having spent twenty years waiting for this book, and then wolfing it down in a day, it seemed only right for me to think about it for 20 hours before I started talking about it. I was disappointed, but perhaps something would change. Maybe I’d strike on some idea that would suddenly unlock it and the whole thing would strike me as brilliant. It’s happened before. Hell, it happened with the first book in this trilogy, Steel Beech, which I utterly hated upon first reading, but I now recognize as the best book of Varley’s career.

“Irontown Blues,” though…no. I don’t see it.

As with all the books in the trilogy, it’s standalone and mostly-self-contained. While events and people from the other books are relevant, those events will be replayed or explained here so the reader doesn’t have to schlog through 3 other novels and 13 short stories to figure out what the author is talking about. As a result, I’m going to dispense with a lengthy aside about the larger Eight Worlds universe this fits into for now, and just jump into the story.

In short, it’s a self-consciously noir detective tale. Chris Bach is a hard-boiled detective. He wears a trench coat and a fedora. He has a cheap office with a 1939 calendar on the wall. He actually lives in a community called Noirville.  A hot dame with a sexy dress and a glamorous hat breezes in and gives him a case. You know, the usual.

The big reveal is that all of this takes place on the moon about 350 years from now, and that Chris is one messed up cat. He’s dealing with a massively bad case of PTSD and some well-earned paranoia as a result. His detective shtick is his attempt to cope with it by play acting a life as a generic gumshoe. It’s something he knows well from old books and movies, and the simplicity of it appeals to his attempts to stay centered.

Apart from “The Big Glitch,” the event that traumatized Chris, the moon is always depicted as a near-utopia in the Eight Worlds stories, but that’s played down here. We focus on the seedy underbelly. Even so, as Chris himself admits, there’s not much crime. Not really enough to justify his hobby.

The Dame’s case is interesting: in a disease-free future, some guy is deliberately infecting people with very hard-to-cure illnesses. Nothing lethal, but still a serious crime. Chris takes the job and then the book all kind of falls apart.

Do you know what a MacGuffin is? As Hitchcock put it, it’s the thing that has no value in and of itself, but which drives the plot because everybody wants it and is trying to get it. The best example in this context (Though not a Hitchcock-related) would be The Maltese Falcon. The bird itself is basically worthless, but people are willing to kill and die for it. That obsession sets up the conflicts, action, and, more importantly we learn about the characters. Specifically Sam Spade, the detective and protagonist. It’s pretty much a standard detective storytelling device.

The problem in Irontown Blues is that the case itself is more-or-less a MacGuffin. It exists only to set up the book and get it rolling, and provide a spine for the narrative to hold on to, but it’s not even remotely interesting in and of itself. It’s really just a lot of rigmarole that serves no purpose, it’s just a pointlessly convoluted manipulation, which the book itself pretty much admits, but when the author tries to put meaning to it, to explain why the first two thirds of the novel are just padding, well, the explanation doesn’t really wash. I mean, it’s internally logically consistent, I guess, but it’s far from satisfying, and it never connected with me. And while it may be consistent, that doesn’t mean it’s good.

The real reason, I think, is that the author simply wanted to write a hard-boiled detective novel, and that’s pretty much the end of it. The Eight Worlds universe just happened to be the most convenient venue at hand.

This confuses me, because I know Varley can write a good detective story. He’s done it before. This mystery stinks, though. It is clearly just busywork. Part of that problem is that Chris is really bad at his job. Now this could be endearing. A crap detective can be charming or funny, but here, no, he’s neither. He gets a case – first one in forever – then procrastinates for three days before doing anything. When he finds out he has to go to Irontown, he gets scared and procrastinates for days longer. He doesn’t even send his sentient bloodhound, Sherlock, to follow the dame around.

Another problem is that Chris is basically the least interesting character in any Varley story ever. His dog is more interesting. Hell, his dog’s translator is more interesting, and she only turns up in the notes where she talks about the difficulties of translating dog-thought into people-talk. She’s never even ‘onscreen’, so to speak. There’s really none of the existential dilemma we find in the first two books in the series. In Steel Beach, Hildy Johnson is trying to find some meaning in life, and figure out why she’s suicidal. Then a disaster happens. She doesn’t find meaning, but she does at least kick the suicide thing. In Golden Globe, Sparky Valentine is an actor who’s led a life of no particular significance. He gets a chance to do something that will be the pinnacle of his career, something that will make him feel his life is well-lived, and he goes through hell, high water, the whole solar system, and fights with the mob in order to do it.

In this book there’s none of that self-examination and quest for meaning. A bland PTSDed-out ex-cop plays dressup, some people try to kill him at one point, and then he and his dog live happily ever after with his girlfriend (A minor character from Steel Beach) whilehis dog’s translator lusts after him.

Big deal.

The traumatic event in his life revolves around the disaster from Steel Beach, and we have an extensive flashback of his actions and aftermath, and, yeah, that stuff is actually pretty good, but it goes to show how little of the rest of the book stands out.

Readers of the series will want to know if it finally makes good on the promises at the end of Steel Beach and Golden Globe. Yes, but in a far less impressive fashion than we were led to expect.  In fact, it feels derivative of the penultimate book in Varley’s “Lighting and Thunder” tetragy.

Which brings up a second major problem with the book: Tone. Voice. Phil Collins sounds the same whether he’s singing solo or with Genesis, right? Sting sounds very different when he’s solo than he did with The Police. Varley, likewise, had a different authorial voice in the Eight Worlds series than he does in his other work. He also has a somewhat different voice in his standalone works, like “Slow Apocalypse,” which ‘sounds’ different than the Thunder-and-Lightning stuff. Here, however, we have an Eight Worlds story that doesn’t sound like an Eight Worlds story. It sounds like a Thunder-and-Lightning book. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just distractingly out of place. Remember that album of heavy metal covers Pat Boone did? Just felt wrong, didn’t it? Of course he did it as a joke, but Varley is serious here.

Another problem, I think, is that as this series has progressed, it has gotten less fantastic, and less disturbing. The moon is a a place where death itself is not an absolute certainty, nobody starves, nobody gets sick, everyone has access to all the information and entertainment there could conceivably be, everyone can live any kind of life they want, and folks change gender back and forth again and again based on their moods and the whims of the fashion industry. Hell, mosquitoes have been genetically modified so they no longer even bother people. Even this marks a slight reduction in marvelousness than the original Eight Worlds stories. (Which, despite a near-magical utopia, were plenty squick-inducing in places)

In this book, mention is made of perfect health, of gene-altered smart dogs, of cybernetic implants, but it’s all taken down several notches, and only mentioned when it absolutely has to be. It just feels different. Like he’s trying to put the mushroom cloud back in the bomb. I have to say that I do not think he’s actually trying to do that, it just feels that way by accident.

Another problem is that it absorbs the Anna-Louise Bach stories into the Eight Worlds universe. Those were a series of three stories about a lady cop who lives on the moon, and one where she’s a lifeguard living on a space station. They are in a world that is similar in some ways, but that’s all: similar. Until now.

Varley has decided to shoehorn them into Eight Worlds, and brother, believe you men, he has to hammer the hell out of them to make them fit. It contradicts the Bach stories themselves, and the Eight Worlds backstory. I found it terribly distracting, but that’s probably just me.

The final and biggest problem is just the lack of interest here. This feels less like a story that was begging to be told, a story Varley was busting at the seams to share, and more like the sort of thing he feels he’s put off about as long as he can, and is finally banging out from a sense of obligation, not passion.

In the end, it’s short, bland, kind of abrupt, and basically sugarless. And, sadly, it’s the end of the Eight Worlds saga, which has been running (infrequently) for 45 years. Not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a ‘meh.’

 

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