Or why you could read Steel Beach
by John Varley
Steel Beach is a novel about a future where humanity has been exiled from Earth by conservationally inclined aliens. The surviving humans now live on the Steel Beach of the lifeless planets of solar system in manufactured habitats. Here humanity has prospered, living a permissive, technologically advanced life and cared for by a benevolent computer intelligence. People are functionally immortal, able to change their appearance and sex on demand, and provided with all of their basic needs and wants. But gifted with all of these wonders, people are beginning to feel bored and, more and more, worryingly depressed and suicidal. Which is an even bigger problem when the NAME NAME, the lifegiving computer intelligence itself, becomes infected with suicidal thoughts and feelings. The novel follows Hildy NAME, an experienced reporter, struggling with ennui and depression, who is commissioned by the NAME NAME to help uncover the source and solution of this growing dissastisfaction.
Steel Beach is a novel that I have a pretty mixed reaction to.
Steel Beach is without a doubt an interesting book. Steel Beach is at it's core a novel that explores the meaning of contemporary life through the lens of a madcap Sci-fi adventure. We see the role of technology explored through the guise of a suicidal AI that humanity needs to live. We see celebrty culture, the news media, animal rights activists, libertarians, Sci-fi dreamers, parents, athletes, and more all examined and lampooned. We see gender roles and identity and sex all explored in intimate detail. If anything, Steel Beach reads like a smart man trying to figure out life and what it means to him and sharing that exploration with readers through this story. In that context, this is a fascinating book; like or hate his ideas, seeing these concepts worked through in such a rigorous and gonzo way is pretty interesting.
Steel Beach also has a lot of problems, though. John Varley was born in 1947 and has views that jar with a contemporary reading. (For context I was born in 1987.) While he's clearly a liberal guy, some of his ideas, particularly those dealing with gender, sex, and sexuality are out-dated and problematic by my standards. This leads to some pretty infuriating moments in the novel and just a general sense that other authors probably could say more interesting and current things about gender than Varley. (I would love to read a Sci-fi novel by a Trans author exploring gender in a society where bodies are fully mutable.) There is also a pretty systemic future-anachronism problem: Steel Beach is rife with contemporary cultural references from the 19th and 20th centuries which in a novel set in a post-civilization moon colony in the distant future make zero sense. I only kind of understand cultural references from the 1920s and know virtually nothing about popular culture from like, the 1890s. The idea that people living in a distant, alien future who are deeply versed in contemporary culture is bonkers and frustrating. It's kind of one of my Sci-fi pet peeves.
(As an aside, Steel Beach is kind of interesting in that it clearly is riffing on The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert A Heinlein, and the novel Glasshouse by Charles Stross, a personal favourite, draws some inspiration from Steel Beach. Novels!)
On balance I think I would recommend Steel Beach. It wouldn't be my first choice of book for most readers since I'm not sure it's good enough to be a timeless classic or current enough to work especially well as contemporary Sci-fi. That said, I found Steel Beach engagingly insightful, engrossingly infuriating, and always interesting the entire way through. As a person trying to sort out what adult life means, reading a smart person from a generation before trying to sort it all out was worth the time invested in the read. I can't guarantee that Steel Beach will please every Science Fiction fan, but if you are interested in reading someone examine the modern meaning of life, Steel Beach might be up your alley.