Sunday, June 19, 2005

Novel: Get Fuzzy

Mammoth John Varley 2005 Ace Books

I’ve been a John Varley fan for what seems like practically forever. OK, from the late 70s, at least, when his short stories started showing up in Galaxy Magazine. Cyberpunky before the genre even had gotten any traction, he wrote about a transformed solar system and posthuman development, its big novel being The Ophiuchi Hotline. He had an accessible style and advanced ideas and alien thoughts and his characters had a great way of taking everything in stride.

And he left the SF Business for a sojourn in Hollywood, a decade-long black hole that ended up with the production of a slightly average movie, but then he’s come back, and now, much like Poppy Z. Brite, is changing his act a little bit.

Mammoth feels like Varley’s movie book, his version of a film blockbuster, him doing Micheal Crichton, playing with science in a mass market sort of way. Its got the goods compared to Crichton, Cussler, and Clancy, but he makes me miss his crunchy near-future solar system goodness.

Here’s the general gist of it: Megabillionaire Howard Christian wants to clone a mammoth. His people locate one in Nunavut, frozen in the ice. Alongside the dead mammoth are two dead humans from 13000 years ago. Once of these humans is wearing a modern wristwatch and carrying a steel briefcase. And the story suddenly isn’t about mammoths at all (though they are a part of it throughout, including a young mammoth hybrid named Fuzzy), but rather about time travel.

And time travel stories have their own problems, usually revolving around the question of free will and predestination. In a free will universe, an open system, you create the problem of everything being negated though character action (“The reset button” that plagued a lot of Star Trek episodes). In a predestined universe, the only question is how you are going to put the blocks back together. Varley embraces the latter, and depends on some small cheats to pull it off – things disappear from the narrative text, only to show up later with an explanation of where they had been hidden, and why the characters (or the readers) did not have all the information. This is frustrating.

And there are more than a few holes in the plot. For example, if I (a billionaire capable of building a death ray into my humungous office building) find an anomalous body from the past that is an obvious time traveler, the first thing I do is run as many scans on it as possible to identify the body against a modern database, including anyone who is working around said time machine, regardless of whether I believe time to be an open or closed system. It sounds like Rule #2 of Time (Rule #1 is "Don't step on butterflies". But no one does thinks of this in the book (and we are supposedly dealing with real smart people in the book).

Now in the Crichton/Cussler/Clancy universe, this kind of stuff is expected. From Varley it’s a bit of surprise, and a frustrating one. The other problem is something that Varley does that is not akin to the other authors – he has characterization going on. Perhaps a bit too much characterization. The megabillionaire/badguy has enough quirks to make four movies with Christopher Walker – Howard Christian is a Howard Hughes/Bill Gates types with insecurities, a hard early life, a strain of kleptomania, a fetish for cars, a god complex, and a desire to be Batman. Varley's protagonists, Scientist Matthew Wright and elephant handler Susan Morgan, similarly have their quirks, and a five-year jump in the middle of the book allows everyone to evolve, or at least gain new quirks.

This is not Varley’s typical fair – he’s going in a new direction, and for that should be applauded. Oddly, the very things that have made him strong in his original works now prove problematic in his new field. Despite this he remains eminently readable and smooth. I'm just having trouble ignoring problems I would let pass in other "modern adventure technothrillers" (well, no, I would mock them as well, or avoid them entirely). But Varley gives me a higher set of expectations. This is the danger of any established author.

This is book really feels like it wants to be movie, and may have been a pitch once or twice. And it would be a good one. Perhaps that's part of the problem - Varley's earlier work was interesting and alien and utterly unfilmable (One painful attempt - Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, which was roasted by MST3K). Mammothone is down-to-earth, accessible, filmable, and almost pedestrian. And its a little bit more unsatisfying as a result.

More later,