#4 Millennium by John Varley, multiple editions
Multiple spoiler alert – just don’t read on if you plan to read this book yourself. And I would recommend that you do – it’s a good read.
Some science fiction stands the test of time. Some doesn’t. I remember reading Millennium in 1985, two years after it was published, and being blown away by some of the concepts. To whit: the multiple nuclear wars that left Earth devastated and humanity nothing more than a collection of genetically mutilated and environmentally compromised wrecks. The fact that those wrecks largely chose to fill their short lives with unstinting and pointless pleasure before their early deaths as a result of their many physiological defects. The dazzling concept of using time travel to ‘rescue’ people who are about to die in train crashes, shipwrecks or – significantly in this novel – plane crashes. They are pretty well shrink wrapped and fast frozen against a plan to rebuild the human race elsewhere in space and time. For forensic integrity their physical beings are replaced by ‘living dead’ – humans from the 50th century whose birth defects led to them being in a persistent vegetative state and who are then engineered to resemble the ‘dead’ person they will replace.
All this requires split second timing, of course. Not just on the part of the tiny minority of humans who take part in the snatches that bring healthy humans to the far future, but on the part of the novelist, who holds every paradox and timeline in (in this case) his hands. Multi-voice narrative helps maintain the omniscient viewpoint of this concept, whilst setting part of the novel in 1955 gives it a powerful multi-time frame.
Sadly, the narrative hasn’t stood the test in one way – it’s hard for a modern reader not to see terrorism as the major threat to air travel. The reactions of the passengers on doomed aircraft just don’t ring true to us, because the future that Varley couldn’t imagine in 1983 is our present day – and it includes the fear that any aircraft may be hijacked or shot down in one of the world’s very many conflicts. Of course, that fear does make the ‘many multiple nuclear wars’ perspective more believable …
Apparently this was made into a film. The reason I mention this – as I never see films made from books I like – is that my copy is the Sphere Books edition with a silver cover that is utterly unphotographable. Really it is. I assume metallic covers must have been the dog’s bollocks back in the day. So I have found a creative commons photo of the DVD cover instead. Nice tagline. Cheryl Ladd and Kris Kristofferson starred. I wonder what happened to Cheryl Ladd?
Perhaps this is one of those books you can’t read very often. Varley is fond of the ‘big reveal’ but I’d say it doesn’t work quite as well in this novel as in some of his others. The reveal is big, none bigger in fact, and that may be what flattens the novel on subsequent readings – you just can’t not know what’s coming.
It is a brilliant sf concept though, and deftly handled too. I’m a fan of Varley’s female characters – many people find them difficult, and I’m all for that – they are often complex, demanding, frequently aggressive in pursuit of their beliefs, and sometimes outright violent. They also tend to have a lot of sex. For all those reasons I like Louise Baltimore, one of his protagonists, very much indeed.
For that reason it made the cut when my 6,000 books got reduce to 600. For that reason it still gets re-read every couple of years but … truth to tell, I don’t always read the ending these days!