The Golden Globe by John Varley

Review by Sarah-Wade Smith

First off, ignore the blurbs on the back page. It will tell you that the protagonist of this novel, Kenneth Catherine "Sparky" Valentine has cyber implants that enable him to appear to be anyone, male or female, and that he is an itinerant thespian who wanders the universe with a a motly troup of players bringing Shakespeare to the benighted. As to former, well, yes, he does and yes, he can, within limits, but this has as much to do with the story as Amish baseball does. As to the latter, one can call Kenneth "itinerant" in the same way one can call a fleeing bandit, a boomer railroadman or a Tuareg nomad "itinerant". And, the motley troupe has only one very brief engagement among many.

In one sense, this story is very familiar territory for Varley's readers: the future universe where man has been displaced from old Earth by alien invaders and survives on a variety of habitat colonies. In another sense, Varley is having fun with an old Hollywood cliche, the down-on-his-luck Shakespearian actor with more witicisms than cash.

However, Valentine has talent. He's a very good actor, indeed! One might say that the operative word in Kenny's very extended run in the Outback worlds is "run". As in "from the Law". Kenneth, alas, is a wanted man. For the last 70 years he has been fleeing arrest on a murder charge from planet to planet. Whenever his truly formidable theatrical talents win him some measure of success, someone sees through his current alias and a John Law appears with a warrant for his arrest. Kenneth must once again abandon his well-earned wages and take to his heels with only his genetically engineered Bichon Frise dog and his imaginary friend and conscience Elwood P. Dowd for company. Between his legitimate stage engagements, he supports himself by a combination of street busking, con games, petty theft and the odd poker game.

We first encounter Kenneth in the Oort Cloud performing Romeo and Juliet. The actress playing Juliet hasn't shown up. Kenny, cast as Mercutio, is persuading the manager that he can act both parts. Remeber, he has those cyber implants that enable him to rearrange his bone structure and implanted subcutaneous mylar bags that can be inflated to create muscles or boobs.

However, rearranging his facial bones that way is far from painless. If done slowly and with care over a couple of hours, it's no more than a dull ache. However, going from hawk-nosed swordsman to demure maiden in five minutes flat every twenty minutes is beyond agony. For a showman like Valentine though, making sure the show still goes on is the only acceptable option.

Luckily he's Juliet when a private eye shows up backstage. "Oh, dear, Mr. Detective, he left the show two weeks ago." Now, out, take your final bow, then grab Toby the dog and run for the starport. As a precaution, Kenneth always has reservations on the next ship out. What he doesn't have are the wages Crocker owes him. He can barely covers the hidden surcharges on his tickets and he reaches Pluto broke.

A day's work on the street doing a puppet show nets him enough to get his James Bond style steamer trunk out of hock. A dumpster affords enough food to buy into the mulligan stew at a local hobo jungle and alone and broke, Kenneth "Sparky" Valentine celebrates his 100th birthday.

Next day, Kenneth, learns that his childhood co-star and friend, Kaspera "Polly" Polichinelli is coming out of retirement to direct a live production of King Lear. Kenneth actually is willing to die to play Lear (and he may have to) but how will he get to Luna in time?

While he wrestles with this problem, he takes a job performing on a cruise ship where he is accosted in his dressing room by one Ishambard Comfort, a fan of Kenneth's old Tri-D show and a member of the ruthless Charonese Mafia which Kenneth seems to have mortally offended. Expecting to be taken on a one-way ride, Kenneth triggers his steamer trunk whose gimmicks include a concealed laser and and net launcher. The system is supposed to subdue its opponent without serious harm, but a combination of bungles by both Comfort and Valentine result in the Mafioso suffering a mangled hand, a broken arm and a severely fractured skull.

Exit Kenneth, who literally mails himself to Uranus.

A warning for those of weak stomach and survivors of abuse, Kenneth's father, John Barrymore Valentine is a child abuser, a man willing to lock his eight year old son in an airlock and expose him to hard vaccuum for daring to disagree with him. An eight year old has about zero chance of stopping an adult abuser on is own. So, like many helpless victims, Kenneth Valentine deals with his abuse and helplessness by internalizing the blame for it and adoring his victimizer. He also deals by becoming a world-class manipulator.

While the ship bearing him as cargo hurtles towards Uranus, Kenneth flashes back in time to when he was eight. Left alone in a studio waiting room while his father audtions for a part, Kenny inadvertantly wanders into a casting call for a new kids show, "Sparky and His Gang", produced by Gideon Peppy. Having been trained as a classic Shakespearian actor since he could crawl, Kenneth emerges with the part of "Sparky", the nickname he will be known by forever after and a check for enough to bribe his father.

He also encounters a man who looks and sounds just like Jimmy Stewart but who claims to be Elwood P. Dowd, the character Stewart played in the movie Harvey. He befriends Kenneth, though Kenneth insists he is not fooled. Nobody else can see Elwood and Kenneth knows from almost the start that Elwood is an hallucination conjured up by his own lonely brain.

There is more trouble. "Sparky and His Gang" begins as a flop. Backstage, Gideon Peppy is loud, vulgar, bossy and determined that since he cuts the checks, you can do it his way or the highway. John Valentine is suave, sophisticated, charming, arrogant and determined that since his son is the star, obvously he gets creative control of the show. How else would you do it, really?

While these two wrangle, Sparky and his costar Kaspera Polichinelli quietly come up with the characters like Inky Tagger, Arson E. Blazeworthy, and Windy Cheesecutter that transform the show into a much edgier one that takes on kids' real secret fears and into a runaway hit.

The curtain rings down as a not-yet-teenaged Sparky Valentine executes a very hostile takeover of Gideon Peppy's empire, driving Peppy to sucide. Raise the curtain on Act III and enter Kenneth Valentine, as he arrives at Oberon II, a giant wheel world being constructed out of the Uranian moon of the same name. In a sense, the wheelworld itself is the star of this part of the book, as Varley invests a lot of time and imagination in creating the details of this setting. As an example, "gravity" on Oberon II is the effect of the Corieolis force of the wheel's rotary acceleration. So, trains travelling in the direction of the spin add their velocity to the wheel's and make the passengers effectively heavier, while trains going in the opposite direction to wheel spin, in effect, lower passengers relative velocity and thus are "light trains". Then again, as the construct expands and becomes more massive, the added mass itself slows the wheel and thus lowers the apparant gravity until thrust is applied to speed the wheel back up again. So, the locals are assessed "Gravity Taxes" to pay for thrust and the local weather reports predict the apparant local gravity for the next few days.

I can question whether all this detail is really needed and I suspect much of it just slows down the progress of the story, but it does contribute a wonderful sense of place and makes Oberon II the most real feeling alien setting of the book.

As for Valentine, he has barely had a moment to get romantically involved with a local Bluegrass fiddler, Polyphemia Jones and start searching for some old bank accounts he set up under aliases and then forgot about years ago (with references to W.C. Fields and Hank Williams, Sr.) when he is contacted by the Oberon computer. The computer is an artificial intelligence that supervises all the complicated and interlinked planetary life support systems. To my mind, it somewhat resembles the character of Mike in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. To do this, it has to be aware of just about everything-and everone- aboard the wheel. That includes Kenneth Valentine and his criminal record. However, privacy laws also prohibit the computer from ever divulging any information it acquires. So, it can't turn Kenny in to the cops, but it can ask him to turn himself in, or leave the station. And it can also warn him that it knows Ishambard Comfort is on Oberon.

Valentine, of course, starts to flee, but on second thought returns to warn Poly in case she might also be in danger from her association with him. He finds her already cruelly tortured and maimed and the word "oops" scrawled in blood above her head by a contemptuous Comfort. Who is, by the way, still there.

Last time they fought, it cost Comfort a hand and fractured skull. This time it costs him the life of his sister, and most of his limbs. Of course, with the medical technology of Varley's future, amputations or severed spines are merely temporary setbacks at best or worst. And Comfort is the son of (spoiler warning!) a culture that actively seeks out the experience of severe agony. So, he's hardly discouraged by his injures.

For Poly, it is a different story. Yes, the medical tech can clone and reattach the fingers Comfort severed, but the muscle memory has gone with the originals. She has gone from a talented concert level professional musician to struggling with basic beginners' exercises. She wants revenge. Kenneth Valentine wants safety. They find both by hijacking Comfort's luxuriously appointed space yacht. Exit Kenneth, Poly and the good ship Halley.

Act IV once again lapses into reverie. As Kenneth spends the flight time researching Comfort's mysterious native culture, making love to Poly and watching his pet dog, Toby carries on an affair with a tigress, he also flashes back to his late 20s when he at last decided to wind up the still popular "Sparky And His Gang" and finally go through a long, really long, delayed puberty. Reenter his long absent father, returned from Neptune trailing lawsuits for assault and battery, libel and charges of tax evasion and spouting plans for a small Shakespearian stage theatre. There follows Sparky's last game with the Amish softball league, his aborted role as Romeo and the events surrounded the death of his father at... Elwood's?!.. hands and Sparky's own flight into exile for the next seven decades.

Finally, Act V. Kenneth Valentine is once more on Luna, the closest thing to a home he has ever known. He is reunited with his old friend and co-star, Polly. A bittersweet reunion since Polly's refusal on religous gounds to use anagathic technologies means that after a century of life, she no longer has very many years left to her. Valentine finds he must now play King Lear on the very stage where his father was gunned down so many years ago, face Ishambard Comfort yet again and stand trial for the killing of his father.

Science fiction is often referred to as a literature of ideas. If that is so, then this book is certainly remarkable for the sheer number of ideas Varley manages to pack into it. The amount of time that it has taken me just to get through a bare bones synopsis should be some indication. I have mentioned the detail he put into the world of Oberon II. But I haven't had a moment to mention the Flacks, a church that literally worships the sainted entertainment stars of years past, the Heinlein Society or the Judicial Protocol Trials.

I could go on and I already have long enough. This one is good. Enjoy it.

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