Steel Beach

Steel Beach

by John Varley

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A science fiction epic from "the best writer in America" (Tom Clancy)—Hugo and Nebula award-winning author John Varley.  

Fleeing Earth after an alien invasion, the human race stands on the threshold of evolution. Their new home is Luna, a moon colony blessed with creature comforts, prolonged lifespans, digital memories, and instant sex changes.

But the people of Luna are bored, restless, suicidal—and so is the computer that monitors their existence...

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101656099
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/01/1993
Series: Eight Worlds , #2
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 28,741
File size: 885 KB

About the Author

John Varley is the author of Slow Apocalypse, the Gaean Trilogy (Titan, Wizard, and Demon), Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, Red Thunder, Mammoth, Red Lightning, and Rolling Thunder. He has won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for his work.

Read an Excerpt




“In five years, the penis will be obsolete,” said the salesman.

He paused to let this planet-shattering information sink into our amazed brains. Personally, I didn’t know how many more wonders I could absorb before lunch.

“With the right promotional campaign,” he went on, breathlessly, “it might take as little as two years.”

He might even have been right. Stranger things have happened in my lifetime. But I decided to hold off on calling my broker with frantic orders to sell all my jockstrap stock.

The press conference was being held in a large auditorium belonging to United Bioengineers. It could seat about a thousand; it presently held a fifth that number, most of us huddled together in the front rows.

The UniBio salesman was nondescript as a game-show host. He had one of those voices, too. A Generic person. One of these days they’ll standardize every profession by face and body type. Like uniforms.

He went on:

“Sex as we know it is awkward, inflexible, unimaginative. By the time you’re forty, you’ve done everything you possibly could with our present, ‘natural’ sexual system. In fact, if you’re even moderately active, you’ve done everything a dozen times. It’s become boring. And if it’s boring at forty, what will it be like at eighty, or a hundred and forty? Have you ever thought about that? About what you’ll be doing for a sex life when you’re eighty? Do you really want to be repeating the same old acts?”

“Whatever I’m doing, it won’t be with him,” Cricket whispered in my ear.

“How about with me?” I whispered back. “Right after the show.”

“How about after I’m eighty?” She gave me a sharp little jab in the ribs, but she was smiling. Which is more than I could say for the hulk sitting in front of us. He worked for Perfect Body, weighed about two hundred kilos—none of it fat—and was glaring over the slope of one massive trapezius, flexing the muscles in his eyebrows. I wouldn’t have believed he could even turn his head, much less look over his shoulder. You could hear the gristle popping.

We took the hint and shut up.

“At United Bioengineers,” the pitch went on, “we have no doubt that, given twenty or thirty million years, Mother Nature would have remedied some of these drawbacks. In fact,” and here he gave a smile that managed to be sly and aw-shucks at the same time, “we wonder if the grand old lady might have settled on this very system . . . that’s how good we think it is.

And how good is that? I hear you saying. There have been a lot of improvements since the days of Christine Jorgensen. What makes this one so special?”

“Christine who?” Cricket whispered, typing rapidly with the fingers of her right hand on her left forearm.

“Jorgensen. First male-to-female sex change, not counting opera singers. What are they teaching you in journalism school these days?”

“Get the spin right, and the factoids will follow. Hell, Hildy, I didn’t realize you dated the lady.”

“I’ve done worse since. If she hadn’t kept trying to lead on the dance floor . . .”

This time an arm—it had to be an arm, it grew out of his shoulder, though I could have put both my legs into one of his sleeves—hooked itself over the back of the chair in front of me, and I was treated to the whole elephantine display, from the crew-cut yellow hair to the jaw you could have used to plow the south forty, to the neck wider than Cricket’s hips. I held up my hands placatingly, pantomimed locking up my lips and throwing away the key. His brow beetled even more—god help me if he thought I was making fun of him—then he turned back around. I was left wondering where he got the tiny barbells he must have used to get those forehead muscles properly pumped up.

In a word, I was bored.

I’d seen the Sexual Millennium announced before. As recently as the previous March, in fact, and quite regularly before that. It was like end-of-the-world stories, or perpetual motion machines. A journalist figured to encounter them every few weeks as long as his career lasted. I suspect it was the same when headlines were chiseled into stone tablets and the Sunday Edition was tossed from the back of a woolly mammoth. I had lost track of how many times I’d sat in audiences just like this, listening to a glib young man/woman with more teeth than God intended proclaim the Breakthrough of the Age. It was the price a feature reporter had to pay.

It could have been worse. I could have had the political beat.

“. . . tested on over two thousand volunteer subjects . . . random sampling error of plus or minus one percent . . .”

I was having a bad feeling. That the story would not be one hundredth as revolutionary as the guy was promising was a given. The only question was, would there be enough substance to hack out a story I could sell to Walter?

“. . . registered a sixty-three-percent increase in orgasmic sensation, a two to one rise in the satisfaction index, and a complete lack of postcoital depression.”

And as my old uncle J. Walter Thompson used to say, makes your wash fifty percent whiter, cleans your teeth, and leaves your breath alone.

I reached down to the floor and recovered the faxpad each of us had been given as we came through the door. I called up the survey questions and scanned through them quickly. My bullshit detector started beeping so loudly I was afraid Mister Dynamic Tension would turn around again.

The questions were garbage. There are firms whose purpose is to work with pollsters and guard against the so-called “brownnose effect,” that entirely human tendency to tell people what they want to hear. Ask folks if they like your new soda pop, they’ll tend to say yes, then spit it out when your back is turned. UniBio had not hired one of these firms. Sometimes that in itself indicates a lack of confidence in the product.

“And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for.” There was a flourish of trumpets. The lights dimmed. Spotlights swirled over the blue velvet drapes behind the podium, which began to crawl toward the wings with the salesman aboard.

“United Bioengineers presents—”

“Drum roll,” Cricket whispered, a fraction of a second early. I hit her with my elbow.

“—the future of sex . . . ULTRA-Tingle!

There was polite applause and the curtains parted to reveal a nude couple standing, embracing, beneath a violet spot. Both were hairless. They turned to face us, heads high, shoulders back. Neither seemed to be male or female. The only real distinction between them was the hint of breasts and a touch of eye shadow on the smaller one. There was flat, smooth skin between each pair of legs.

“Another touchie-feelie,” Cricket said. “I thought this was going to be all new. Didn’t they introduce the Tingle system three years ago?”

“They sure did. Paid a fortune to get half a dozen celebs to convert, and they still didn’t get more than ten, twenty thousand subscribers. I doubt there’s a hundred of them left.”

What can you do? They hold a press conference, we have to send somebody. They throw chum in the water, we start to feed.

Five minutes into the ULTRA-Tingle presentations (that’s how they insisted it be spelled, with caps), I could see this turkey would be of interest only to the trades. I’m sure my beefy buddy up front was tickled down to the tips of his muscle-bound toes.

There were a dozen nude, genderless dancers on stage now, caressing each other’s bodies and posing artistically. Blue sparks flew from their fingertips.

“That’s it for me,” I said to Cricket. “You sticking around?”

“There’s a drawing later. Three free conversions—”

“—to the fabulous ULTRA-Tingle System,” the salesman said, finishing her sentence for her.

“Win free sex,” I said. “What’s that?”

“Walter says it’s the ultimate padloid headline.”

“Shouldn’t it have something about UFOs in it?”

“Okay. ‘Win Free Sex Aboard a UFO to Old Earth.’”

“I’d better stick around for the drawing. My boss would kill me if I won and wasn’t around to collect.”

“If I win, they can bring it around to the office.” I got up, put my hand on a massive shoulder, leaned down.

“Those pecs could use some more work,” I told the gorilla hybrid, and got out in a hurry.

The foyer had been transformed since my arrival. Huge blue holos of ULTRA-Tingle convertees entwined erotically in the corners, and long banquet tables had been wheeled in. Men in traditional English butler uniforms stood behind the tables polishing silver and glassware.

It’s known as perks. I seldom turn down a free trip in the course of my profession, and I never turn down free food.

I went to the nearest table and stuck a knife into a pâté sculpture of Sigmund Freud and spread the thick brown goo over a slice of black bread. One of the butlers looked worried and started toward me, but I glared him back into his place. I put two thick slices of smoked ham on top of the pâté, spread a layer of cream cheese, a few sheets of lox sliced so thin you could read newsprint through it, and topped it all off with three spoonfuls of black Beluga caviar. The butler watched the whole operation in increasing disbelief.

It was one of the all-time great Hildy sandwiches.

I was about to bite into it when Cricket appeared at my elbow and offered me a tulip glass of blue champagne. The crystal made an icy clear musical note when I touched it to the rim of her glass.

“Freedom of the press,” I suggested.

“The fourth estate,” Cricket agreed.

The UniBio labs were at the far end of a new suburb nearly seventy kilometers from the middle of King City. Most of the slides and escalators were not working yet. There was only one functioning tube terminal and it was two kilometers away. We’d come in a fleet of twenty hoverlimos. They were still there, lined up outside the entrance to the corporate offices, ready to take us back to the tube station. Or so I thought. Cricket and I climbed aboard.

“It distresses me greatly to tell you this,” the hoverlimo said, “but I am unable to depart until the demonstration inside is over, or until I have a passenger load of seven individuals.”

“Make an exception,” I told it. “We have deadlines to meet.”

“Are you perhaps declaring an emergency situation?”

I started to do just that, then bit my tongue. I’d get back to the office, all right, then have a lot of explaining to do and a big fine to pay.

“When I write this story,” I said, trying another tack, “and when I mention this foolish delay, portraying UniBio in an unfavorable light, your bosses will be extremely upset.”

“This information disturbs and alarms me,” said the hoverlimo. “I, being only a subprogram of an incompletely-activated routine of the UniBio building computer, wish only to please my human passengers. Be assured I would go to the greatest lengths to satisfy your desires, as my only purpose is to provide satisfaction and speedy transportation. However,” it added, after a short pause, “I can’t move.”

“Come on,” Cricket said. “You ought to know better than to argue with a machine.” She was already getting out. I knew she was right, but there is a part of me that has never been able to resist it, even if they don’t talk to me.

“Your mother was a garbage truck,” I said, and kicked it in the rubber skirt.

“Undoubtedly, sir. Thank you, sir. Please come back soon, sir.”

“Who programmed that toadying thing?” I wondered, later.

“Somebody with a lot of lipstick on his ass,” Cricket said. “What are you so sour about? It’s just a short walk. Take in the scenery.”

It was a rather pleasant place, I had to admit. There were very few people around. You grow up with the odor of people all around you, all the time, and you really notice it when the scent is gone. I took a deep breath and smelled freshly-poured concrete. I drank the sights and sounds and scents of a newborn world: the sharp primary colors of wire bundles sprouting from unfinished walls like the first buds on a bare bough, the untarnished gleam of copper, silver, gold, aluminum, titanium; the whistle of air through virgin ducts, undeflected, unmuffled, bringing with it the crisp sharpness of the light machine oil that for centuries has coated new machinery, fresh from the factory . . . all these things had an effect on me. They meant warmth, security, safety from the eternal vacuum, the victory of humanity over the hostile forces that never slept. In a word, progress.

I began to relax a little. We picked our way through jumbles of stainless steel and aluminum and plastic and glass building components and I felt a peace as profound as I suspect a Kansas farmer of yesteryear might have felt, looking out over his rippling fields of wheat.

“Says here they’ve got an option where you can have sex over the telephone.”

Cricket had gotten a few paces ahead of me, and she was reading from the UniBio faxpad handout.

“That’s nothing new. People started having sex over the telephone about ten minutes after Alexander Graham Bell invented it.”

“You’re pulling my leg. Nobody invented sex.”

I liked Cricket, though we were rivals. She works for The Straight Shit, Luna’s second-largest padloid, and has already made a name for herself even though she’s not quite thirty years old. We cover many of the same stories so we see a lot of each other, professionally.

She’d been female all the time I’d known her, but she’d never shown any interest in the tentative offers I had made. No accounting for taste. I’d about decided it was a matter of sexual orientation—one doesn’t ask. It had to be that. If not, it meant she just wasn’t interested in me. Altogether unlikely.

Which was a shame, either way, because I’d harbored a low-grade lust for her for three years.

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Praise for Steel Beach

"Varley is the best writer in America. This book proves it."—Tom Clancy

"One of the few novels that deserves to be the works of Robert Heinlein...full of shocks and surprises, packed with humor and wit...sheer entertainment."—Starlog

"Exuberant...colorful and convincing."—Locus

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