John Varley: the Ophiuchi Hotline

Lilo had wanted to be a medico. As early as she could remember she had been good with her hands, and while she was growing up her most cherished toy was her junior surgery kit. She would operate on herself and her friends, always keeping abreast of the latest fashions in face and figure. But her mother and her teachers knew she was cut out for better things …


Why I read it

Easter weekend, and I ignore the book I’ve packed in favour of J’s, a $10 sci-fi from The Book Grocer.

The fact it was in our luggage at all is testament to the power of repackaging old sci-fi in shiny new publishers’ series. I don’t think either of us would ever have bought the book if it still looked like this:


Stick the same story in a crisp trade paperback, though, and add the endorsement of being selected for a series, and it’s suddenly as trustworthy as can be. Never heard of the author or title before? No matter! The red Gollancz Ribbon guarantees your time won’t be wasted. Step up!

The contents

The Ophiuchi Hotline is set 500 years in the future. Humans have fled the Earth in wake of a destructive invasion by vastly superior aliens, and are now scattered across various planets and moons in the solar system. Technology has advanced in leaps and bounds and it’s mostly thanks to knowledge received over the Hotline – a mysterious extraterrestrial transmission that seems to originate from the constellation Ophiuchus. But the most recent message seems to be a bill for services rendered. Who has been sending the messages, and how can humanity possibly pay them back?

The story is told through the eyes of Lilo, who we meet on the day of her execution. She’s been sentenced to ‘permanent death’ for experimenting with human DNA – but before she can get tipped into the singularity, she’s rescued/kidnapped by a powerful man who plans to use her in his grand plan to retake the Earth. A lot of crazy things happen to her from this point on, and the Gollancz Ribbon was right: it’s worth reading.

How to make this book

Be a kid and an adult at the same time. Be a feminist while demolishing its meaning. Be of your era and beyond it. Be a scientist as well as an artist. And write in a much, much more sophisticated way than the appearance of your website would suggest.

1. Kid v. adult

After an hour reading this book I took a break and marked the page. It was page 40. That’s some slow reading, and it’s mostly because of the density of new ideas. The creative concepts in this story come so thick and fast it makes you ashamed how lazy you’ve become in your own imagination. You remember back when you were a kid and thinking up new stuff came easily to you. What’s happened since? Has your brain shrivelled up and died? That’s what Varley makes you feel. His brain is well-oiled and works like a five year old who still wonders if rainbows could be square if they really tried.

Here’s a game to play before you read the book. Think about these, and then read the book and see how you match Varley.

  • In the future, body modification surgery is simple, fast and routine. You decide to spend a few decades working alone on a space ship. How would you modify your body so it’s configured optimally for zero-gee existence?
  • Much of humankind is now based on the moon. Going between buildings with current space suit technology would involve a lot of wasted time fiddling with bulky suits, helmets, power and oxygen supplies etc. Design a better system.
  • You fall into Jupiter. Describe the experience.
  • A pinhead-sized black hole falls into a planet. Describe what happens.
  • Vastly superior aliens want a present. What do you get someone who has everything?

Varley makes me want to work hard at being more creative. I want to be like him and think up crazy stuff like a kid, then make it hang together like an adult.

2. Feminist v. gender nihilist

Gender-wise, this book is the antithesis to the other thing I’ve been reading recently: Wheel of Time. Both of them have ‘strong female characters’ who go out and have adventures and develop skills and eat the Bechdel Test for breakfast – but it’s very, very wrong to think this means they treat gender in the same way. In fact, they couldn’t be more different.

In The Ophiuchi Hotline we’re essentially post-gender. Body modification is so easy a kid can do it with a kit, and as a result people can change their gender like their clothes. Lilo is unusual because she more stably orients to female than most; she’s only spent a few years out of her fifty as a man. But like pretty much everyone else, she chooses to maintain the body of a 19-year old, uses sex as a casual and open part of life, and is afforded the same opportunities – and responsibilities – as everyone else. She is a smart, strong protagonist who happens to be female. But does ‘female’ even have any meaning when physical limitations have been engineered away, technology has taken care of all labour, and gender switching has dissolved all cultural stereotypes?

Where Ophiuchi has the genders as firmly equal, Wheel of Time sets them as fundamentally separated. The magical power that permeates the universe is split into male and female halves as surely and irreconcilably as a magnet has a north and south pole. As a result, Egwene and Nynaeve et al can fight evil alongside Rand all they want, but they’ll never be the same as him (or he them). He feeds off scarey man-power and they tap into lovely lady-magic. The differences feed all the way down society in a ‘Men are from Mars, Women from Venus’ thing that means the genders always treat each other differently. But does this matter, if they’re all treated with equal respect?

I know which one I’d rather have a kid of mine read.

I’d rather have my kid read the Ophiuchi version of gender relations because they get to know a female character for whom being a woman has no importance whatsoever in getting stuff done. I like to imagine a world like Lilo’s where your obituary talks about your skills and achievements respectfully no matter what your gender. (We’re not there yet.) Where women and men have exactly the same role models – people of either gender who are brave (like Lilo) and compassionate (like male primary school teacher Cathay). Where if high heels and lipstick were truly fun and empowering to wear, men would wear them as much as women; where if full-time parenting was truly fantastic, as many men would do it as women. Where bad science purporting to show girls instinctively like dolls and boys trucks is more widely exposed as faulty. Where parents who say girls are fundamentally different to boys because they raised their kids identically but their daughter ‘just naturally loves to dress as pink fairies’ are asked more often, ‘If you raised your kids in Tokyo speaking Russian, do you really think they’d grow up only speaking Russian?’

Of course, I wouldn’t let my little kids read The Ophiuchi Hotline anyway – there’s far too much sex. Not to mention a graphic suicide attempt on page two. They can start with He Bear, She Bear and wait til they’re much older.

3. Of your time v. timeless

It wasn’t until someone else pointed it out that I noticed how ’70s’ this story is – by which I mean has tonnes of casual sex and nudity. In the context of the story though, neither the ideas nor the language seems to have dated. Varley’s taken ideas of his time and woven them into something big and universal. A nice trick if you can pull it off.

4. Science v. art

There are black holes, genetic modifications, four-D maps of personal existence, and force fields. But there is also a space ship built and fitted out as a homage to Jules Verne, diaphanous symbiotic creatures that flit between planets, and fashions in leg-hair. There’s tech and humanity. Basic ingredients to a science fiction novel done well.

There’s also a good plot, well-paced, with creative storytelling: first-person mixed with third, point-of-view switching, and use of extracts of official documents at the start of chapters. A complex storyline told cleverly and clearly.

5. Books v. covers

I checked out the author’s website. Can you believe that this guy, with the yellow-beige background and the use of text that’s bold, underlined and italic all at the same time, could be the same one who created Lilo? Sigh. I am guilty of judging books by their covers often, aren’t I. Or maybe it’s just a case of judging books’ covers.

Anyway – the content of the site does reflect an image of Varley as you’d expect from his writing. He seems compassionate, humble and able to appreciate the beauty around him wherever he is. And from that site and his Wikipedia page I now know there are other works in The Ophiuchi Hotline‘s  ‘Eight Worlds’ universe – which I’ll be keeping an eye out for.


This book was mostly read in Sydney.


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