Shaun Farrell interviews John Varley
Shaun's QuadrantJuly 2005
John Varley, the Nebula and Hugo Award winning author, was born in Austin and raised on the Gulf Coast. He began to study science at Michigan State University, but soon discovered that school is boring. John began writing science fiction in 1973, and since then he has produced hit novels such as The Ophiuchi Hotline, Titan, Demon, Millennium, Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, Red Thunder, and his newest work, Mammoth. John also spent ten years in Hollywood where he labored on a screenplay based on his novel Millennium. His latest short story collection, The John Varley Reader, was published in 2004.
Visit Johnís website at www.varley.net for extensive movie and book reviews by Mr. Varley, as well as detailed information on his prolific career.
Shaun Farrell: The first thing I noticed about your new novel, Mammoth, is the unique structure. The book actually starts on chapter 5, and the first part of the book is filled with segments from Little Fuzzy, A Child of the Ice Age. How did you develop the structure of Mammoth, and what did you hope to achieve?
John Varley: What I hoped to achieve was simply to have a little fun. I developed the structure by simply changing what had been Chapter One to Chapter Five, and then ordering the rest as they would have occurred in ďrealĒ time, whatever that is. As for the bits about Fuzzy, see the next question.
SF: I thought the ďLittle FuzzyĒ segments were very effective in making Fuzzy a real character in the novel Ė a Lassie of the Ice Age.
JV: That was the problem. The book was about Fuzzy, but he didnít appear until halfway through the book. I donít know just when the solution occurred to me, but it seemed to work out well.
SF: In part, Mammoth tells the story of a multi-billionaire attempting to impregnate an elephant with the sperm of a frozen wooly mammoth discovered in Canada. Of all the extinct animals you could have used, why were you drawn to the mammoth?
JV: Everybody loves a mammoth. They love dinosaurs, too, but they wouldnít love a real one. Theyíre reptiles. Mammoths are warm and fuzzy, even better than elephants, which people love. Giant ground sloths were fuzzy, but I just couldnít see people getting too involved with one.
SF: There is a strong theme of spiritual discovery in Mammoth. At one point, Matt, one of the main characters in the book, says, ďĎWhat Iíve decided is that there is something going on in the universe that will never be explained by math or physics, and you might as well call it the spiritual dimension.íĒ Matt spends a great deal of the novel struggling with lifeís ďbigĒ questions. Is this an area that you have come to explore in your own life, some kind of new understanding of the universe?
JV: I am not at all religious, and not very philosophical or spiritual. But I believe that something is going on that we will probably never figure out. In particular the problem of consciousness. What is it? Where does it come from, where does it go? None of the answers Iíve explored are satisfactory. Maybe Iíll find out, maybe we all find out. Or maybe we donít. Maybe we just donít matter in a 15-billion-year-old relativistic universe which is composed primarily of empty space (whatever that is), with very hot hydrogen coming in a not-too-close second. I keep up with new discoveries in science as much as I am able to, and it becomes clearer every day that there are limits to knowledge.
SF: Cloning is a controversial issue in todayís world and in the book. Where do you stand on the application of cloning technology?
JV: Iím all for it. I may need some cloned organs soon.
SF: At one point in the book the notion is raised that once an area of science has been explored no one can stop the continuing exploration of that field, even if it were outlawed. Should scientific discovery be regulated, and, if so, to what extent?
JV: I donít know if the question of should it be regulated even arises. Of course not. Can it be regulated? Assholes like George W. Bush think so. I think that the research, particularly in biology where most of the big ethical issues are these days, will simply go on elsewhere. We can have Americans doing cloning, or we can have Americans having to go overseas for it, itís as simple as that.
SF: Mammoth is also a story about time travel, and it is not the first time youíve dealt with that theme. Do you believe in the possibilities of time travel, or do you just use time travel as a device to create unique situations to test human behavior?
JV: Time travel is apparently possible and demonstrable at the sub-atomic level. As for people going back or forward in time, I donít believe it for an instant. Itís just a fun story device.
SF: You also examine the issue of animal rights in Mammoth. Where do you draw the line in animal testing and humanityís infringement on the animal kingdom?
JV: My favorite animal is steak. If God wanted us to be vegetarians, why did he make animals out of meat? People are more violently opposed to fur than leather because it's safer to harass rich women than motorcycle gangs.
Okay, enough jokes. Predation is a moral act; ask any lion, or spider, or snake. I am an animal lover, canít resist dogs, love to see animals in the wild, love to see them in zoos. I am in favor of animal protection, completely opposed to animal cruelty, and believe that there is no such thing and cannot be any such thing as ďanimal rights.Ē Does a monkey have a right not to be eaten by a tiger? Hell, do I have that right? Only if Iím smarter or quicker than the tiger. I am not happy about dogs and monkeys being used in animal testing, but thatís my own prejudice. Frankly, they can kill a billion rats and mice in the lab and I wonít lose any sleep.
SF: Mammoth was published after your acclaimed novel Red Thunder, and you are currently working on Thunderís sequel, Red Lightening. Was writing Mammoth a way to take a break, of did the genesis of Red Lightening occur after Mammoth was already in the works?
JV: I donít remember the actual sequence. MAMMOTH was conceived as a screenplay treatment, but it didnít go anywhere because, my agent said, there were several mammoth projects in the works. (The only one I can recall seeing so far was ICE AGE, which was animated.) I made some changes and turned it into a novel, and the reaction has been good. Itís for a broader audience than my other science fiction, and I still have hopes of a movie sale. RED THUNDER was going to be a collaboration with Spider Robinson, but it languished for years and we finally couldnít agree on how it should go (weíre still friends, which is a miracle), and I took it over. My editor liked it so much she suggested a sequel, and for once the ideas for it came to me almost instantly. As it stands now, there will be three, all homages to Heinlein, with the third to be called ROLLING THUNDER.
SF: You have won various awards over your career Ė Hugo awards, Nebula awards, and various others. Does winning the awards give you any kind of validation, and is there an award out there you would still like to win?
JV: I wouldnít mind a Nobel. Thereís cash money involved. Other than that, awards are fun but donít mean much. There is no ďbestĒ of anything in any particular year.
SF: I want to ask you about the time you spent in Hollywood. You worked in the movies for ten years, but the film Millennium was the only script you worked on that made it into production, and itís a film you are not exactly pleased with. What went wrong in Hollywood, and why werenít the studios interested in more of your scripts?
JV: I had a lot of fun in Hollywood, produced five or six scripts, I really canít recall exactly, and one got made. And it was bad. Believe it or not, thatís not a bad batting average down there. There are 10,000 ways for a movie not to be made, and I only encountered about a dozen of them. Half of those were involved with MILLENNIUM, which died a hundred deaths but refused to stay in the coffin. Most unlikely reason for that movie to not get made: the death of Natalie Wood, which is a long story and almost too crazy to believe. And Iím not going to tell it here.
SF: Based on the extensive movie review pages on your website, you obviously have a deep love for cinema. Do you ever think of giving Hollywood a second chance?
JV: Of course I would. The money is just too good, plus the health and pension benefits, which you donít get as a free-lancer. This is how I make my living. But Iíd know more than I did when I went down there the first time. The most important thing Iíd know is when to get out of a project thatís going bad.
SF: Science fiction writers such as Robert Heinlein and Larry Niven have been great inspirations to you. What writers outside the SF field have influenced you most? (I got hints of Hemingway reading Mammoth).
JV: Actually, Iíve read almost no Hemingway. I have to say that all my major influences were from the SF field, though I read very little of it nowadays. There are many writers I admire, but none that I can think of that I try to emulate.
SF: You are often compared to Heinlein, having been given the Heinlein torch, so to speak. How does it feel to be equated with someone for whom you have so much respect? Do you think the comparisons are appropriate?
JV: No, I donít. Iím very different from him in many ways. His characters were usually a lot more sure of themselves than mine are, and more competent. Iím not knocking it; he was obviously the major influence on me. But I canít write that kind of character. We also would have had major political differences if weíd ever met. I donít believe an armed society is a polite society, for instance ... at least not until millions of people have died, and maybe not even then.
SF: You have produced a great quantity of work in your career. Is there one story lingering in your head that youíve always wanted to tell but simply havenít been able to get on paper (or computer, as it were)?
JV: There is a mystery novel Iíd like to find the time to do, but I donít know if Iíll ever have the time.
SF: What is your next project?
JV: RED LIGHTNING, ROLLING THUNDER, and then probably IRONTOWN BLUES, which will complete the set of STEEL BEACH and THE GOLDEN GLOBE.
SF: What are you reading at the moment?
JV: Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. I have a feature on my website that lists the books Iíve read recently, and the one Iím reading now.
SF: Anything else you would like our readers at Far Sector SFFH to know?
JV: Yes. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that certain je ne sais quois.
Copyright © 2005 Shaun Farrell. All Rights Reserved.