Sunday, December 26, 2021

Book Review: Demon by John Varley

Book cover for DemonGaea is back with a new avatar: a fifty-foot tall Marilyn Monroe. She's pulling out all the stops on her obsession with movies. She's even created new organisms which are capable of making movies and ordered the construction of a city-sized movie lot. Her casting call has been set and production is about to begin on her greatest film: The War with the Demon, Cirocco Jones.

Twenty years have passed since the events in Wizard. The human population has swelled, primarily as refugees flee Earth's latest nuclear war—handled with cavalier disregard that rang implausible to even this cynic. Besides politics, Varley also savagely satirizes Earth's religions. Each faith is represented on the wheel, and all serve Gaea instead of Earth's traditional pantheons. Gaea accomplishes this by raising the dead, making them literal zombies who serve her accordingly, rotting corpses every one. All are jealous of one another, believing themselves to be Gaea's favorite, and hated by the living.

Gaea also takes propaganda to a new level. Utilizing computer technology, she places the image of her avatar into the starring role of movies that are broadcast on closed circuit TV in order to generate sympathy from her captives. I think this may be the earliest account of deepfakes in fiction.

New arrivals means new characters. These mix with old characters, and the dynamics of relationships swirl about until a new equilibrium is established. Yes, as has been common in this series, that means people are having happy, well-adjusted sex, no matter which hardware they have. The only character in the group who takes issue with it is basically told to get over it and join the human race.

In essence, Varley's worldview here boils down to this:
  • Good guys: Racial and gender diverse. Sex positive.
  • Bad guys: Politicians, generals, religion. Basically any structure that tries to coerce people through fear or shame to control them.

Cirocco doesn't want any part in Gaea's madness, particularly after the death of her closest friend, but Gaea has kidnapped someone very special to her and thus makes it impossible to say no.

The second half of the novel is about Cirocco raising an army and making preparations for war with Gaea and her minions. There are several meetings with Cirocco's "inside woman" wherein we learn more about Gaea's machinations going back several decades in order to make all of this possible. Everything we thought we knew gets turned on its head. While the characters all call Gaea insane, I found it too simplistic a term. To plan and orchestrate all of these events takes tremendous forethought. Gaea isn't so much insane as diabolical.

Demon made for an enjoyable end to the series. Varley's worldbuilding is superb, although his worldview might be a tad simplistic. The big reveal on Gaea felt a bit too much like telling, but as her appearances in the first two novels were limited to the climax of each, I don't know how Varley could have shown what was really going on. All we had were the intrepid humans, too busy trying to explore and survive to look behind the curtain.

4.25 stars