OUR 21st CENTURY WRITERS: Part II
by Allen Varney
[Published in The Texas SF Inquirer, December 1987]
(EDITOR'S NOTE: In this hundredth-anniversary year of modern science fiction, 2026, our footloose reporter is visiting the leaders of 21st-Century sf. The last installment told of his trip to Heinlein Colony in California's Recovery Zone.)
Part II: Hood River Social Complex, Oregon, 6/15/26
The Inquirer's chartered blimpliner floated in over a giant desalination plant and moored at Portland Intercity Airport. A glorious summer afternoon showed off the Cascades to best advantage. Heavy winter snows have all but concealed the blast craters, and of course the Pacific Northwest's radioactivity has long since declined to insignificant levels. This scenery, benevolent and outwardly unchanged from the last century, suits the home, the work, and the private entertainment studio of one of the 21st Century's greatest writers.
I was greeted at the airport by the great man's own chauffeur, an elderly Thai lady who (I learned) has been blind since birth. "Enchanting!" I thought as I ushered her behind the wheel of her hillcrawler. To find such an unfortunate in a position of responsibility affirms the values of her employer's work. Hasn't he led the way in promoting respect and equal treatment for the handicapped?
Though I admit to one or two ruffled moments on the bumpy mountain roads west of Portland, Miss Hung's cheerful banter did much to calm me on our journey. I wish I could convey to my readers her chipper spirit, her enthusiastic tone in describing Hood River Social Complex. Sad to say, her congenital speech impediment rendered Miss Hung's monologue indecipherable to my untrained ear.
But the sympathetic reader will understand my joy at this heartwarming confirmation of the human spirit, caught so well in the author's work. In the circumstances, it was an honor to carry my own luggage.
Encountering the Complex
We careened down toward a green valley near the ruins of Hood River. Below, a cluster of tasteful geodesic domes in many sizes showed we had reached the Hood River Social Complex. Around them grew fields of vegetables. Herds of cattle roamed rolling pastures.
Beyond the domes and the fences stretched a long, low building, the largest entertainment studio of our time. More impressive than Skywalker Ranch National Park in northern California, more profitable than a hundred McCaffrey's Dragonburger franchises, this was a combination of both: Varley Studios. As the reader may know, the entire Social Complex is an updated "company town" of Studio employees and their families.
Our exciting ride halted at the base of a fortuitously placed statue of Heinlein, in front of the Hood River School of Progressive Education. Climbing from the still-intact hillcrawler, I found by the statue's base none other than the Social Complex's founder, owner, and chief director, John Varley.
At age 79 Varley has lost none of the robust good looks of his youth. Gray hair has migrated from his pate to his beard, while the years have added a Falstaffian prominence to his bearing. Even casually dressed, in denims and one of his famous Hawaiian print shirts, Varley projects a jovial, Santa-Claus-like profile.
The great man, seated on a reinforced park bench, greeted me with a hearty handshake. "I don't usually give interviews, but the Inquirer's impeccable reputation, along with your record of brilliant, unbiased journalism, changed my mind," he said. "And now maybe people will stop getting our names confused. Too bad, since I figure the confusion increased my sales twenty percent." (Despite the similarity of our names, Varley and I are unrelated.)
As we talked, the author surveyed a class of schoolchildren, who displayed their cross-dressing techniques. Hood River prides itself on advanced educational reforms, such as having all children impersonate the opposite gender at regular intervals.
"Breaks down sex barriers," Varley explained. "We teach our kids that physical attributes are unimportant, if the thinking is right." So Varley spreads, in the real world, the values that made his works some of the cornerstones of modern science fiction.
His novels and collections have sold millions of copies, won countless awards, and guided the enlightenment of Oregon civilization. And having one's own studio eases the path from page to screen: All of Varley's fiction has been filmed, except for one unpublished story. That work (from 1979) should get cinematic treatment shortly after its publication in the long-awaited anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, scheduled to appear next spring.
Readers Understood Him
The great author has triumped over a few shortsighted critics of the last century, who slighted his works for their allegedly "shallow" characters and "insane" plots. As careful reassessment over the last three decades has shown, Varley's characters actually embodied his profound concern with the dehumanizing influences of 20th-century society.
"They're supposed to be shallow," the multiple-Hugo- winning author confirmed over a hearty luncheon. "For instance, when the hero of 'Blue Champagne'" -- referring to his famous (and twice-filmed) 1984 novella -- "calls 1960s sitcoms like Gilligan's Island 'witty,' that's the giveaway right there.
"The people in my future histories have had personality, taste, and common sense bulldozed out of them by a century or more of mass media. Why else would they be haunted for years or decades by ordinary human tragedies that real people readily cope with? Why else would they make love with one another on two hours' acquaintance? How else could so many be utterly ignorant of literature and art, with hardly a thought about religion or philosophy or the state of civilization? How else could they live in cultures of staggering uniformity, where cultural diversity and ancestral heritage are completely unknown?
"Likewise, the heroine of Millennium is shown to be insane at the end of the book. That's the only conceivable way to explain any of her actions in the story. And that she was from 5,000 years in the future, but thought only in terms of idiotic pop-culture references from the postwar Baby Boom -- that was explained in the book as her conditioning. I was making the point that if we hadn't been careful, the last century could have turned us into the same type of witless dolts.
"I don't know why it took the critics so long to realize what I was doing. But thank goodness my readers understood, and we have avoided that fate today."
I was glad to agree. The high-minded literati of a defunct culture called his work simplistic banality, but Varley's countless fans immediately spotted it as sophisticated cultural futurism. Luckily, some of them heeded his warnings. Guided by his work and the values they espouse, Hood Riverites (including other famous sf writers whose work has much in common with Varley's) have achieved a saner society, and an unequalled total of Hugo and Nebula awards.
A Tour Of The Complex
Varley cheerfully waved away his afternoon appointments and took me on a personal tour of his community. Powered by clean fusion generators far underground, ergonomically sensible in its slidewalk layouts, landscaped, manicured, and quiet, Hood River seemed as idyllic as a theme park. It was lunchtime, and I saw many people walking the pedestrian malls, chatting, nibbling ice-cream cones, having sex, or admiring the sturdy oaks shading the slidewalks.
As we walked, Varley nodded and smiled at his fellow citizens. They waved to him like old friends and, due to his impressive presence, moved out of his way. Their expressions didn't generally show the serene happiness of the citizens in Heinlein Colony; rather, the Hood Riverites often displayed the satisfaction of earnest commitment to a cause.
I commented on the evident racial balance among Hood River's citizens. Discarding the wrapping of his ice-cream cone, Varley said, "Twenty point eight percent black or mulatto, eleven percent Hispanic, eighteen percent Oriental (further subdivided according to cultural background), one percent Amerind, and there are three Inuit Eskimos. We aim for a representative mix of racial characteristics, modified every decade when the new census appears. We try to mirror society as a whole."
Hood River is perhaps the only small community in North America that employs an official demographer. The town strictly regulates new arrivals (and occasionally enforces departures) according to requirements of race and age. And needless to say, the numbers of men and women in Hood River are exactly equal. I thank the anonymous male clerk who charitably left the town for the two hours that I was there, so I would not disrupt the balance.
Passing down a line of clean residential domes, Varley ate a chocolate bar and pointed out some of the community's landmarks: commemorative statues of the great sf writers Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm, who helped found the Complex in the last century, and of onetime spiritual leader Orson Scott Card, who (as is well known) achieved beatitude and was transubstantiated directly to Heaven in 2006.
Further along, we saw the creche where all the town's children are communally raised, kibbutz-fashion, and the windowless reeducation center, for those backward citizens who have difficulty grasping proper ideology.
After a time the aged author stopped at a sturdy concrete park bench to rest his feet. While he munched on a cream tart bought from a passing vendor, I spotted a cluster of sheds in a distant cornfield. Varley confirmed my hunch; this was, indeed, the Joanna Russ Memorial Center for Applied Feminist Studies. "We support them financially, but they seem more comfortable out there alone," he said.
He ticked off some of the Center's famous sf writers -- Suzy McKee Charnas, Elizabeth Lynn, and many others (Russ herself died of a bile attack in 2005) -- and reminded me of the entrance requirement: Applicants must write a story wherein women take charge and do a better job than the men did. "Ursula Le Guin is an honorary member," he finished, "but she lives in Portland, and she never visits."
The last stop on our tour was the enormous ranch-style concrete building at the far end of town. This structure, so like a movie soundstage, produces more print, motion-picture, and television entertainment than an entire publishing company or studio lot of the last century. Inside it are no actors, no sets, no complicated lighting and sound equipment ...just an awesome collection of computers, and the imaginative geniuses of Hood River.
Ordinarily no outsiders are allowed in, but the Inquirer press pass worked its usual wonders. Inside, the building looked like a darkened aircraft hangar. Long rows of technical consoles, lit only by the phosphor glow of their monitor screens; circular supercomputers at the end of every row like bookends, their thick cables rising into the darkness above; low mutterings of the console operators nearby, contrasting with exotic sound effects generated at the room's far end.
The "operators" are the star creators of Hood River. They use advanced imaging techniques to create scenery and characters, animate their movements, and construct the stories that thrill the modern world. The final product, as convincing as the "real" motion pictures of the last century, is uploaded by satellite link to publisher-producer-distributors on both coasts and around the world.
Varley, munching on an apple, described the creative process involved in film work as we walked down a long line of consoles. (Such is the preeminence of his presence that the aisles were recently widened.) "We dream up the storylines, send them to the producers, incorporate the changes they request, and throw everybody available at the project. Each creator takes a scene or two, creates the dialogue, designs the sets, blocks out the action, and does the finishes. It calls for craftsmanship of the highest order."
Looking at the expressions of concentration on the creators' faces, I could well believe it. "What are you working on now?" I asked Varley.
"Oh, lots of things. I try to keep track of them all, but it's such an intricate process...." Varley peered at a console and exchanged a few murmured remarks with its operator. "Here, I can tell you something about this one," he said, straightening up and finishing his apple.
The Creative Process
"I came up with the original plot for this TV special myself, and George here is working up the key scenes." He slapped the console operator, the renowned sf novelist and screenwriter George R. R. Martin, on the shoulder. "George tells me the network has called for some changes in the story, but the basic idea is a sort of science-fictional romance. The hero is kind of an independent urban-renewal expert, chasing bums and thieves out of condemned buildings and blowing them up so the government will have to build good buildings --"
"Uh, they didn't like that, John," Martin interrupted. "They want him to be a likable young construction worker, sort of an everyman."
"Oh. Well, okay. Well, he meets the young, innocent heroine, this high school girl who's scared of emotional involvement --"
Martin cut in again. "Yeah, about that, the network says she should be a divorcee with a young son. Better demographics."
"Oh. Yeah, okay, that could work. But the gimmick is, she gets possessed, so to speak, by this alien intelligence stranded on Earth, and keeps getting visions of its homeworld --"
"They didn't like the special effects budget for the homeworld. Finito."
"-- okay, but the government finds out, tries to kidnap her to pump her brain, so they escape. There's this frantic chase up and down the hills of San Francisco --"
"-- Phoenix --"
"--and in the climactic sequence, he teaches her how to love, and she learns enough technology from the alien to build this unstoppable super-vehicle that crashes through the army barricades and off into the sky, the end."
"The super-vehicle bit is too much like another project they've got in the works. The network says drop it and make the climax a big battle with kendo fighters."
"They're trying to make kendo the next hot thing. But they liked the part where he teaches her how to love. So maybe her kid is adopted?"
"Excellent!" said Varley. "I said this called for the highest craftsmanship," he told me as we headed for a snack bar. "These people have it, and they understand the system that underlies the creative process. They're the best in the world." I had to agree. The Varley studio creators constantly display the flexibility that marks the true artist.
Anyone Can Do The Job
On one wall of the studio lounge an enormous color screen displayed some kind of chart or spreadsheet. Varley described it with pride as he snacked on a candy bar from a vending machine. "We call this our social conscience board," he said, grinning.
"Across the top of this wall," he said, gesturing broadly, "you see the names of all the novels, stories, movies, programs, and so forth that we have produced in the last decade. Reading down the left side of the chart, there at the far end of the wall, you can find all the occupations depicted in those works -- doctor, demon, cop, king, piano mover, everything from abortionist to zoologist.
"Cross-indexing," he continued, "this electronic display shows the demographic profile of these jobs, as given in any and all of our productions."
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"It tells how many times we've shown a job being done by a man, a woman, a white, a black, straights and gays, humans and aliens, and so on. We feel a responsibility to show the public that anyone can do any job."
I applauded this worthy commitment. How like Varley, this noble gesture! The author has often said that he tries to include equal numbers of men and women in his stories. When there is an odd number of characters, one character must either switch sexes during the story or be a transvestite. This display was an impressive extension of his beliefs.
"The computer alerts us when a profession's profile (as given in our works) deviates from the statistical norm. For instance, we might find that, by chance, all the doctors in our last few productions have been homosexual black males. Then we'll work hard to make sure our next release has, say, a Hispanic straight male doctor or a white female doctor or a doctor with tentacles.
"It's all to show that race and gender aren't important," Varley finished proudly.
No Form Is Too Insipid
George R. R. Martin, multiple-Hugo-winning author of The Armagaddon Rag, the thrice-filmed Sandkings, and other profound classics of sf, spoke of the colony's television and motion picture production.
"We have to work within the system, of course," says the 78-year-old (but still elfishly handsome) creator. "But I've worked in Hollywood and now Hood River for decades. I know that, by and large, the people in this field are dedicated, serious craftspersons. They -- we -- care about our work a lot. We fight to get as much of our original vision onto the screen as possible. And sometimes there's that magic 'one time in twenty million' when it gets through. That makes it all worthwhile.
"We also work to ensure the highest quality and sincerity in our merchandising spinoffs," continues the bestselling writer. "I personally employ great care in the creation of our various mosaic novels, shared-world anthologies, comic-book series, roleplaying games, and the copy on the backs of the cereal boxes. I believe that for a writer with something to say, no form is inherently insipid, nonsensical, or destitute."
Parting With Regret
Though I was invited to stay for the evening orgy, my demanding Inquirer deadline forced an early departure. Varley escorted me to the hillcrawler in his private electric tram, identical to the standard model save for its reinforced suspension.
While Miss Hung searched for the hillcrawler in front of the statue, Varley became as serious as I had yet seen him. "You're going to write about the assault on Heinlein Colony, aren't you?" he said, around a mouthful of his submarine sandwich. I allowed that the public is still morbidly interested in the Hood Riverites' raid and the subsequent tragedy.
"We still feel Heinlein belongs with us," Varley said firmly. "We still intend to arrange it, too. I can't say anything more than that -- except that David Gerrold and Walter Jon Williams did not die in vain." He turned the tram and drove back to the Social Center, the sounds of his chewing lost amid the distant moans and giggles.
I could not remain here, though the Complex is in some ways the quintessence of today's spirit of science fiction. The true fountainhead of this millennium awaited me in Colorado, the home of the Earth's greatest, most famous, and most characteristic science fiction author. So I regretfully guided Miss Hung to the vehicle and asked her to drive me back to my Portland airship.
But for a quiet moment before we left, I stood looking at the Cascades. The mountains stood serene, blue-gray beneath their white caps, aloof from the groans in the complex behind me.
Seeing a blast caldera rising stark through the snow, I thought of the people of the last century. As we know now, their fears of cultural oblivion proved moot. Could they have foreseen the happy world their authors helped bring about, or having seen it, recognized its glory?
I recalled lines from the Jimmy Dorsey song "Blue Champagne." Though nearly a century old now, the song is familiar to modern readers as the title of Varley's famous novella. The song embodies the same sincerity and level of emotional understanding that mark the master's own work. I sang it to myself, looking over the ruins of the city below: