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By J. Stephen Bolhafner
Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Sunday, July 26, 1992 Page 5C

A novel by John Varley
479 Pages, Ace/Putnam, $20.00

IT WAS a long time coming, but it was worth the wait. John Varley has finally written a novel as good as his short stories.

Not that his previous science-fiction novels were bad. The Gaea trilogy (''Titan,'' ''Wizard'' and ''Demon'') remains a classic of extravagant invention, and Varley has rarely turned in work of any kind that isn't at least above-average.

But his awards have been for those wonderful short stories. He is still probably best known for ''Press Enter ,'' the last word in computer paranoia. His full-length works just haven't been as successful as the shorter ones. Until now.

Nearly 10 years after his last novel, ''Millennium,'' Varley has produced a new one, and it's a doozy.

From its outrageous first sentence straight through to the end, ''Steel Beach'' is the book Varley fans have always known he could write. A common criticism one reads of poor books is ''This book is trying to do so many things, it doesn't manage to do any of them.'' Well, this book tries to do a whole lot of things, and manages to do nearly all of them very well indeed.

Hildy Johnson, intrepid reporter for the News Nipple, largest circulation ''padloid'' on Luna (which is where a large part of the surviving population of Old Earth lives), gets an unwelcome assignment from his editor, Walter Editor, to do a series of pieces on the upcoming bicentennial of the Invasion of the Earth. Moreover, Walter saddles him with an assistant, an upstart young twerp who knows absolutely nothing about anything that happened before she was born 17 years ago. It doesn't help that the twerp has a crush on him, leading her to change her name to Brenda. She's too young for Hildy, for one thing. After all, he's 100.

John Varley has a wicked sense of humor about journalism that rings all too true:

The News Nipple Corporation publishes three pads. The first is the Nipple itself, updated hourly, full of what Walter Editor liked to think of as ''lively'' stories: the celebrity scandal, the pseudo-scientific breakthrough, psychic predictions, lovingly bloody coverage of disasters . . . The Nipple had so many pictures you hardly needed to read the words. . . The Daily Cream was the intellectual appendix to the swollen intestine of the Nipple. It came free to every subscriber of the pad . . . and was read by about one in ten, according to our more optimistic surveys. It published thousands of times more words per hour, and included most of our political coverage.

That's what you think the book is going to be about, for the first three chapters. Then, at the end of the third, for no apparent reason except a general air of cynicism and mild depression that he has obviously survived with for most of his hundred years, Hildy sits down in a bathtub with a razor blade and opens up the veins in both arms. Things get really interesting after that.

The fourth chapter opens with no explanation of why Hildy's still around, except for the obvious unstated one what that the Central Computer (usually called ''CC'') simply repaired him. No problem there - after all, the fourth chapter contains a no-holds-barred ''slash-boxing'' match featuring a nonfatal decapitation. But at the end of this chapter, Hildy hangs himself.

Either our boy has a really weird hobby or something's terribly wrong. And when Hildy interfaces with the CC, he finds out what it is - or thinks he does.

It's not surprising that suicide is the leading cause of death on Luna, since modern medicine can cure any disease and heal any injury. What bothers the CC is that the suicide rate is up, and often among people who exhibit none of the usual warning signs. However, suicide is everyone's right, and the CC has disobeyed its own programming to save Hildy.

The more he thinks about that, the more worried Hildy becomes. If the CC has the ability to override its own programming, then what might it override next? As I say, things get really interesting after that.

The Heinleiners alone are worth the price of the book. They seem an intrusion, almost an afterthought, when they first appear - three quarters of the way through the book - but by the end we realize that the casual mentions of them earlier weren't casual at all. The Heinleiners are integral to the novel's conclusion. That may sound like Varley uses them as a deus ex machina, but in fact they are exactly the opposite, in ways that it would be spoiling things to discuss.

Varley has crafted a well-constructed novel, with imagination as boundless as any of his previous stories without letting it rage out of control. Finishing it, I was sorry it was over. An author who's been ''promising'' for over a decade has finally fulfilled his promise.

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