Picaresque comedy, anti-authoritarian spirit and roguish individualism in an interstellar future: An Appreciation of John Varley’s The Golden Globe, the 1999 Prometheus Best Novel winner

Introduction: To highlight the four-decade history of the Prometheus Awards, which the Libertarian Futurist Society began celebrating in 2019, and make clear what makes past winners deserve recognition as pro-freedom sf/fantasy, we’re continuing in 2020 to present a series of weekly Appreciations of Prometheus Award-winners, starting with our first category for Best Novel.

Here’s the latest Appreciation for John Varley’s The Golden Globe:

A rare picaresque sf comedy among Best Novel winners, John Varley’s The Golden Globe follows the episodic adventures of a resilient itinerant actor living by his wits and thespian skills in the outer solar system.

Varley, clearly a fan of Shakespeare, updates the Bard in his 1998 novel to illustrate the theme that “if all the worlds (are) a stage – not world’s, but plural – then all the men and women in this are merely players… strutting, fretting and conniving through their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts….”

That everyman man is Kenneth “Sparky” Valentine, the fugitive central character and an interstellar con man, who’s been on the run for decades from planet to planet. successfully evading the State authorities. Resourceful and scrappy, Sparky survives through con jobs and his high-tech ability to transform his age, his body type/size and his gender by altering skin-deep magnetic implants.

Beyond its anti-authoritarian humor and spirit, The Golden Globe appeals to libertarians as a portrait of a poor but free man, striving to maintain his independence and support himself through his own wits and resourcefulness.

Sparky, an ageless former child star and one of the most beloved performers of his generation, performs his interpretation of the Bard in the 23rdcentury while being revealed to be something of a character in his own Shakespearean tragedy, having escaped justice for a felony for 71 years. A sort of poor Robin Hood, Sparky mostly steals from those who can afford it, otherwise scrambling to survive by employing his motley talents in a variety of catch-as-catch-can ways, such as by performing impromptu Punch and Judy shows.

At 100, Sparky is merely middle-aged in this future where medical and technical advances have made it possible to postpone death… but also created a problematic population explosion testing the limits of humanity’s new but lesser habitats.

In spirit and mature-senior perspective if not directly in its loose and meandering plot, call the novel a hybrid of King Lear, As You Like It and The Comedy of Errors, but reconceived as a cinematic whirlwind of flashbacks, flash-forwards and multiple shifts in point of view, including direct address to the reader in first person.

Very much a rambunctious tall tale, Sparky’s story is told partly through his relationship and conversations with his loyal dog Toby, also a performer, and an imaginary friend Elwood, named after a famous play character and resembling the leading Hollywood-era screen star who played him.

An unreliable and half-educated hobo character whose skewed knowledge comes mostly via his experience playing theater roles and memorization of Shakespeare’s works at an early age, Sparky is a chameleon and the very essence of an improv-performer, savvy and desperate enough as a hobo/rogue/thespian to try anything and change anything (his act, his body, his name, his con) to survive in a very believable future whose technology and customs seem rooted in extrapolations from 1990s culture as it might evolve.

The novel also works as a Heinleinesque romance of space adventure, with Sparky’s odyssey propelled by an extended chase as he struggles to stays mere steps ahead of the Charonese mafia while heading for Luna to perform in King Lear – aptly symbolic here as one of Shakespeare’s most mature dramas with the wisdom and perspective of old age, folly and regret.

The novel’s title, by the way, refers to Luna, considered the Golden Globe and Sparky’s long-sought destination for the opportunity to perform the plum coveted role of Lear at a prestigious theater.

I can add this personal recommendation as a theater lover and professional theater critic for almost four decades: Even if they don’t usually read science fiction, anyone who loves theater in general or the Bard in particular can enjoy this tale of Sparky’s adventures as a former member of a disparate theater troupe bringing their own version of classic culture to the outer reaches of the solar system.

The Golden Globe can be read and enjoyed independently but it’s part of a larger canvas as Book 3 within Varley’s Eight World series (The Ophiuchi Hotline, Steel Beach, Irontown Blues, Gens de La Lune, etc.), with each novel set in the same future universe but primarily on a different planet.

Varley’s future history is titled Eight Worlds because in this richly textured future, an alien invasion forced humans to escape and migrate to the worlds of Mercury, Venus, Mars, Pluto (including Pluto’s moon Charon) and satellites of the four gas-giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune), plus an assortment of smaller asteroids and space stations.

John Varley. Photo: Creative Commons license

Note: John Varley also has won three Hugo Awards (for the novellas “The Persistence of Vision” and “Press Enter*” and the short story “The Pusher”), two Nebula Awards (for the above two novellas) and 10 Locus awards (including for his novel Titan).

Note: For a real-life example of a performer including implanted microchips and magnets in her body, see this recent news story about a cyborg magician.

* Coming up soon on the Prometheus Blog: A 40thAnniversary Celebration and appreciation of the next novel to be recognized with a Prometheus Award: Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, the 2000 winner for Best Novel.

* See related introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

* Other Prometheus winners: For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit volunteer association of libertarian sf/fantasy fans and freedom-lovers.
Libertarian futurists believe cultural change is as vital as political change (and often more fun!) in achieving universal individual rights and a better world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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