Book #50 for 2016
Award-Winning Science Fiction & Fantasy Bingo Square: Any Hugo-Nominated Novel
I had the pleasure of meeting John Varley at Mile Hi Con this past October, and it was interesting to hear his description of the production hell surrounding the film Millennium, which was based on his short story, “Air Raid.” I saw the movie many years ago. It must have been in 1990, as it was still fresh in my mind in January 1991 as I was at DFW, enduring multiple boardings and de-planings while American Airlines frantically searched for a plane that could get us to London. That sensation of being zombified cargo is all I really recall of the movie, but it has stuck with me for a very long time. Fortunately for fans of time-travel fiction, the Hollywood delays had the side effect of Varley writing the novel version of the story long before the movie version came out and with the freedom to write it however he liked.
This probably explains at least in part why I liked the book much better than the movie (though honestly, I didn’t hate the movie). The novel is set not long after the air traffic controllers strike of 1981, and a fair amount of subplot is concerned with the “deplorable state of our nation’s air traffic control system.” (Ronald Reagan’s words in 1980, not mine.)* So sure, the novel seems dated, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. All that (already extremely outdated) early-eighties tech is there for a reason, and it helps to solidify the setting and the behaviors of various characters.
I was still a kid in 1983, so reading this more than 30 years later also granted me a very different perspective on an era that I’ve actually lived through. Varley handled the themes of perspective and valuing what you have before it’s gone quite well. And while the book obviously wasn’t commentary on this recent election cycle, reflecting on Reagan’s campaign promises to “take whatever steps are necessary to provide our air traffic controllers with the most modern equipment available and to adjust staff levels and work days so that they are commensurate with achieving a maximum degree of public safety…. [and to] work very closely with [PATCO] to bring about a spirit of cooperation between the President and the air traffic controllers” feels downright timely.
I did think that Varley’s extrapolation 40,000+ years into the future didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Perhaps that’s why the movie only went 1,000 years into the future. If you ask me, it would still be far-fetched to expect much of anything recognizable from today’s human civilization to survive 500 to 1,000 years. But a lot has happened since 1983, and in some ways we were far more optimistic back then.
While the ending felt a bit rushed, it was satisfying in that it provided some clarity regarding quite a few of the characters. After spending the book alternating between Bill Smith’s and Louise Baltimore’s accounts and never feeling I could trust either one of them completely, the added perspectives brought the story to a good close without descending into “happily ever after” schlock.
I did find a copy of “Air Raid,” and I tried reading it. I just wasn’t feeling it, though. Maybe I will try that some other time, after the plot of the novel has faded in my memory to the point that the differences don’t stand out so much. Similarly, I wouldn’t recommend the novel to somebody who has watched the movie recently, but since it’s a story in its own right and not a novelization, I’d definitely suggest giving it a try after a while.