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The John Varley Reader – Introduction

On January 20, 2002, at 2:30 in the afternoon, a fire broke out in the big abandoned fruit and vegetable market and warehouse covering the two blocks between SE 10th and 11th, Belmont and Taylor, in Portland, Oregon. By the time the fire department arrived there was little they could do but try to keep the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings. In less than half an hour a fourth alarm was called in. At peak, 125 firefighters were involved. Eventually the fire reached the north end of the warehouse, which abutted the building that used to contain the Monte Carlo restaurant, where Lee and I spent some pleasant years in one of the two great old apartments above.

It is very strange to look at the gutted remains of a place you used to call home.

Only the edges of the tiled roof survived. Some of the huge old attic beams still stood, though the fire had eaten deeply. In back, the roof and the attic floor had fallen and taken the wall and floors of our bedroom and offices with them. A tiny portion of the south wall of Lee’s office was visible, one of the walls with the decorative sponge painting job she had been so proud of.

Taking the good with the bad, the Monte Carlo was a pretty cool place to live. On a coolness scale of 1 to 10, with Levenworth Prison being a 1, San Simeon a 10, and Travis McGee’s “Busted Flush” houseboat a 9, the Monte Carlo was an 8.

The apartment looked out on downtown Portland from across the river. On the fourth of July, Cinco de Mayo, and a half a dozen festivals each year we could watch the fireworks from our windows. The restaurant itself was a hangout for half the elderly Italian population of Portland. Lots of guys who looked like Don Corleone showed up most days. They made the best minestrone in town. While we were there it became the hot nightspot for Reed College students, doing some disco revival thing, then went back to its old slumber again as fashion moved on to a new spot.

We knew it was a firetrap. Only one stairway, made of old dry wood. It was the only place I ever lived in that was plumbed for beverages. Flexible plastic tubes led from pressurized bottles in the basement, up our stairs, and through a wall into the bar below. I figured if a fire got started I’d cut a pipe and drown the blaze with 7-Up or Coke. I’d have to be careful not to confuse it with the other pipes, which were full of vodka, scotch, and gin. I thought of splicing into one, like stealing cable service, but decided it wasn’t worth it for bar whiskey.

Many people go through their entire lives without ever living in an 8, and I’ve lived in three. The first was 1354 Haight Street, San Francisco, a block and a half from the Center of the Universe. You could almost see the Haight & Ashbury sign from there. Across the street was a head shop, the floor above was a notorious crank house where we once saw Janis Joplin going in to score, and down at the corner was Magnolia Thunderpussy, probably the coolest ice cream parlor in America. I feel very lucky to have lived there for a year, and to have survived, as we were all experimenting with various drugs at the time.

I’ve been lucky about many things.

 

This year, 2004, marks the thirtieth anniversary of my first publication of a science fiction story. That strikes me as a pretty good time for a retrospective. Such a thing ought to have an introduction.

I didn’t always feel that way. When I started out as a writer, I was very uncomfortable with interviews, radio, and television. In fact, I still hate to do self-promotion. I felt the stories ought to speak for themselves. So my first story collection, The Persistence of Vision, had a very flattering introduction by Algis Budrys, because my publisher insisted on it, and the next two, The Barbie Murders and Blue Champagne, had nothing at all; just a table of contents and the stories.

I’m not saying I’m an exceptionally private person. I’ve gone to conventions, sat on panels discussing my works and science fiction in general. My phone number has always been a listed one, and I’ve only regretted that once. And I’ve recently gone public in a big way, for me, by opening a website where I post my thoughts (what they call blogs these days) and odd items I write that I don’t feel are likely to sell.

But re-reading these stories, thinking about them and about the recent fire and the transience of things and of life itself, realizing that since I don’t build things, haven’t founded any corporations, and am not likely to revolutionize science with a stunning new discovery anytime soon, my most important legacy will be these stories. And while I still believe they must stand on their own with no explanations from me, that they must speak for themselves … it strikes me that telling a little about where I was, what I was doing, and who I was when I wrote them might be of interest to readers.

It is probably as close to an autobiography as I will ever get. I don’t propose to write one here, and I don’t intend to put it all up front in one indigestible lump, either. Instead, I will scatter it through the book in introductions to the individual stories. If you aren’t interested in stuff like that, feel free to skip to the stories themselves, which is what this volume is all about, anyway. But if you do enjoy the introductions you are invited to join me at www.varley.net for lots more.