"The John Varley Reader" by John Varley (2004)
John Varley is an American science fiction writer. He has won the Hugo and Nebula awards, and the movie Millennium was adapted from his story "Air Raid." None of his novels are particularly famous, and as sci-fi authors go he remains fairly obscure.
This is a shame, really, because Varley is an inventive writer who ought to be read more. I think the reason he isn't is that it's his short stories that are famous, and few authors are remembered for their short stories. In Varley's case this is an especially saddening phenomenon, since it's in his short stories that he really shines.
There are eighteen stories in The John Varley Reader, and all of them are good. A few of them are excellent. A couple of them are not bad, but forgettable.
"Picinic on Nearside" is one of the forgettable ones. In this story, two "sexually ambiguous" children encounter a hermit and his curious notions about their society.
"Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" is one of the few stories in this collection that doesn't dwell on the concepts of gender and sexuality. Instead, we get an excellent tale of how the difference between reality and illusion might be blurred in a future society.
"In the Hall of the Martian Kings" details what happens when several stranded colonists revive a dormant biome on Mars. It's an excellent, well thought-out story.
"Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance" is one of the weirdest stories in this collection, and I loved it. Hard to explain what it's about. A symbiotic organism visits a talent scout.
"The Barbie Murders" is an good idea that isn't explored deeply enough. The story falls a bit flat at the end, and the author himself admits that the concept of individuality so central to the narrative could have been explained a bit better.
"The Phantom of Kansas" is alright, but as with "The Bellman" I could see the major plot twist coming a mile away. If you've read that Heinlein story about the time-traveling police"man" you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.
"Beatnik Bayou" might be the worst story in this collection. A young "man" living in a sexless society comes to terms with his own sexuality. There are some interesting ideas in it, but the overall narrative is a mess.
"Air Raid" inspired the film Millennium. Don't bother seeking out the movie. It's really not worth your time. The story is good, but too short to leave a lasting impression.
"The Persistence of Vision" describes a visit by a sighted man to a colony of deaf and blind people. It brought to mind Jose Saramago's novel Blindness, though I found this story to be far more satisfying (and far less depressing) than Saramago's novel.
"Press Enter," along with "Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo," might be the best story here. Stories about AI or "the Singularity" are old hat now, but in the early 1980s this was heady stuff. The interplay between the protagonist and the computer program is well done, and the technological concepts imported into the story are convincing.
"The Pusher" is the kind of story that's bound to offend someone, and I applaud the author for having the courage to write it. He was really crossing some boundaries with this one.
"Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo" might be the best story here. It's not heavy on the sci-fi elements, and instead offers the touching story of a young girl trapped alone in a space station.
"Options" explores the future of sexual reassignment surgery. I really enjoyed this story, and it provides much-needed background for the other stories in Varley's "Eight Worlds" mythos. If any story was ever ahead of its time it's this one.
"Just Another Perfect Day" details a day in the life of a man who won't remember today once it becomes tomorrow. It forms a nice pair of stories with "In Fading Suns and Dying Moons."
"In Fading Suns and Dying Moons" is as trippy a science fiction story as you're likely to find. It's short, but it messed with my head in delightful ways. Nth-Dimensional being(s) "invade" the Earth.
"The Flying Dutchman" is a horror story in which a lonely traveler finds himself stuck in a loop. It's good, but I feel like I've read too many other stories like this already.
"Good Intentions" is also not science fiction. In this story, a political candidate makes a deal with the devil. Seems kind of pedestrian for Varley, and lacks the depth that make other stories in this collection much better.
"The Bellman" was also reviewed in my entry for the 2003 edition of The Year's Best Science Fiction. I referred to it as "not all that good" there, and my opinion of this story remains the same. I could see the twist at the end coming, and it just doesn't seem as inventive as many of the other stories here.