Millennium Essay - Critical Essays

John Varley


John Varley is one of the few male genre authors who can write convincing female characters. One is reminded of the fiction of James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon). Varley is able to write like Robert A. Heinlein but without the sexism that marred some of Heinlein’s work. The story is disappointing only in the ending, which relies on a rather clumsy deus ex machina. Varley was one of the more influential science-fiction writers of the 1970’s and helped bring a new social dimension to science fiction. Millennium, though not one of Varley’s early and influential books, was chosen to be made into a 1989 film of the same title.

The book contains an odd error: The ninety-ninth century consistently is referred to in the book as fifty thousand years after the twentieth, whereas this should be a span of only seventy-nine hundred years. There may have been some recalibration of dating, but there is no mention of any such thing in the book.

Food is hardly ever mentioned in Millennium, which is interesting because the author is reputed to be something of a hedonist. Alcohol and cigarettes, however, are mentioned frequently; alcohol is important to Smith and cigarettes to Baltimore. These two items are mentioned often but not described. This authorial choice is typical for the book, which features minimal description. Rather than describing environments, Varley spends his words describing what goes on inside characters’ heads.

The book exhibits many of Varley’s trademarks, such as personal touches that make the characters come alive, interesting human body modifications, and genuine characters of both genders. Varley understands people, and he can make the reader understand them too, or at least believe in Varley’s interpretation of why people do the things they do. It is a characteristic of Varley’s writing that the reader becomes nearly as familiar with the thoughts and feelings of the major characters as with his or her own. Millennium also contains believable future slang and tidbits of future history, reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962); this is another Varley trademark. An intriguing bit of ninety-ninth century culture is that all people have surnames that are the names of cities that are important in the twentieth century but presumably are dead by the ninety-ninth. This is not spelled out in the novel, making it an interesting mystery for the reader.