Five and a half centuries have passed since mysterious Invaders expelled humanity from Earth. The human survivors have scattered among the other planets of the solar system, borrowing the necessary technology from the Ophiuchi Hotline, a series of transmissions, from anonymous interstellar benefactors, containing data on scientific innovations.
Lilo-Alexandr-Calypso, a genetic engineer, has been sentenced to death for violating laws forbidding experimentation with human DNA. Ophiuchi Hotline data has given humans clone technology, so a death sentence in the year 2618 includes destruction of all tissue samples and memory recordings. Lilo is saved from execution by Boss Tweed, leader of the Free Earthers, a political party determined to overthrow the Invaders and reclaim Earth.
Tweed has been manufacturing illegal clones and forcing them to work to further his goals. Thwarted in her escape attempts by several clones of Vaffa, Tweed’s utterly loyal bodyguard, Lilo eventually agrees, at least temporarily, to cooperate with Tweed. She is sent to an illicit colony on Jupiter’s moon Poseidon, where she meets Cathay, a teacher who is an illegal clone.
Lilo and Cathay plot to overthrow the Vaffa-guards and escape the virtual slavery to which Tweed has banished them. The takeover attempt fails, and Lilo apparently is killed in a fall through Jupiter’s atmosphere. Cathay manages to escape to Saturn’s rings, where Lilo has a secret laboratory set up with another Lilo clone ready to be awakened.
The first Lilo clone, however, is not dead; rather, the powerful relatives of the Invaders who inhabit Jupiter somehow transported Lilo to Earth. The few humans left on Earth have reverted to a pre-industrial society, and this Lilo clone learns to live among them.
Meanwhile, Boss Tweed has sent another Lilo clone to investigate an ominous development: The Ophiuchi Hotline, after many years of uninterrupted data flow, has sent the equivalent of a telephone bill threatening dire consequences if payment is not made. This Lilo voyages to the Hotline source, hoping to discover what the mysterious beings behind the transmissions want from humans.
At the same time, Cathay and the Saturn Lilo clone return to Poseidon. This time, they succeed in taking control of the colony. They achieve their dream of using a black hole space drive to propel the moon out of the solar system and embark on a journey to Alpha Centauri to find a new world to colonize.
The other Lilo reaches the Hotline source and meets the Traders, a race of interstellar travelers who provide technology in exchange for culture. They wish to coexist with some human individuals in order to learn more about humanity. They also tell Lilo that the Invaders will soon expel humans from the solar system.
As this Lilo clone is meeting the Traders, the Earth Lilo clone is meeting the Invaders. They transport her to the Trader meeting site in possession of a space drive device. Although humanity will be forced to leave its home, the Invaders have provided the means to seek its destiny in space.
One reason why critics have sometimes called John Varley a "young Robert Heinlein" is the skillful plotting of his fiction. In fact, some critics see him as a throwback to a literary era that is now out-of-date. Most readers, on the other hand, note the inventiveness of setting and situation in Varley's writings. The Ophiuchi Hotline offers to readers a world that is dazzlingly different from their own. The careful construction of the plot helps readers follow events that could be confusing out of context. For instance, having different Lilos on different adventures could turn the novel into a vague and wandering morass of unexplained details if not for the unifying problem of the Ophiuchi Hotline. By directing the plot toward the goal of discovering the secrets of the Hotline, Varley gives his imaginary society order; that is, the details arise logically, not at random, and are therefore easy to understand.
(The entire section is 1,495 words.)