The action takes place on the moon and in a space station that has been nearly deserted for decades. A terrible disease killed everyone on the station— or so it was thought until a camera on the station reveals a little girl and a pack of dogs roaming the station. The station's computer has been doing its best to care for the girl and keep her occupied. She does some maintenance and raises the dogs. How she and the dogs survived the disease that killed everyone else who came in even remote contact with it is a mystery. As Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo progresses, the reader learns that the station will soon crash into the moon.
The events on the moon take place in several locations, where characters observe the little girl as best they can through cameras, communicate with her, and discuss her fate. Humanity has long been on the moon, which has all the trappings of modern civilization, including areas for entertainment, government offices, and businesses. The moon also features bureaucrats who try to rationalize the impending death of a small girl.
Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo resembles a tragic drama. In a tragedy, the plot leads inevitably to catastrophe (usually death) for the main character. Although Bach does not die, her efforts end in disaster: Charlie dies. Like a tragedy, Varley's plot has movements in which certain plot elements dominate. For instance, in Shakespeare's play Hamlet, there are three important movements: a ghost story, featuring the ghost of the dead king; a mystery story, in which Prince Hamlet tries to learn the truth about his father's death; and a revenge story, in which Hamlet finally confronts his evil uncle. In Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo there are also three movements: There is first a mystery story as Bach and others try to learn the truth about who is on the space station Tango Charlie; second is a moral story in which characters have their ethics tested while seeking a solution to the crisis created by the girl Charlie; and third is a suspense story in which a few characters struggle to save Charlie from certain death. These movements allow readers to get to know the characters. For instance, in the mystery movement, Bach shows herself to have a quick mind; in the moral movement, Bach shows herself to be able to feel emotions deeply, in spite of her shallow love life; and in the suspense movement, Bach shows herself to have the courage of her convictions, as well as human limitations— she cannot save the child.
By shifting scenes back and forth from Bach to Charlie, Varley enables the reader to become well acquainted with the little girl. At first, she greets the mystery of her discovery with irritation— she is a busy little girl with too much to do to waste her time talking with outsiders. As she warms to Bach, she feels the loneliness of her isolation and the despair of losing loved ones. Earlier, it had been a dead puppy, but now she faces up to the reality of her mother's death. Her courage in these situations seems natural; Varley includes touches of character, such as her literal mindedness when asked questions, that make her seem a believable little girl, even while she successfully faces problems that could discourage many adults. When she finally puts her trust in Bach, she reaches a level of maturity that exceeds those of even the adults who try to help her. She has confronted the universal human problem of mortality, and she has overcome the fear of death.
A great tragedy usually touches on deep matters of universal importance, and in the unfolding of its plot, it will humanize these matters and explore them. Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo follows this pattern, making it a remarkable literary work. If there is a false note to this tragedy, it is Bach's seeming failure to grow. Her grief yields to the passage of time, only to become involved with yet another muscular man. On the other hand, the woman who was resigned to her fate as the oldest recruit in the police force has discovered in herself the capacity to do what is right in spite of powerful opposition, and the courage to risk her future for someone who cannot defend herself, Charlie.
For Further Reference
Beetz, Kirk H. "John Varley." In Popular World Fiction: 1900-Present. Edited by Walton Beacham and Suzanne Niemeyer. Washington, DC: Beacham Publishing, 1987:1578-1588. Provides an account of Varley's career and critical reception with close readings of The Ophiuchi Hotline, Titan, and "Press Enter
Clute, John. "Varley, John (Herbert)." In The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. Edited by Peter Nicholls, et al. New York: Dolphin Books, 1979: 628. Brief survey of Varley's early career.
"Varley, John." In Contemporary Authors. New Revision Series. Vol. 25. Edited by Hal May and Deborah A. Straub, et al. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989: 458-460. Provides a summary of laudatory criticism.
"Varley, John." In Reader's Guide to Twentieth-Century Science Fiction. Edited by Marilyn P. Fletcher. Chicago: American Library Association, 1989. Offers mostly plot summaries of Varley's fiction, with a brief discussion of his themes and style.