“‘In five years, the penis will be obsolete,’ said the salesman.”
—Steel Beach, by John Varley
Hard to follow that one, right? But John Varley pulls it off. And, to be fair, Hildy, our freely gender-swapping protagonist, isn’t buying what this particular salesman is selling. Hildy enjoys his genitalia, be they male or (later) otherwise.
Hildy is a journalist living on Luna (a futuristic vision of the moon) among the fellow descendants of refugees who fled Earth following an alien invasion. Luna society is fascinating, outlandish (har har), and in certain ways very appealing, but the citizens, including our fearless protagonist, are bored, depressed, and regularly suicidal. Obviously, this is a problem in and of itself, but worse by far is the fact that Luna’s Central Computer, entity in charge and personal companion of each and every resident, is experiencing the same symptoms.
So yeah, I know. Humans on the moon, their lives controlled by a powerful sentient machine. Maybe not the most original of plotlines. But Steel Beach isn’t really about all that. I mean, it is, but it’s also about gender and depression and the sometimes terrible consequences of good intentions. It’s about the dangers of too much comfort and too much entertainment and, of course, the risk in putting unquestioning faith in machines. It’s somehow both playful and sobering, a rather frightening and certainly sad book that still manages to be a hell of a good time.