The Ophiuchi Hotline

by John Varley
Reviewed date: 2011 Mar 2
Rating: 2
234 pages
cover art

When humanity ventures out into space, they discover a radio transmission from the direction of 70 Ophiuchi. Deciphering the transmission reveals all manner of new science and technology, which mankind makes use of. At the same time, the solar system is invaded by mysterious aliens who colonize Jupiter; unfortunately, the Invaders feel it necessary to cleanse Earth of all human artifacts. Mankind is exiled to space.

Our hero in all this is a young woman named Lilo. Unfortunately, Lilo faces capital punishment for experimenting on human DNA. The crime is the fact that she's changing human DNA, not that she created and murdered fetuses for research; that crime seems to be completely ignored--which is strange, given the value their society places on human life in all other situations.

Lilo is rescued from death row by Boss Tweed, a ringleader of the Free Earth movement. She is forced to work for the radical Free Earthers, to help them in their quest to defeat the Invaders and take back the Earth. (An aside: it seems incomprehensible to me that the majority of humanity would just give Earth up for lost and not be interested in fighting the Invaders. Mankind is not that weak spirited. The apathetic society that Varley paints is unconvincing.)

After lots of stuff happens, Lilo and her crew discover that the signal from 70 Ophiuchi isn't from 70 Ophiuchi after all, but is actually from a space station parked just outside the solar system. Imagine that! That station is populated by aliens--not the Invaders--who offer humanity a deal they can't refuse: mankind has been using the Ophiuchi Hotline signal, so now it's time to pay up or suffer severe consequences. The price? Our culture.

Wait, what? That makes no sense. The aliens explain: they've been a spacefaring race for so many millions of years that they've lost their original origins and their original culture. To keep from dying from an acute lack of culture, they need to borrow cultures from other, younger races. For the vitality or something. They want to adopt human culture for a few eons, at which point they'll find some other intelligent species and borrow their culture.

Another aside: No, actually, this isn't an aside, this is a main point. CULTURE DOES NOT WORK LIKE THAT. You cannot "lose" all your culture. Your culture can change. If your species has been spacefaring for millions of years, maybe you'll even lose the history of your origins. But you'll still have a culture. It will be different from your culture of a million years ago, but that's how culture works. It changes continuously. It isn't something that can be lost or borrowed or stolen. You can't die or go extinct from culture deprivation.

The central idea of The Ophiuchi Hotline is so incredibly ignorant that it stunned me when I read it. John Varley writes well, but this idea of "losing" your culture is too big a problem to recover from, no matter how good a storyteller you are. The Ophiuchi Hotline rates a disappointing two out of five.

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