Eight Worlds

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The Eight Worlds are the fictional setting of a series of science fiction novels and short stories by John Varley, in which the solar system has been colonized by human refugees fleeing an alien invasion of the Earth. Earth and Jupiter are off-limits to humanity, but Earth's moon and the other worlds and moons of the solar system have all become heavily populated. There are also minor colonies set in the Oort cloud beyond the solar system itself. Faster than light travel is not (as yet) possible, though it's mentioned that test-flights will begin soon at the end of "The Golden Globe", and the species has not as yet managed to extend itself to other stars.

The series mostly deals with the ways in which technology and necessity shape morality and society. Instant sex changes are considered a matter of fashion, rather than gender-identity, and many long-standing human sexual taboos no longer exist. Thus the stories are somewhat disturbing to some readers, and maintain a degree of controversy[citation needed]

The "Eight Worlds" story "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" (first published in 1976) was adapted into a TV movie in 1985, starring Raul Julia.

The stories were written at different times and are not always consistent with each other. In particular, the novels "Steel Beach" and "The Golden Globe" seem to revise large portions of the original history (see Consistency, below). Varley has written that the Eight Worlds background should be regarded as a group of common characters and situations that appear in different stories rather than a single consistent setting. Several of the stories feature common characters, and these may be seen as linking together the whole series.

Common characters[edit]


John Varley has indicated that these so-called "Pre-invasion" stories are not actually a part of the "Eight Worlds" universe, even though they are commonly mistaken to be, and are occasionally bundled with real Eight Worlds stories in anthologies. They have a completely different history, in which there is lunar colonization (a common theme in Varley stories) and open sexuality (likewise a common theme), but there are no aliens and a great deal of Nuclear Terrorism on earth. None of the characters or locations in these stories has ever turned up in the Eight Worlds sequence as yet (outside of mentions in "Steel Beach" - see Consistency), though, on one occasion, Varley indicated that he might end up tying the two together in the as-yet-unfinished "Irontown Blues," presumably the final novel in the "Steel Beach" trilogy set within the Eight Worlds universe.

Anna Louise Bach[edit]

The first Anna Louise Bach story is the short story "Bagatelle" concerning a nuclear device planted in an underground lunar colony. At this time, Earth is still home to a technological civilization, albeit one which has to deal with nuclear terrorism. Bach is the Chief of Police in Luna City. Later stories such as "The Barbie Murders", and "Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo" deal with Bach in the earlier stages of her career. The novelette "Blue Champagne" has Bach as a minor character, working as a lifeguard in "The Bubble", a giant globe of water held in zero-gravity conditions on a resort satellite for the enjoyment of rich tourists. At the end of that story she announces that she has been saving her money to return to Luna and enroll in the Police Academy. A major character in the same story is Megan Gallagher, a "media star".

In notes contained within "The John Varley Reader", the author explains that he created Anna Louise Bach for stories which were too grim for the relative Utopia of the Eight Worlds series. He never intended that her story link to the Eight Worlds chronology. In fact, even within the Anna Louise Bach stories there are inconsistencies, such as the appearance of the fabulous "Mozartplatz" in "Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo", where a huge chasm on Luna is roofed over producing cubic miles of pressurized space featuring aerial communities, artificial rivers etc. The other stories portray Luna society as living in cramped tunnels.

Megan Galloway[edit]

Megan Galloway first appears in "Blue Champagne" and then in "Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo", linking her with Anna Louise Bach in both. In "Blue Champagne" she is a "trans-sister", a quadraplegic who leads a celebrity lifestyle with the aid of a sophisticated device which enfolds her entire body in a net of golden alloy threads, which move her limbs for her. The device also records sights, sounds and emotions as she experiences them. These are then sold as virtual reality experiences, known as feelies, for an audience of vicarious thrill-seekers. In "Steel Beach" she is also mentioned as one of the "Gigastars" enshrined by the Flacks - a bizarre celebrity cult - who later regret this choice, when feelies go out of fashion. In "Tango Charlie" she has shed the device, undergone surgery to restore her nervous system, and uses her money and influence to help Anna Louise Bach with her stuttering career and her current case. She mysteriously disappeared 100 years before the action of "Steel Beach".


Fox and Argus[edit]

Characters with these names appear in "The Phantom of Kansas", "Picnic on Nearside" and "Steel Beach". It is by no means clear that they are the same people except in the first two, where Fox's mother's name is Carnival. Fox encounters her own clone in "Phantom", illegally made in a strange form of kidnapping. They discover a mutual affection and leave Luna as a couple for somewhere with less restrictive laws.


Cathay, a Teacher, appears in the short story "Beatnik Bayou" and "The Ophiuchi Hotline". His job entails working exclusively with one child for a period of his or her early life. In "Beatnik Bayou" he actually regresses physically to the age of the child and grows up at the same rate, keeping his adult mentality, but an incident results in him being professionally disgraced. In The Ophiuchi Hotline he is cloned illegally by the character "Boss Tweed", so that two of him are major characters in that novel.

Hildy Johnson[edit]

A journalist who was originally named Mario, but took a new name from The Front Page. Hildy is the central character in Steel Beach and has appeared as a minor character in other works.

Sparky Valentine[edit]

Actor and con-man. The main character of The Golden Globe.

The Invaders[edit]

Described at length in The Ophiuchi Hotline, the Invaders are inhabitants of gas-giant planets like Jupiter. They transcend the limits of four-dimensional spacetime and can manipulate time and space at will. They classify living beings in one of three categories: those such as themselves, who arise in gas giant planets everywhere, cetaceans such as dolphins and whales, and vermin, the last category including all sentient beings other than Invaders and cetaceans.

The Invasion of Earth was carried out to protect cetaceans from the effects of human civilization. Although no humans were directly killed, billions died as the Invaders dismantled all the infrastructure needed to support human civilization on Earth. The human population remaining on Earth after the Invasion is about the same as in prehistory, living in tribes without access to technology. This is a scenario that has been played out for millions of years across the galaxy. Inevitably the human species will be forced out of the Solar System altogether, to live between the stars where other displaced intelligences are already in residence.

Common locations[edit]

King City[edit]

Apparently a settlement on the far side of Luna from Earth, it features in several stories, including "Options", a story about the early days when people can change sex at will. In "Picnic on Nearside" two adolescents leave King City to explore the old cities on the other side of Luna, from which Earth can be seen all the time. These were abandoned after the Invasion, as people did not like to look at what they had lost.


Humans possess several advanced technologies, many supposedly derived from information contained in the "Ophiuchi Hotline", a stream of data travelling on a laser beam, apparently from the star 70 Ophiuchi. The novel Steel Beach describes new technologies: the "null field" and a "FTL propulsion system". These are attributed to "Valentine Michael Smith", the "leader" of a group of idealists known as the "Heinleiners", and whose pseudonym is an obvious homage to Heinlein and his novel Stranger in a Strange Land.


A variant on the "force field" idea, the nullfield can wrap any object or volume in a shell which cannot be penetrated by anything, except gravity and certain kinds of light. Worn like a second skin it is the ultimate spacesuit. It can also be a domed tent for life on the surface of Luna, Mercury or Venus. To someone outside, a nullfield looks like a perfect mirror in the shape of whatever it contains. In the stories, people in nullfield suits survive falling into Jupiter, skimming the outer atmosphere of the Sun, walking on the surface of Venus, and being buried alive on Mercury (though the kinetic energy of being shot can cause fatal heat buildup). Two nullfields can merge, allowing people wearing them to touch each other, making for a way of passing the time when buried alive, waiting to be rescued. A nullfield can also be used as a doorway between pressurized quarters and vacuum. A person with a personal suit generator can walk through the nullfield doorway from air to vacuum, and their suit will form automatically.

Symbiotic spacesuits[edit]

Usually called "Symbs", these are a semi-living material which can supply all the needs of a human body, requiring only sunlight and some trace elements. A Symb will enfold and penetrate the body of someone who wants to enter into symbiosis with it, forming a Symb Pair. One of the side effects is that the Symb forms a personality of its own in the brain of the human. It also vastly increases the efficiency of the brain, and enhances artistic abilities. Almost all Symb Pairs live in the rings of Saturn, trading artworks for their few material needs. Symbs appear in the novel The Ophiuchi Hotline and the short stories Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance and Equinoctial. In Equinoctial two factions of Symb Pairs are engaged in a Holy War. One faction is intent on coloring one of Saturn's rings red using genetically engineered bacteria, as a kind of cosmic statement. The other faction intend to prevent this and reverse any coloring they find. The struggle is expected to last for millennia as each side tries to out-populate the other, often by kidnapping each other's children.

In The Ophiuchi Hotline it is revealed that the Symbs are a trojan horse of sorts. If the demands of the Hotline operators are not met, the Symb Pairs will transform into unstoppable warriors capable of destroying all human space habitats. However the demands consist only of allowing alien minds to assimilate human culture by riding along in the minds of selected people.

Genetic manipulation[edit]

Oddly, the creators of the Hotline data seem to know a lot about genetics. Humans in the Eight Worlds use this information to create new animal and plant species, but manipulating human DNA is illegal. This is an important plot point in the final episode of the series The Ophiuchi Hotline. Minor modifications of the body are routine, such as the addition of gills for underwater breathing ("Goodbye, Robinson Crusoe") or decorative alterations, such as growing fur on various parts of the body.

Personality recording[edit]

Using a fictional chemical called ferrophotonucleic acid, or FPNA, the state of a person's brain can be preserved in long molecular chains, and replayed into a new brain. This is used for two purposes.

First, people can record their personalities and all their memories into storage, along with a sample of their tissue. If they die, a copy can be cloned and returned to life with the memories they had up to the time of recording. This is a plot point in "The Phantom of Kansas" where the character Fox awakes to find she is a clone who has been revived after her original self, and the subsequent clone, were both mysteriously murdered. In The Ophiuchi Hotline the character Lilo is cloned several times by the politician Boss Tweed to carry out missions for him, as are several other characters. The law also provides for a sentence of "Death with immediate reprieve" where a criminal is killed and a clone is revived with memories from before the commission of the crime. The "innocent" copy has to undergo therapy to avoid a repeat of the criminal act. This sentence can even be applied to simple assault, as in "Beatnik Bayou", if the crime is severe enough.

The other use is a kind of tourism where the personality can be transferred into some other brain to absorb some experience, followed by re-playing that into the original brain. In the story "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" a man's personality is recorded and placed in the brain of a lioness in one of the wildlife reserves on Luna. Unfortunately his body goes missing, and he spends a long time in the computer network, keeping his "new" memories alive. In the process he goes to virtual university and also threatens the financial stability of the society when he starts tinkering. After what seems like months to him, he is reunited with his body and finds that only a few hours have passed.


In the Author's Note of Steel Beach, Varley states:

This story appears to be part of a future history of mine, often called the Eight Worlds. It does share background, characters, and technology with earlier stories of mine... What it doesn't share is a chronology. The reason for this is simple: the thought of going back, rereading all those old stories, and putting them in coherent order filled me with ennui... Steel Beach is not really part of the Eight Worlds future history. Or the Eight Worlds is not really a future history, since that implies an orderly progression of events. Take your pick.

While there are small details throughout the series which do not match up, this is especially true of Steel Beach and its sequel. Any plot/character descriptions in this article should be read with this in mind.


Short stories[edit]

  • "Bagatelle" (1974) bm
  • "The Barbie Murders" (1978) bm, jvr
  • "Beatnik Bayou" (1980) bm, jvr
  • "The Bellman" (originally written in 1978 for the never released Last Dangerous Visions anthology, finally was published in 2003) jvr
  • "The Black Hole Passes" (1975) pv
  • "Blue Champagne" (1981) bc
  • "Equinoctial" (1976) bm
  • "The Funhouse Effect" (1976) bm
  • "Good-bye, Robinson Crusoe" (1977) bm
  • "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance" (1976) pv, jvr
  • "In the Bowl" (1975) pv
  • "Lollipop and the Tar Baby" (1977) bc, bm
  • "Options" (1979) bc, jvr
  • "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank" (1976) pv, jvr
  • "The Phantom of Kansas" (1976) pv, jvr
  • "Picnic On Nearside" (1974) bm, jvr
  • "Retrograde Summer" (1975) pv
  • "Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo" (1985) bc, jvr




  1. ^ "1978 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-09-26. 
  2. ^ "1993 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-09-26. 
  3. ^ "1999 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-09-26.