Young People Read Old SFF


John Varley

Young People Read Old SFF

11 Sep, 2022

This month’s Hugo Finalist is John Varley’s Options. First published in 1979, Options was both a Hugo1 and Nebula2 finalist. Options was popular with both fans and Varley’s peers. It might then seem a pretty safe bet to win the hearts and minds of the Young People. 


The second last Eight Worlds (phase one) story published, Options examines the impact of cheap, convenient gender reassignment. By the era most Eight Worlds stories were set, body modification was a common and uncommented upon aspect of the proto-transhumanist setting. Options is set just as the technology becomes available. 

In his The John Varley Reader, Varley confessed to considerable worry about how readers would react to this aspect of the Eight Worlds. 

I must say I had considerable trepidation about how these stories might be received. Trepidation? I was scared stiff. Would I be seen as some sort of pervert? Would people call me a queer? (I’ll admit, that still would have hurt me back then. Hey, it was the worst thing you could say about a guy.) 
To my relief, they were well received. There were even a few people who, reading some of the stories, wondered if I was a woman writing under a pen name, as James Tiptree Jr.” turned out to be. I took this as flattering. I took it as meaning that I got it right, or at least as right as a male could.

The potential catch is that standards evolve over time. What was in 1979 inspirationally ground-breaking work can easily become by 2022 outdated or worse, overtly offensive. Stories examining sex and gender seem particularly likely to age poorly. Since Varley was one of the great authors of my personal Golden Age, I know I have a blind spot here. I hope the story did not age too badly but I fear the worst. Still, worry solves nothing. As with possible letter bombs, the best solution to pop the package open to see what we find. 

1: The full Hugo Best Novelette results were as follows:

1Sandkings George R. R. Martin

2Homecoming Barry B. Longyear

3The Locusts Steven Barnes and Larry Niven

4Fireflood Vonda N. McIntyre

5Options John Varley

6Palely Loitering Christopher Priest

2: The full Nebula Best Novelette results were as follows:

Win Sandkings George R. R. Martin

Nomination Options John Varley

Nomination The Ways of Love Poul Anderson

Nomination Camps Jack Dann

Nomination The Angel of Death Michael Shea

Nomination The Pathways of Desire Ursula K. Le Guin


I read this quite a few years back as part of the 1980 Timewarp Project and won’t be picking it up again. Whilst I appreciate what Varley was trying to do, his understanding of gender feels very dated and essentialist to me. Possibly I found it more upsetting as I hadn’t yet reconciled myself with being non-binary but it is not one I want to revisit.

I think he makes use of it better in his novel Steel Beach and the story is also made into a slightly better (but still dated) episode of the underrated series Welcome to Paradox.


Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I ought to review this. I said I was going to reread Options to refresh my memory, but I ended up not doing that. It’s been like a month, but I also can’t say I’m struggling to remember this. It’s hard for me to forget Varley, for good or ill. I used to wonder why none of his Eight Worlds stories won any major awards, and I think the reason is that while these stories are functionally standalones, they benefit greatly when taken in conjunction with other 8W stories. Also, I wouldn’t consider Options a great starting point, even though it takes place early in that future history’s timeline. It’s certainly a bit darker than The Phantom of Kansas or Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, but it also focuses on something that was previously only a tangential aspect of the Eight Worlds: the super-easy sex changes.

Varley’s speculation on a society where people can change their physical sex overnight is mostly wrong, and also backwards in its assumption about the mind-body relationship, since he posits that the body is the captain and the mind is the ship (this comes up in other 8W stories, but it’s prevalent in Options for obvious reasons), as opposed to the other way around. It’s the biggest criticism with regards to Varley’s take on gender, and it’s a pretty legit criticism. And yet… I’m not convinced that it’s transphobic, simply for the reason that Varley doesn’t indulge in even a little fearmongering, not here nor in any other 8W stories that I’ve read. Transphobia, like homophobia (and I would know a thing or two about being on the receiving end of homophobia), means at least a bit of fearmongering. If we let these people do X then Y will happen, and we can’t have that.” If the people who decry HRT for teenagers as a crime were to see how the Eight Worlds operate, they would absolutely become hysterical — not just because people modify their bodies, store their memories, etc., but also because Varley, despite his bio-essentialist viewpoint (at least at the time of writing these stories), says that being able to change one’s sex this conveniently is a non-issue. Nobody’s in mortal danger. Nobody’s rights are being taken away because of this. I think his intentions are very good, even if the execution is flawed.

Options is, at its core, a domestic drama about a marriage that’s in a bit of a rocky place. It’s far more character- than plot-driven, and given that it takes towards the beginning of the 8W timeline, when the tech that would become so banal in later stories is so newfangled here, it makes sense that Varley would take this as an opportunity to focus on the ramifications of commercially viable body modification (a borderline transhumanism that would later become a regular feature of cyberpunk). Being one of the truly innovative voices of 70s SF, Varley must also contend with later, more refined voices which would build upon and some ways improve upon what he did. Still, I don’t think the attempt, for its time, was a bad one at all. 


…this story. I really have no idea how to react to that. Let’s start with the easy nitpicky stuff: I don’t think I’d consider the procedure as described as easy even assuming future technology makes brain transplants fairly simple. You’re still removing your brain from your original body! Everyone seems to be treating this much more casually than makes sense. Varley does not appear to know how breasts work. (“There is very little feeling anywhere but the nipples.” It is SKIN! You have exactly the same amount of feeling there as you have on all of your other skin!) They don’t require consent to use someone else’s chromosomes in the cloning process. The society as described seems deliberately set up to be harder on women, if you have a custom of having large families plus an abolishment of babysitters. Like, this will cause a lot of women to drop out of the workforce” was in no way unpredictable there, and it gives the lie to the our society is so FREE” aspects of the story.

I found it deeply uncomfortable to read. It spends a lot of time being weirdly bio-essentialist for a story that’s supposedly about genderfluidity. Changing bodies is the thing that causes you to change genders; your gender is whatever body you’re currently in. Cleo initially reads like someone who mostly just wants an equal marriage– like, I have to wonder if any of this would ever have crossed her mind in the first place if Jules had been doing his share of the childcare, because the whole thing is initially presented as her thinking But what if I… didn’t have to take my baby to work?” And a lot of her initial explorations before she actually goes through with the switch are centered around wanting to be an equal marital partner in other ways– although after the swap it does come around to this is about finding yourself.”

Then once the lesson is learned that you are the same person whatever body you’re in, it moves to genderfluidity is inherently superior and refusal to experiment with it is a sign of being horribly emotionally maimed,” which… is a BAD takeaway! And this doesn’t seem to be just the characters; it’s the actual message of the story! Everyone in this story is awful at consent, and Jules being bad at consent is presented as bad and Cleo/Leo/Nile being bad at consent is presented as being for Jules’s own good.

Even after that lesson is learned, though… we’re STILL leaning into the bio-essentialism because the body is still the gender. (The male human” versus man” thing reminds me of the modern concept of male socialization” which is often waved at trans women as a weapon these days.)


I read the story a week ago and have been trying to figure out a response to it that isn’t just a bunch of messy gender feelings, but that’s failed and I tried to re-read it now and gave up, so messy gender feelings it is.To start, I think it’s important to note that I’m nonbinary, and have spent the last several years agonizing over if I wanted to pursue any kind of medical transition, and the last many months working through the process of jumping through all the hoops required to access gender affirming surgeries.

The thing that really stood out to me in this story was the concept of gender that seemed to have absolutely no concept of gender identity. In this story, your gender and pronouns are defined by your body, rather than being part of your identity. Also, for a story that was theoretically about gender fluidity, it had no concept of gender existing outside of the binary of men and woman. You’re one or the other, as dictated by your body, and while you can switch easily between them, there’s no concept of existing outside of those two binary choices.

While living in a world where gender affirming surgery/transition is that easy to access and experiment with is definitely appealing (or would be if it had any concept of gender identity and nonbinary people), I hate the conclusion that the story seems to come to that people refusing to change their gender are somehow worse/less progressive. In today’s context, I can’t help but compare it to transphobes that insist that trans people want to somehow force everyone to be trans, when really we just want trans people to be safe and able to live as themselves. Nobody is going to force cis people not to be cis.

As for the way transphobia is handled in this story, I’m not even sure how to feel about it. The story tells us it isn’t a thing, but then we also see Nile’s husband using the think of the children”-type arguments that wouldn’t be out of place in some of today’s political rhetoric.

I feel like really the author wanted to examine gender roles rather than gender identity, and I’d hate this story less if it had stuck to that. Critiquing the way women are expected to be all things at once is valid, but I really didn’t like this attempt at it. The author managed to create a world were there are no barriers to transition, and (allegedly) transphobia doesn’t exist, but yet has no place for a trans person like me to exist in it.