"The Ophiuchi Hotline" was John Varley's first novel, though it followed a number of short stories set in the same background. Mankind has been thrown off Earth by invaders beyond human comprehension. Now, exiled to the bad real estate in the rest of the Solar System, the race is fragmenting into different cultures and evolving into...into what? This novel isn't about the invaders, or about the other, benign (?) aliens who are beaming data from the stars. It's about the things that happen to individuals who remain very human as their culture, and even their species, change around them.
In this culture personality is important, the body almost trivial. Your appearance, and even your sex, can be changed on impulse. Adding a new limb is no harder, and no more remarkable, than dropping a new component into your stereo system. Even death isn't permanent; stored memories can be played into a clone body to create at least the illusion of immortality.
The legal system does its best to keep up with technology. Some
research and techniques are simply forbidden as dangerous to the human race. Punishment for overzealous meddling with human genetic material, for instance, carries the penalty of permanent death . . . The State will search out and destroy every memory recording and tissue sample of the executed criminal. The criminal's genotype is published and declared outlaw, and if detected again will be put to death, as many times as is necessary.
Lilo Alexandr-Calypso, the heroine of "The Ophiuchi Hotline," is just such a researcher. Varley follows her through several cloned incarnations - some of them parallel, as duplicates of Lilo are created, destroyed and changed. And as Lilo changes, her society changes around her. The culture of the Eight Worlds is already pushing the bounds of humanity . . . and as the book closes, we see that changes will only come faster and faster. Varley has created these worlds only to invite us all to imagine their immolation in something far stranger, as mankind turns, not one evolutionary corner, but several at once.
The Ophiuchi Hotline
Dial Press, 1977
Here is the TEXT POPUP for The Ophiuchi Hotline:
"A creative surgeon could go broke in Luna. Few were interested in extra legs in odd places, reversed heads, new nose designs, or prehensile tails. They changed their sex an average of once every eight years, a system-side low. The ratio of maintenance to cosmetic surgery was nine to one. Most Lunarians who wanted a face change did it at home as a hobby.''