Varley is a writer whom I like, but this novel left a lot to be desired in the writing quality department. I first saw this story as a movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd (that's how old it is!). I loved the movie. It, in turn, was based on a short story titled "Air Raid" which appeared in the inaugural edition of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in the spring of 1977. I reviewed it in October 2013. I think this novel was - in the incestuous way that Hollywood has - taken from the movie, so it feels a lot more familiar than Air Raid did, but it's written to be somewhat different for some inexplicable reason.
This novel is one that has such an absurd premise that you have to turn off brain cells and skim the most superficial level of it, if you want to enjoy the story. The movie was a critical and financial disaster, but I actually liked it. It was rated badly and made less than seven million (in 1989) which is a fortune to you and me, but a sorry waste of time in Hollywood dollars. Cheryl Ladd was a breath of fresh air which more than made up for Kris Kristofferson's predictably wooden performance. I'd recommend it over the stories, though.
Varley has a real problem with time in this novel - and I don't mean in the actual story, but in the details he writes, which keep changing. As far as I could tell, that is set in a future as far ahead of us as the Copper Age coming to the Fertile Crescent is behind us. It's a society where we're led to believe that though this world is at an end, with pollution and genetic deterioration running riot, the amazingly advanced technology they have - including time travel - cannot do a thing to help? The plan they develop is to go back to the past and collect healthy human specimens which they will then dispatch to another planet so the human race can start over. How they managed to be eight thousand years into the future and not even begin to colonize other planets is a mystery which goes unexplained, as is why they waited so long to implement even this solution.
The plan for collecting healthy human specimens is to scavenge air disasters and other disappearances. What they do is scan history to find an airplane crash. Before the crash happens, they link to the airplane and send in a team to remove the living humans and substitute zombie-like replicas which bear a superficial resemblance to the rescued people. This was before the age of DNA "fingerprinting" so all they do is replace the teeth in the zombie with a set which matches the rescued human and they're good to go.
Given that they want healthy human specimens, it makes no sense to collect a random sample from a jetliner. Wouldn't you want to run tests and take the most genetically fit specimens if you want to reboot the human race and give it the best chance? Yes, it's Eugenics, but this is the end of the entire race we're talking about here (and it's fiction), not some Nazi ethnic cleansing. Besides, healthy specimens come from all races, not just the so-called Aryans. So why focus on taking passengers from US air disasters? Seriously?! Oh that;s right! It's another US author for whom the rest of the world simply doesn't count! Got it!
To be fair, there is mention of taking others, including the largely fictional Roman 'lost' legion, but it would seem to me to be a lot easier if they had taken people from prehistoric times, who would not only be genetically healthier than modern humans, but also a heck of a lot easier to snatch without causing problems down the time line. "Hah! Got you!" I can hear you saying, "If they did that, they could wipe out whole populations of humans which descended from a couple of initial individuals, if they took either one of those 'founding parents'," but here's the thing: there are engineers in this story whose job it is to scan the timeline and discover suitable people for this abduction. All they have to do is scan them to their death and snatch all the ones who don't live to old age right before they're schedule to die in their original time. Easy-peasey
Not that they had no harmful genes a hundred thousand years ago, but they had fewer than we do today because most of those with genetic defects above a certain level of severity would not survive, unlike today. And why take only white folks, when Africans have the greatest genetic diversity, even today? I should note that it's the movie, in true Hollywood tradition, which shows the rescued passengers to be almost exclusively white, not the novel, but the novel never said a word about seeking genetic diversity or representation. Perhaps the author expected us to assume this, but it would not have hurt to clarify it.
For me, the biggest unanswered question was, given the technology they have, why can't they fix these genetic problems? Another good questions is, if they can time-travel, why not go back and fix the issues that led to the appalling pollution and genetic issues, so they never happen in the first place? This is what I mean by setting your sights low if you want to enjoy the fantasy of this story. Do not go looking for good science or logical moves in this fiction! Yes, you can argue that doing something like that would screw-up the time line, but would that be any worse than doing nothing which has already screwed-up the future here?
Having said that, that was one thing I did like: is that the future people dare not make big waves in the time stream. Chronoclasms will echo down the ages if they mess with the wrong thing, changing their present (in the future!). This is why they take the passengers who are doomed. They will die in the crash, so if they substitute bodies and remove the living, no one will know they were snatched.
Of course there were many ways to achieve this same aim without limiting oneself to jetliners which is what the movie did. Why not get all those children who go missing every year? Bring them to the future, educate them in schools specifically structured to teach them what they need to know to survive on this new planet, and when they're mature enough, send them. The haphazard nature of this 'culling' in which they indulged themselves (and the future of the human race!) seemed ridiculous and dangerous to me.
There are many ways a writer could have gone with this and it's a bit depressing to think that someone of Varley's stature made so many poor choices. Dual first person narratives were really annoying. I am not a fan of first person voice by any stretch of the imagination and having two of them makes it twice as bad. The movie thankfully dispensed with that. In this case, the alternating narratives come from Louise Baltimore (all the future people are named after cities - mostly US cities) and Bill Smith, who is an investigator trying to figure out how two planes collided in mid-air (presented in a delightfully disturbing manner in the movie). The more he investigates, the more suspicious and confused he becomes. Baltimore is sent in to try and fix these issues, and ends up making them worse.
The writing overall isn't bad. There's too much info-dumping (which is a side-effect of the ill-chosen voice, I have to add), but aside from that, it's written reasonably well. There was only one big error I noted, which is that on page 36 it's 7:15, but two pages later, during the same sequence, it's only "oh-seven-hundred." Someone wasn't watching the clock! This is funny because later there is a problem raised with all the watches from the plane's victims showing the wrong time.
The problem as we begin the story is that one of the team who switches bodies loses her stun gun, and that kind of technology cannot be allowed to surface back in 1955. It gets worse when another such gun is lost in 1980. Louise Baltimore (everyone in the future seems to be named after a city) is sent back to recover it, and ends up encountering Bill Smith, one of the crash investigators, who is starting to suspect something truly weird is going on here. Love ensues!
There is some unintentional humor which leavens this book, such as where I read about the temporary morgue, wherein the head of the local NTSB board had "somebody" set it up. That struck me as hilarious, but maybe it's just me! The bottom line is that the movie is far better. Skip the book and go straight there. If you can still find it in this purported age of instant access and steaming video.