The Persistence of Vision

Late last year I discovered John Varley‘s The Persistence of Vision through a superb reading of the story included in Spider Robinson’s Spider on the Web podcast. The story has become my favourite novella and I am thrilled each time I revisit it.

“The Persistence of Vision,” is the story of a drifter crossing America during a terrible depression who happens upon a Taos commune run by and for a community of blind-deaf people, the adult cohort of a decades-gone German measles epidemic. In the commune (“Keller”), the narrator discovers important, unsuspected truths about independence and interdependence, communication and community, and the power of hope and perseverance.
Cory Doctorow, “Spider Robinson reads Varley’s ‘The Persistence of Vision‘”

One of the richest elements of the story is the positive vision of polyamoury that Varley placed at the heart of his community. The non-exclusive intimacy was not merely sexual —though it was sexual— and demonstrated the best of what a pragmatic and enthusiastic community can create.

That one aspect of the community resonated with me, but Varley instilled the story with a genuine sense of realism by developing a fictional culture and society that was both functional and beautiful.

Recognizing elements of Utopian narratives led me to a reading of the story that I think works well: this is a functional utopia, one that recognizes the flaws inherent in any idealism and responds to them. The displaced Other of utopian thought is present here, but it is an other able to form a real community; idealism demands constant rebuilding.

This story pulls off one of science fiction’s best tricks: exploring the fundamental question of whether disasters demand that you bug out, heading for the hills to wait out the disaster, or bug in, grabbing your go-bag and heading for your neighbors’ to see how you can help.

This is a timely reading — and not just because the economy is in free-fall. Technology is rupture — each new wave of technological change displaces and remakes us. Today’s technocratic winners are tomorrow’s superannuated losers. The future of human history will be about how we answer the bug in/bug out question.
Cory Doctorow, “Spider Robinson reads Varley’s ‘The Persistence of Vision‘”

Spider Robinson’s reading of the story is warm, loving and damn-near-perfect. You can download “Spider on the Web Episode 57 The Persistence of Vision” at Spider Robinson’s website and learn more about John Varley at his own.

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