The Ophiuchi Hotline

The Ophiuchi Hotline

"The Ophiuchi Hotline" is a 1977 science fiction novel by John Varley. It opens in the year 2618.

Background to the author's work

The novel both introduces and finalizes the story elements of Varley's Eight Worlds series which are further explained in other novels and short stories, which explore earlier stages of the story of humanity, post-2050.

On Earth, a race called only Invaders has destroyed all human technology in the year 2050, so that the remaining people there exist at a stone-age level. The rest of humanity survives on all available solid bodies in the solar system with the aid of a technology derived from information in the Ophiuchi Hotline, a radio signal apparently beamed from the star 70 Ophiuchi. They live mostly underground on bodies such as Luna, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Pluto. There are no settlements on the moons of Jupiter, because the Invaders live in the atmosphere of that planet. Using Symbiotic Spacesuits ("Symbs"), thousands of humans also enjoy an odd existence floating in the rings of Saturn.

The Invaders' purpose is simple - they recognize two kinds of intelligent life: themselves, evolving in the atmospheres of planets like Jupiter, and sea-living mammals like whales and dolphins. Humans and other tool-users qualify only as vermin. They reduced humanity to the stone-age (starving billions to death in the process) to protect the whales and dolphins.

Important technological elements of the stories are cloning and the ability to record memories and restore them to a brain at a later date. There is also advanced surgery used for cosmetic body alteration. Everyone is fitted with a data port which allows them to be interrogated by computer. They can also have their nervous system shut down selectively for surgery. Many people change sex on a whim. Others choose to exist without sex at all.

One result of the universal possibility of creating a clone of a dead person is that murder has gone down in importance, being considered a second-rate crime rather than the heinous act it is in our society - since the victim would be revived, and the murderer has only deprived him or her of a few months' memories and experiences.

The possibility of cloning is, however, strictly limited to reviving a dead person. For the sake of keeping the population down, it is absolutely forbidden to make a copy of a living person. Upon discovery, such an "illegal copy" - who is as much of a living, feeling human being as the "original" - must be destroyed immediately. Therefore, illegally-made clones have no recourse to law and are in effect at the mercy of whoever created them - a point of central importance to the plot.

Plot summary

Lilo is a rebel geneticist living on Luna. Violating the laws of the Eight Worlds, she has experimented with human DNA, using money she received from her legal work on such creations as the "Bananameat" tree. As the story opens, she is facing execution. Her cell is quite luxurious, more like a hotel room. Her only inconvenience is isolation, and being used as a subject in criminology classes.

On the eve of her execution, she is visited by the person she knows as Boss Tweed, the most powerful politician in Luna. (He has evidently taken up this name in deliberate emulation of the crooked 19th Century New York politician William M. Tweed, and is even mentioned as having named his Lunar headquarters "Tammany Hall".)

Accompanying Tweed is a formidable bodyguard and Lilo's own clone, fresh out of the growth tank with a full set of Lilo's memories. Tweed offers Lilo a deal - she can escape and the clone will die, or vice versa. It's never clear which she chooses, because the next scenes show one Lilo committing suicide in the prison and another going free with Tweed. Whichever it is, the corpse goes into the Hole, a captive black hole which serves as a power plant for Luna, generating energy from garbage tossed into it.

Lilo learns she is to become a cog in Tweed's machine, to be trained for use in Tweed's schemes to strike back at the Invaders. Like all Lunarians she will periodically record her memories for restoration into a clone should her body die. The first time she does this with Tweed, the next experience recorded is being revived and told that she has been killed twice, for escaping from Tweed. She is, in fact, the third clone Tweed has made of Lilo. Thus Lilo resolves to be much more careful.

At this point, as in other stories involving the brain-recording and cloning processes (e.g. "The Phantom of Kansas" in The Persistence of Vision) the reader may wonder what personal identity means when bodies and memories can be rebuilt as needed. The novel elaborates even more on this theme until hinting that there is more to it than simple biochemistry, towards the end.

Tweed's bodyguards are themselves clones of one individual, both male and female, called Vaffa or sometimes Hygeia. They are large, strong and deadly. Tweed's one weakness is that his entire operation is clandestine. Despite his power, his illegal cloning (to combat overpopulation only one copy of an individual may be alive at one time) and his intent to take on the Invaders would result in his downfall if it were generally known.

Lilo is eventually sent to an asteroid. Her job is to maintain the food supply. There are more Vaffa's guarding these workers, some of whom have been "shanghaied", in the sense that their memories and tissues were stolen by Tweed without their knowledge, and their clones awakened to a life of semi-slavery. One such is Cathay, a Teacher. In this time Teaching means devoting yourself to helping one child mature, regressing in age if necessary. Cathay and Lilo quickly become bonded lovers - a rarity in a society where sex is recreational.

On the asteroid, everyone has a null-field suit. This generates a field just above the skin to protect them in vacuum, and is yet another piece of Hotline technology. Air comes from an implanted generator.

Tweed has a bizarre scheme - he intends to send a stolen black hole through Jupiter to see what the Invaders will do about it. Lilo and Cathay are recruited for the mission. They eliminate the Vaffa sent with them, and Cathay escapes in the ship used to tow the Hole. Lilo, however, is left to fall with the Hole into Jupiter's atmosphere. Protected by her suit, she encounters an Invader.

Another Lilo awakes in Tweed's tank. This one has no memory of the asteroid, or anything else since the previous copy left Luna. She is sent on a mission to Pluto. There is something new coming down the Hotline, and it looks dangerous. The actual beam misses the solar system - it was originally found when deep space probes went out years beyond the orbit of Pluto. Nobody is sure whether it's intended for another system entirely, or whether the point is to make sure that the information is only available to those with the right technology.

The new messages seem to be demands for payment. Whoever has been providing the information for hundreds of years wants compensation. Unfortunately the decoders can't determine what that is. Lilo and another Vaffa reach Pluto and look for a "Hole Hunter" to take them out to the beam. Hole Hunter's are prospectors who take ships out for years, looking for the miniature black holes that orbit the Solar System. Most return to face bankruptcy. Their guide is another copy of Cathay, who has no knowledge of his "alter ego". However he and Lilo rapidly bond, just as the other two did. They eventually hire Javelin, a grotesque woman who has altered her body for free fall so she consists of a head on a cut down torso with two other limbs. No part of her body is much wider than her head, hence her name.

Under way, Javelin announces a change of plan. Vaffa protests but Javelin easily overpowers her. The plan is to go to the source of the beam. The Hole Hunters have known for some time that the beam comes from something a mere half a light-year away. Now that there is a threat, Javelin has been elected to investigate. Tweed's money will finance the trip, and if Tweed doesn't like it, too bad. Just one hitch - it's going to take 20 years. The crew elect to go into cold sleep.

Another Lilo awakes. This one was created by the original and hidden in orbit in the rings of Saturn. She is revived by Lilo's companion from the asteroid, and Parameter/Solstice, a human-Symb pair Lilo had entrusted with the location of the clone. The other Lilo told her companion to seek out Parameter/Solstice as she was falling into Jupiter. This Lilo examines the situation and determines to take over the asteroid. They use the stolen ship to ram the asteroid, actually sending it into the asteroid's Hole power generator, which sits in a null-field dish on the surface. The resultant thrust, carefully calculated, boosts the asteroid out of orbit, and on a journey out of the Solar System. Destination : Alpha Centauri. Faced with a "fait accompli", the Vaffa's throw in their lot with the prisoners. All must now work overtime just to survive, cut off from all aid. Tweed's downfall is assured - the asteroid broadcasts details of his plans to the various governments, and "he" activates an escape plan, shedding large amounts of fake flesh and disappearing into the general population as a sexless person.

Lilo awakes. This is the Lilo who fell into Jupiter. She awakes on Earth, on a beach. She learns to survive, becoming, in her own mind and those of the tribes of humans she encounters, Diana the Huntress. With her null-field suit she can face down animals and dive to great depths to hunt fish. As years pass, she determines she is probably on the east coast of the former USA. Occasionally she sees the blurs in the sky that are the only visible traces of Invaders. Finally deciding to go out in a blaze of glory, she dives into the sea to hunt a whale. As she dives after it, an Invader appears...

Lilo awakes. On Javelin's ship, she and her companions have reached the source of the Ophiuchi Hotline. It is a large, artificial object. Taken on board, they meet beings who are apparently human. They are given a show.

The story is simple. Life arises on planets like Earth, in systems with planets like Jupiter. Eventually whale-like lifeforms inhabit the seas. The Invaders arrive, and remove all other threats to the whales. Some time later, the remnants of technological life in the rest of the system have to be expunged when they become enough of a threat. The story cannot be changed. The Invaders can manipulate not only energy and matter, but time. They live in at least four dimensions. The Hotline is part of the rescue mission to humans. They need the technology to survive when they are attacked again by the Invaders, which will be soon. One of the purposes of the Hotline was to give humans the ability to manipulate their own genetic makeup, but because of the laws they passed this has not happened.

The Hotline people ask for their price - they need to become humans themselves for a time, to add human thought and experience to the pool of knowledge held between the stars by all the other beings ejected from their homes by Invaders. The alternative is for them to activate hidden features in the Symbs, turning them into an army of space-borne killers.

As if to underline all this, alarms sound and the Hotline people detect Invader activity. Suddenly, another Lilo appears. It is Diana the Huntress from Earth. According to the Hotline instruments, she was moved 25,000 years in the future, left there for some years, and then brought back. For the Invaders this is as simple as "folding a piece of paper". She also has gift from the Invaders - a small silver cube.

The Hotline people are taken aback. The cube is a null-field surrounding a singularity. Receiving a singularity from the Invaders is a sign that time is even shorter than they thought. It is another element of the story that always takes place. Because of Tweed's attack, the Invaders are preparing to evict humanity from the entire solar system, but before they do so, are offering humanity the chance to escape. The singularity is a tool to manipulate space-time and eliminate inertia, and can be used to evacuate the Solar System and allow humanity to seek a new home among the stars. Unfortunately, however, the available living space is spoken for, and humanity is in for a long time in the wilderness. Lilo, Diana and companions set out to return to the solar system, to break the bad news.

At the end the various Lilo's, past, present and future, on Javelin's ship and on the asteroid, realize they have a connection. They've been having dreams all along, and realize that the place in the dreams is somewhere they will all meet, in the future.

ee also

* List of science fiction novels
* Transhumanism

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