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The Persistence of Vision by John Varley

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"The Persistence of Vision" is a 1978 science fiction novella by John Varley. It is about drifter who discovers an amazing commune of blind and deaf people in the New Mexico desert.

Becoming Part of Another Culture

Have you ever tried to be part of a different culture? It is difficult and takes a long time, but the rewards for learning a different way of thinking are extremely satisfying. I spent a year living on the pacific island of Pohnpei, and I can relate to the feelings the protagonist of this story describes: curiosity, fear, embarrassment, paranoia, not fitting in, striving to understand… and ultimately a bit of acceptance. It is very difficult to describe, but I think this story does a great job of it.

Non-spoiler Summary in a Nutshell

Seated, six feet off the ground by darkmatter, CC 2.0 license

The narrator of this story is an unemployed man who is wandering across the United States working odd jobs and staying with self-sustaining communities. Variety is the spice of life, and he is getting a lot of it. As he gets closer to California he comes across a commune of deaf-blind people and his curiosity forces him to see how they live. He finds out that they are children whose mothers were infected with Rubella while pregnant – which caused their condition. There were initially loads of deaf-blind children in the early 1960s, but these hundred or so have been educated and subsequently fought for their right to live on their own. They are a tight-knit community with some strict rules, but our drifter is determined to learn their ways – especially since getting to know Pink, the teen aged daughter of one of the deaf-blind people. She helps him learn their language, culture and rules. But there is something he is missing and he can’t quite put his finger on it – perhaps it is better that he doesn’t find out what it is!

My Two Cents…

  • There is a lot of so-called “hippy” culture in this story – liberal amounts of free-love and self-expression. I found it fascinating but your tastes may vary.
  • The narrator’s discussions about communication, language, learning and love is deeply interesting.
  • Wow – this story is told in a fantastic way! The writing style, the characters, the situations – excellent!
  • "The Persistence of Vision" is a very soft science fiction story – so don’t be expecting anything too alien. Ha – pun intended!
  • Warning: There are a few sexually explicit scenes in this story – so stay away if that kind of stuff bothers you.

Interesting Tidbits:

  • Page Count: 40
  • Audio Length: 2 hours
  • Did you know that John Varley was once an unemployed drifter himself? Yep. You can learn more about this fascinating author on his web site.
  • "The Persistence of Vision" won the 1979 Hugo Award for Best Novella, the 1979 Nebula Award for Best Novella and placed 1st in the 1979 Locus Readers Poll.
  • Special thanks to Variety SF for pointing out this great story!

Where You Can Find The Persistence of Vision:

  • This story was first published in the March 1978 edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
  • You can listen to (or download) a wonderful audio version of "The Persistence of Vision" at spiderrobinson.com. (The story begins at time index 5:43, and there is a 12 minute musical intermission.)
  • It is included in the excellent collection The John Varley Reader.
  • You can also read this story online for free courtesy of Google Books. (This link may not work if you are outside the United States)

Craving More Science Fiction Short Stories?

If you enjoyed "The Persistence of Vision" then you might also like "…For a Single Yesterday" by George R. R. Martin – about a musician in a post-apocalyptic commune who uses a powerful drug to re-live the past.

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