Out of Body Vacations – more of why I love sf/f

Cover of the May 1976 edition of Galaxy Magazine, which is where I probably first read Varley's “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank.”

Cover of the May 1976 edition of Galaxy Magazine, which is where I probably first read Varley’s “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank.” (Click to embiggen)

In the spring of 1976 I still had a subscription to Galaxy magazine, thanks to my grandparents, though things were not going terrible well in my life at that time, so I didn’t always get all the way through one issue before the next came in. So I might not have read it until some months, after my parents’ divorce was final, and Mom, my sister, and I moved 1200 miles away. I definitely remember owning the magazine with this cover. This issue contained the story, “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” by John Varley.

Varley was the author of “Picnic on the Near Side” which I wrote about before, and which made quite an impression on me. This story is set in a similar world, with extensive colonies on the moon. It concerns a man named Fingal how has purchased a vacation at one of the “disneylands” which was large lunar caves that have been made to duplicate long lost environments on earth, complete with cloned wildlife. Fingal’s memory and personality are transferred from his brain into a cube, which is then implanted in a lioness so that Fingal can experience the life of a predator on the savannah.

Something goes wrong, and Fingal finds himself back in his own life sooner than expected, and strange things keep happening, such as books rewriting themselves before his eyes to become messages to him. He eventually learns that his body has someone been misplaced, so the memory cube has been put into a safety mode, interfacing with a computer which is creating a simulation of his real life. Messages come to him from a technician named Apollonia Joachim who explains that the simulation is necessary to keep his memories and personality intact until it can be returned to his body.

As the days stretch into weeks, Fingal starts taking classes in the simulation to teach himself new skills to get a better job when he does get back. Strange things happen, as the technician tries to keep him focused. In one incident, Fingal notices strange patterns in the floor tiles in his bathroom, and starts tracing them with his toe, suddenly the bathroom fills up with money. Fingal’s consciousness had somehow gotten into someone’s financial records. Apollonia warns him about losing himself again and again.

Over the months that follow, Fingal finds himself falling in love with Apollonia, and making plans for a future together.

Eventually Fingal is reunited with his body, and then learns that what felt like years to him in the simulation was only six hours, because his thoughts were moving at computer speed while connected. Ms Joachim has only been interfacing with him for a few hours, and doesn’t share his feelings.

The simulated classes he took did result in real learning, so he does have new skills and can pursue a more interesting job. Plus, of course, he gets a refund on the vacation and a lump sum settlement from the company. He’s informed that other people who suffered similar accidents have not always fared so well, and he’s the first person two survive six hours outside the memory cube’s normal limit.

Varley didn’t win an award for this particular story. He did win a Special Locus award the year this was published for having four novelettes, including this story, voted in the top ten in the Locus Reader Awards.

The story was adapted badly into a movie that changed a lot of things for no particular reason. Avoid the movie. The story isn’t action packed, but is more focused on the internal conflicts of a man unhappy with his life who is forced to stay there even if it is simulated. The notion being that if they allow his fantasies to run wild while his personality is in the memory cube, he will go mad and forget who he really is.

I enjoyed the story a lot. The notion that it’s the boring and repetitive parts of our lives that anchor our identities wasn’t terribly revolutionary, but it was interesting to see how this sort of technology might play out without any world-threatening peril giving it at artificial sense of danger. Really, who needs a bigger threat than literally losing your mind to provide a sense of dramatic tension?

One odd side note: I always get this story mixed up with another Varley tale, “The Phantom of Kansas.” They’re both set in the same fictional future world (the Kansas in the title of the second story is an artificial recreation of the midwestern plains of North America in another Lunar cave), and both stories involve stored personalities, but otherwise the plots have nothing to do with each other. The simple fact is that I think the title “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” would have been better for the second story as it evokes a metaphor for the central plot better than the notion of a phantom. So there has been more than one occasion when I’ve pulled out an anthology, such as my hardcover copy of Wolheim’s 1977 World’s Annual Best Science Fiction, see the title of Varley’s story, turn to it expecting to read the other story, and then as I read the opening paragraphs remember that I always get them mixed up.

Oddly, I own more than one anthology that includes “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank,” but absolutely none that include the other story. I need to fix that.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. For more than 20 years I edited and published an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

3 responses to “Out of Body Vacations – more of why I love sf/f”

  1. Joachim Boaz says :

    I still have yet to read Varley… I should, I have his famous collection The Persistence of Vision (1978) and a few of his novels.


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