|Media type||Print (hardcover & paperback)|
|Followed by||The Golden Globe|
The novel was nominated for both the Hugo and Locus Awards for Best Novel.
Steel Beach takes place in Varley’s "Eight Worlds" universe. The solar system has been colonized by human refugees fleeing aliens (known as "the Invaders"). Earth and Jupiter are off-limits to humanity, but Earth's moon and the other planets and moons of the solar system have all become populated. There are also minor colonies set in the Oort cloud beyond the solar system itself.
The "steel beach" in question is Luna, Earth's moon and the most heavily inhabited world in the solar system since the Invaders obliterated human civilization on Earth; the title alludes to humans being figuratively thrown onto the inhospitable moon, paralleling fish that made their way onto land in the evolution of amphibians.
The protagonist, Hildy Johnson, is a newspaper reporter, named after the male protagonist of The Front Page and female protagonist of His Girl Friday, who finds trouble beneath the surface of the near-utopian society run by the Central Computer. The Central Computer runs every aspect of every person's life: it is the government, court, information source, and friend to every citizen.
Hildy is male at the beginning of the novel. He has become dissatisfied with his life, much like many others on the moon who take part, for example, in destructive activities such as "slash boxing"—a blend of knife fighting and boxing, on which Hildy reports. He has made multiple suicide attempts.
The first half of the story deals with bizarre behaviors on the moon, such as the indoctrinations of celebrity heads-in-jars,negotiating with brontosaurus herds to figure out whom they will sacrifice to make burger patties, and Earth-themed Disneylands which come complete with snakes, sand and sunburns.
In the second half, Hildy makes contact with a group of people who have figured out how to travel through space without spacesuits. These people then reveal that they are hiding from the Central Computer, partially to keep their technology secret, and to keep free of secret experiments the Central Computer has been performing on people.
Hildy then learns that the Central Computer has been attempting to clone the deceased in order to keep the population up. Hildy then becomes suspect, as she (he has had a sex change by now) has attempted to commit suicide several times, and it is unclear if she has been rescued or cloned. The Central Computer eventually resorts to launching a military raid on the people, which eventually causes the machine itself to crash. This leaves the moon city in chaos, and in its death throes, the Central Computer sends a projection of itself to Hildy, explaining that the schizoid condition of having multiple versions of itself was conflicting and strenuous, and that the city's doom was inevitable.