I read this short story before 2000, possibly in the '80s.

It is about a woman who usually lives out in the vacuum of space, I believe in the rings of Saturn, and survives through connection to a symbiote which allows her to produce atmosphere and nourishment.

She returns to a human outpost and, if I recall correctly, encounters some prejudice and misunderstanding. This contrasts with her free and happy life in space. I think the symbiote was rather shapeless, sort of like an algae mat or some such, and not sentient, either.

Does anyone recall this story? I've been looking for it for decades. Thanks!


2 Answers 2


That sounds like Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, by John Varley, originally published in Galaxy, July 1976, and reprinted in the collection The Persistence of Vision, published in 1978. It's one of his Eight Worlds stories.

The names of the protagonist symbiont pair are Barnum & Bailey. I'm not sure of the gender (it's been a few decades since I read the story), but that can be somewhat fluid in the Eight Worlds.

The symbiote is an artificial lifeform, created from alien instructions. In the Eight Worlds stories, there's a datastream being broadcast by aliens, the Ophiuchi Hotline, containing a huge mixture of information, covering everything from science & technology, through to philosophy & religion. But you have to be out near the orbit of Pluto to receive the data beam.

The photosynthetic, amorphous symbiote has no intrinsic consciousness, but it shares the nervous system of its human partner, so they're in constant telepathic rapport, and the symbiont gradually develops its own personality.

These symbionts can stretch themselves out to maximize the solar energy they receive, which enables them to survive in space near Saturn, which has the most spectacular scenery in the Solar System. They don't require food, just a vitamin / trace element pill every 6 months or so. The protagonist, a new symbiont, has an unpleasant racist interaction with a normal human when they go to get their vitamin pill.

From the Eight Worlds article,

Symbiotic spacesuits

Usually called "Symbs", these are a semi-living material which can supply all the needs of a human body, requiring only sunlight and some trace elements. A Symb will enfold and penetrate the body of someone who wants to enter into symbiosis with it, forming a Symb Pair.

One of the side effects is that the Symb forms a personality of its own in the brain of the human. It also vastly increases the efficiency of the brain, and enhances artistic abilities.

Almost all Symb Pairs live in the rings of Saturn, trading artworks for their few material needs. Symbs appear in the novel The Ophiuchi Hotline and the short stories Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance and Equinoctial.

Equinoctial is set after Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance, and is somewhat darker.

  • 1
    I have Persistence of Vision in hardcopy, but I'm trying to find an online synopsis.
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 24, 2021 at 5:31
  • Wow, thank you so much! That seems to be it, and I am so happy to be able to find it again. I'd be very interested in the later story as well. Perhaps that is the one that I read--not sure. Very much appreciate your fast reply! I just went to buy a digital copy so that I can reread it again. Varley is always worth reading imho. Sep 24, 2021 at 5:37
  • @Elizabeth My pleasure! I really loved that story. I should re-read it myself...
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 24, 2021 at 6:07

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ophiuchi_Hotline There's one book that fits that narrative. Called the "The Ophiuchi Hotline"

  • 1
    You might like the Stardance trilogy by Spider Robinson. An intelligent symbiote comes to the solar system, and if it melds with people they can live in space, with no life support.amazon.com/Stardance-Trilogy-omnibus-Starseed-Starmind/dp/…
    – sueelleker
    Sep 24, 2021 at 8:17
  • Yes, I'm seeing that the symbiotes figure in a number of Varley's works, which I'm going to check out. Thanks for the Spider Robinson rec, as well. Sep 25, 2021 at 16:32
  • Varley and Robinson are friends and there are several examples of story concepts that each of them deals with (at least once with one story explicitly mentioning the other author's story)
    – Andrew
    Aug 15, 2022 at 1:58

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