Ghosts of SF past
The Globe and Mail
Isaac Asimov once said that science fiction could be divided into two parts: on the one hand, the work of Robert A. Heinlein; on the other, the work of everybody else. Love him or hate him (most readers never fall between these two camps), Heinlein (Starship Troopers, Time Enough for Love) pioneered the genre, dragging it out from the pulp ghetto in the 1950s. His prolific career stretched from the late 1940s until his death in 1988, and he inspired a whole generation of engineers and physicists who grew up reading his "juveniles" or young adult fiction.
Variable Star is the posthumous "collaboration" between Heinlein and veteran SF writer Spider Robinson (based on about eight pages of notes from Heinlein's archive). The question is does Robinson -- or anybody for that matter -- have the chops to resurrect Heinlein?
The first few chapters are coltish and endearing, and here, Robinson is at his eccentric best, offbeat and curious. The protagonist is Joel, an 18-year-old aspiring composer. Jinny is his girlfriend. (Heinlein readers will recognize shades of Heinlein's key female protagonists in this character. Many of them were modelled and named after his third wife, Virginia.)
Poor Joel wants nothing more than to marry Jinny, until she throws him for a loop: She's secretly the granddaughter of the scheming Sir Conrad, the galaxy's greatest corporate sultan, who has more money and power than Joel has ever dreamed of. Since he's been lied to, Joel is crushed and petulant, and though he leaves Jinny, he learns there's no escaping a Conrad.
In the meantime, he joins a rag-tag colony of farmers and dreamers destined for the distant planet Brasil Novo. Along the way, Robinson laces the story with his signature jokes and puns, groaners at best.
Joel begins adjusting to life on a colonist starship. We learn about the "Star Drive" that allows humans to travel just below the speed of light by teaming a complicated and volatile engine with telepathic engineers. We learn about space farming, complete with unco-operative goats in zero gravity. And we learn that humankind and all its galactic colonies have an unseen but deadly enemy that can destroy suns. That's where things get interesting, but sadly, this thread takes up too little of the narrative.
Robinson fans, dig in. Heinlein fans, look at Variable Star as Spider Robinson's stylized tribute to SF's "Grand Master," and keep in mind that this story was originally conceived as one of Heinlein's "juveniles." Does Robinson have the chops to resurrect Heinlein, "the Dean of SF"? Yes and no. But if Asimov is right, we shouldn't fault Robinson for not quite filling Heinlein's rocket boots.
Publisher's Weekly - Reviewed 2006-07-17
Like a good Ganymedean farmer in the sky, Robinson (Callahan's Key) plants both feet firmly in Heinlein territory with this...credible pastiche of a Heinlein young adult novel circa 1955. Working from an unfinished outline and notes, Robinson tells the coming-of-age tale of Joel Johnston, who flees a broken romance to the new colony planet Brasil Novo 85 light-years away. Joel and his companions demonstrate the odd mixture of innocence and sexual experimentation that Heinlein employed, as Robinson captures the naïve yet advanced tone of Heinlein's future history...Nostalgia for Heinlein's early work may pique interest in this posthumous collaboration...(Sept.)
Copyright © 1997-2005 Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Full Library Journal "starred" review:
When the love of his life turns out not to be what she seems, musician Joel Johnston joins a colony ship headed for a new world outside the solar system. Absorbed in his personal sorrows, Joel eventually learns to appreciate his new surroundings and his new future, as well as his fellow travelers-just before a series of unexpected calamities threatens to rob him of everything. Begun by Heinlein in 1955, this tale of life, love, and loss on a journey to the stars was unfinished at the author's death in 1988. Authorized by Heinlein's estate to complete the story, award-winning author Robinson has captured the late Grand Master storyteller's essential spirit while adding his own unique brand of lyrical prose and warm humor. A mandatory purchase for all sf collections.
Review by John C. Snider © 2006
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Young Joel Johnston is a colonist from Ganymede, newly graduated from college, but his dream of being a musician/composer doesn't exactly put him in a fiscally responsible position to propose marriage to his longtime girlfriend, a beautiful and intelligent redhead (is there any other kind?) named Jinny Hamilton.
No money? Not a problem. Jinny drops an emotional A-bomb on Joel when she reveals that her real name is Jinny Conrad. Of the Conrads, a family whose interplanetary empire would make the combined holdings of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and the House of Saud look like pocket change for popcorn! In the course of a day, Joel goes from starving artist to potential scion of humanity's most influential industrial dynasty. His future is laid out in black and white - education and grooming designed to prepare him to head the Conrad empire, and an expectation that he will do his part in the Conrad family's breeding program. No room for romance or leisure or - gods forbid - something as trivial as making music.
Joel runs - and boy does he run. Head still swimming in confusion, he signs up for the R.S.S. Charles Sheffield, a starship setting out on a twenty-year journey at relativistic speeds. Destination: Brasil Novo, a hot, steamy planet in a distant star system that will become home to a few hundred agricultural colonists.
Fine. Joel knows what he's running from. Problem solved. But what is he running to? He's barely 21 and has never truly confronted the most important question facing any human being: What do you want out of life?
* * * * *
They say they don't write 'em like they used to. True enough, and that's both good and bad. Take the early works of Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein's "juvenile" adventures, which began with Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) and ended with Starship Troopers (1959) were gigantically influential, some of the best sci-fi novels of the era, inspiring a generation of young boys to become scientists, astronauts, or even science fiction writers. (Among this legion of influenced lads was little Spider Robinson. More on him later.) Today's readers may find early Heinlein works hard to swallow. They're pedantic and chauvinistic, with outdated language, and often equally outdated science. Still, any fan wanting a firm understanding of the history of sci-fi (and a ripping good adventure) will do well to include books like Double Star and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel on their reading lists. Heinlein was reaching the height of his abilities with the publication of Starship Troopers, and would go on to write such towering classics as Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
Heinlein died in 1988, but his works live on. Some of his works are still being born! His first novel, For Us, The Living, remained unpublished until 2003. It was not a very satisfying tome; nonetheless, it provided an interesting glimpse into the nascent literary powers of a then-unknown aspirant.
Still other bits of Heinleinia remain - unfinished works, unpublished scripts, and the occasional outline. Here is where little Spider Robinson comes in. Now all grown-up, Robinson (with over 30 books of his own under his belt) landed the unique task of finishing a Heinlein juvenile, using a seven page outline and notes on a few index cards, written by Heinlein in 1955 and, for reasons unknown, forgotten until a couple of years ago.
Robinson could have gone one of two ways in writing Variable Star. He could have created a book that's a slavish imitation of a Heinlein juvenile (and few but hardcore Heinleinites would have wanted that), or he could have written the best Spider Robinson novel money could buy, given the constraints of the source outline, and the Heinlein Canon be damned. Happily, he chose a middle course. Variable Star feels like a Heinlein novel, with its modestly chauvinistic opening and adolescent wish-fulfillment. But it has Spider Robinson's bite and humor, his musical predilection, and a wide variety of contemporary cultural references (from The Simpsons to 9/11, and even naming the central spacecraft after the recently deceased scientist and sci-fi novelist Charles Sheffield). Joel Johnston's historical milieu includes events from Heinlein's imagination, including the idea of identical twins as telepaths capable of instantaneous communication regardless of distance, and the theocratic dark age presided over by Nehemiah "The Prophet" Scudder. The latter carries a newfound and ironic relevancy given the current "War on Terror", with Islamic fundamentalists on one side, the Christian conservative Bush administration on the other side, and most of the rest of the world caught in the middle.
Aside from a jolting early segue (from Joel Johnston's being almost-heir to the Conrad empire to "gentleman adventurer" aboard the Sheffield), Variable Star is an interesting and exciting journey that grows stronger - and at times darker - as it progresses. Joel grows from pouting youth to a strongly centered adult in the course of 300+ pages. There's an earth-shattering shock about three-quarters into the novel, but I dare not spoil it here upon pain of death at the hands of a mob of laser-pistol wielding fandom. Suffice to say you will be surprised and shocked, but ultimately satisfied.
Variable Star is both a worthy continuation of the Heinlein legacy and a darn fine Spider Robinson novel to boot. And it begs for a sequel - let's hope Robinson turns his attention to that sooner rather than later!
Resurrection of a star, with some help from Spider-Man
The San Diego Union-Tribune
September 10, 2006
How do we get a new Robert A. Heinlein book just now, when the Grandmaster passed away in 1988? Time travel? Voices from Beyond? Serious Studious Scholarship? Serendipity?
Serendipity, definitely. Among the Heinlein Collection papers at UC Santa Cruz, eight pages of an outline and a handful of index cards dating from 1955 showed up. As it happened, Spider Robinson auditioned to write the book, and now, half a century later and just on time, here it is, with all the bells and whistles of a Heinlein juvenile and the polish and panache Spider and his acknowledged helpers could possibly put on it.
Open with narrator Joel Johnston dancing at the prom with Jinny Hamilton, and they dance so wondrously together that it's tantamount to a proposal of marriage. The proposal doesn't quite happen, though, because Joel wants to be able to support his wife and family, which doesn't seem likely that evening -- little things like finishing his education, establishing a career and actually gaining some earning power stand in the way.
Jinny doesn't care about the financials because she's actually Jinny Conrad, of the hyper-mega-uberrich Conrad family. Joel doesn't need money, because ... because marrying into such a family means studying to take over in an orderly manner when the time comes. The senior member of the family -- known as "The Conrad" -- makes this clear at their first meeting.
Joel freaks, runs and medicates himself so thoroughly he can't pass his first physical to join the starship RSS Sheffield for a one-way trip to the stars. Spider has a good time relating how sunningly pilly -- er, punningly silly -- a character in such a condition can be, along with checking and charting the mood swings of a late adolescent who's lost his first love -- to his own damned principles, at that. As Joel tries to clear his head, the Conrad calls to offer him another chance.
Joel takes a second shot at the Sheffield, and is accepted. This is very neat goods, what with technical dazzle and relativistic time dilation, and telepathic communication with Earth for those who need or want it, and of course the chance to colonize a new planet at the end of the trip.
Huh, what? Yes, Joel, this ship is going to a destination, not just away from your problems. Joel, of course, doesn't want to hear this. His friends and crewmates have a lot of combined leverage, but it takes quite a lot to budge a stubborn man who doesn't want to grow up.
A big enough stick and harsh enough trouble finally works, and Joel learns to become a valued member of the ship's complement. More and better good things start happening to and around Joel, some of them due to his own diligence, other due to happy chance. He's happier than he's ever been, well before the halfway point of the Sheffield's journey. His music prospers and his day job is pleasant enough, aboard a little world accelerating toward lightspeed.
A complicated little world with a delicate drive system that begins failing just about turnaround time. The Sheffield is within spitting distance of the speed of light when things begin to fall apart. Things get bad, then worse, then horrible, as the Sheffield plunges onward.
How bad? How much worse? How horrible?
Nope, I won't tell you. It's there, in print, in a splendid wondrous lovely Spider Robinson novel that also happens to be a new Heinlein novel. At almost every turn, Robinson incorporates familiar items and practices and ways of thinking from the Heinlein canon, filing off serial numbers and filling the seams to a luminous polish. The avid fan will find nuggets and expanded treasures from a universe of previous novels and stories; neophytes will find a strong novel with characters, ideas and lessons. Buy two copies. Give one away -- to someone who'll buy another as a gift.
Jim Hopper, of Normal Heights, has never actually been on a balance beam.
by Spider Robinson and Robert A. Heinlein
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I felt it appropriate to credit Spider Robinson first, in spite of the reverse case on the book cover. Certainly Robert A. Heinlein is the more notable name in the annals of science fiction, but the bulk of this book is clearly Spider's work. That is not to say it is not very similar to RAH's style, and it was his notes and outline that shaped at least the start of the book, but according to the afterword I would guess that Spider's contribution to the plot began no later than 100 pages in. Even though it has been reported that this originally was to be part of RAH's juvenile series, I think it just as likely it might have been geared toward a more adult audience, as had The Puppet Masters and Double Star from roughly the same period. We'll never know. Also, without seeing the notes myself, I don't know if the references to earlier Future History sequences would have been made if Heinlein had completed the novel himself.
Several of Heinlein's juveniles did have ties to the Future History, others were clearly separate from it, as was the case with several of his other novels. I have read reports that RAH regretted that John W. Campbell was ever made aware of his story and character chart, since so many ideas he had were in direct contradiction to that chronology. Here, Spider has combined references from several different Heinlein sources, so I suppose this one can be considered just another variant of the multiverse concept that RAH developed late in his writings. For instance, one of the early starships mentioned in this book is the New Frontiers, which was the vessel hijacked by Lazarus Long and the Howard Families in Methuselah's Children, and yet the history of the ship described in this book is not the same as occurred in the earlier novel. Events involving the rise of Nehemiah Scudder and the reign of The Prophets during the Interregnum are also mentioned serveral times (perhaps too many). But the sentient dragon-like species from Venus (from Between Planets) are also mentioned, even though their description conflicts with the way Venerians are depicted in Space Cadet, which did have a direct tie to another Future History story. But enough of that. I suppose it could be argued that Spider included so many varied Heinlein references merely as a tribute to his favorite writer.
There are also a couple of not-so-sublte nods to other writers I am sure Spider feels would also have been capable of completing this book, both of them huge Heinlein fans themselves. One of the main characters is named Solomon Short, a fidtional creation of David Gerrold, and another is given the first name of Herb, which is how close friends address John Varley.
The last thing I want to do with this review is spoil any of the plot, so I won't continue much longer. I do reccommend it, although there is no way to guarantee you will like it as much as I did, any more than I can say I would have liked it more if Heinlein had completed it himself. It is not a long book, and written in a crisp prose style so reminiscent of RAH. I nearly finished it in one sitting, and probably would have if the mail had come earlier yesterday. There are many elements that are so much like what you would expect from RAH, both in character interaction and dialog, then again there are several aspects that I am almost positive would have been different, not the least of which is some of the strong language, which RAH eschewed with just a very few exceptions in his later work.
There is only a small portion of the concluding chapters that I had anticipated happening, and I can truthfully say I was completely surprised by the climactic plot event in this novel. I'd even be willing to wager it was not included in the outline but rather added by Spider. If I'm wrong, it might be the reason Heinlein never completed it, since his publisher possibly told him they were reluctant to print such a gloomy event. [NOTE: An email from Spider confirms my opinion.] There really is only one thing that I didn't like, but I'm not bothering to mention it since it might in some way give you an inkling of the aforementioned tragic event.
In conclusion, if you like Heinlein, if you like Spider Robinson, either or both, you will want to read this book. Barring any other gems hiding in the archives, it is likely to be the last ideas we will ever get from the mind of the Grand Master.
Star Power: Canadian sci-fi icon Spider Robinsonon his new collaboration with the late great Robert Heinlein
By John Threlfall
Monday Magazine, Oct 18 2006
Could anything be more intimidating for a writer than being asked to complete an unfinished novel by the author who got you into writing in the first place? Just ask Canadian sci-fi icon Spider Robinson. With more than 30 books behind him, he's clearly no slouch, yet Robinson's latest greatest achievement isn't based on his own idea; instead, Variable Star is a collaboration with the late science fiction grandmaster Robert A. Heinlein, the author to which Robinson's own work is most often compared-and the man who first inspired him to read. Just don't call Robinson the successor to Heinlein (at least, not to his face). "I can't say that even in my most egotistical fantasies I ever saw myself as that," he says. "Nobody's going to succeed Robert. He was sui generis."
Based on a lost 1955 outline (to possibly be called The Stars Are A Clock), Variable Star put Robinson in the pilot's seat when Heinlein's estate asked him if he was interested in completing the work. But even though Heinlein's notes were meticulous, it still lacked an ending . . . which was only the first of a series of literary hurdles Robinson would have to navigate.
"Tackling the job was one of the bravest things I've done so far," he admits. "But it was also just about the most fun I've ever had out of bed." Was he at all worried about what Heinlein would think of his work? "There was some second-guessing," Robinson continues, "and I can't honestly say I know for sure whether Robert would have signed off on everything I wrote." When in doubt, Robinson turned to Heinlein's own notes or the people who knew him, but, he says, "sometimes I just closed my eyes and depended on my personal knowledge of Robert, and my sense of how he'd feel today."
As well as being a fascinating literary hybrid, Variable Star may just be the first cross-generational book. "I can't recall offhand any other such two-generational collaboration, other than perhaps the newer Dune books (if they count)." But more than the opportunity itself, Robinson says he "wanted to read a new Heinlein novel so badly, I didn't mind doing nearly all the typing."
Another passion both Heinlein and Robinson share is the desire to see humanity move towards the stars. In addition to his literary legacy, Heinlein's estate also manages the Heinlein Prize Trust, and proceeds from Variable Star will help fund the $500,000 prize for innovation in commercial manned spaceflight; meanwhile, just last week Robinson was declared the first-ever Writer-in-Residence for Vancouver's H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. As such, does he think the average person stands a chance of ever getting off-world? "In the late '60s and early '70s, I used to be sure I'd get to space in my lifetime; but until very recently, I was certain I would not," he sighs. "Now I just don't know. I pray with all my heart that something makes that a reality. We should have Luna City by now."
And is there an outline of an unfinished Spider Robinson novel already waiting for the next generation? "No," he says. "If I start writing, I finish it, and if I finish it, I sell it. I've never gotten far enough ahead to have the luxury of putting any half-decent idea aside for later."
Finally, given the sheer number of outstanding works in his own literary career-the continuing Callahan series, for instance, or Time Pressure or even his decade-long stint as a columnist in the Globe and Mail-does Robinson think Variable Star is his best work? "Each book is always the best thing I've ever done," he says frankly. "It was definitely the most exciting to write-but collaborating on three books with my wife Jeanne [the Stardance trilogy] was more fun, because I could always kiss her when it got boring."
Try that with Heinlein.
Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson
Review by Ernest Lilley, SFRevu.com
Tor Books Hardcover: ISBN 076531312x
Date: 19 September, 2006 List Price $24.95
Spider Robinson is often blurbed as the next Robert Heinlein, but I've never quite been able to buy into it. Not until Variable Star. For bringing this posthumous collaboration back to Earth safe and sound I'm more than happy pin the medal on him myself.
Variable Star takes an unfinished RAH juvenile and fleshes it out. Though Spider had plenty of notes and an outline to work with, there were a few things still missing. Like the ending and most of the prose. If you've read Time for the Stars you're already familiar with the major plot elements. Joel is a young man whose just out of school, has the girl of his dreams on his arm and a bright future ahead in his chosen field, in this case, as a composer. OK, that's unusual for Heinlein, but not so much for Robinson. What Joel doesn't know is that the his gal isn't the poor orphan she'd claimed to be and that she's decided it's time to fess up so she can go back to her "normal" life, "Mrs" degree in hand.
Ginney, our boy discovers, is the granddaughter of Richard Conrad. Think Howard Hughes on steroids with a clan. Joel finds himself going straight from the prom down the rabbit hole, waking up literally in never-never-land; the secret Conrad family enclave, a classically Heinleinian stronghold that doesn't show up on any map, sat image, or (probably) seismic map of the planet. All Joel needs to be part of the family is to pass the old man's muster. Fortunately for him he comes from good stock. Born on Ganymede (see: Farmer in the Sky), the orphaned son of a Nobel prize winning physicist, and in possession of all his teeth, not to mention having passed Ginney's extensive screening process, He's a shoo-in. Of course, the job description is a bit more involved than just marrying the wealthiest bachelorette in the human race and living happily ever after. He's also expected to take his place as a prince of industry in Conrad's empire.
In a move that will either seem like perfect RAH or Spider going off the tracks, and is mostly likely a bit of both. Joel takes it into his head to walk out of the interview and secret lair, which he does with the help of Ginny's younger cousin, who appreciates being treated like an adult, and back to the life he's planned. Sans Ginny perhaps, but at least it's his life. And besides, she lied to him. Soon he discovers that his choices have narrowed to prince or pauper, courtesy of Conrad's influence, and he decides to go somewhere that the old man can't reach. So he jumps on the next outbound colony ship. Leaving Ginny behind isn't a lot of fun, but if this kid has a fault it's not failing to face things head on. He bids his gal goodbye from Earth orbit, tells her to have a good life, and and puts Ginny, Conrad, and Earth in his rear view mirror.
Now the story takes off (for the stars) and Joel finds himself riding a quantum torch-ship whose drive system probably has more in common with Douglas Adam's Heart of Gold than anything RAH would have come up with, unless you'd consider putting Waldo ("Waldo and Magic Incorporated") on as chief engineer and use a bit of voodoo to make it go. Even using a big torch with plenty of cosmic fuel, E still equals MC squared, so our boy has the next twenty years to find himself in the vacuum of space. First he has to find his room. RAH would never have come up with a shoddily built starship, but we have no trouble accepting Spider's spin here. Joel isn't high on the passenger list, at least not yet, and he finds himself living in basic, and often broken, accommodations with three other proto-colonists. One of them happens to be part of the ships complement of telepaths (see: Time for the Stars, again) and Joel takes advantage of this to take care of an unfinished bit of business, thanking Ginny's cousin Evelyn for her help. Evelyn writes back that she's going to marry Joel someday, and fans of the master have no doubt that relativity will lend a hand in making the age difference work out and this promise come true. This would constitute a spoiler for anybody but Heinlein, but fortunately we manage to forget about it for the most part while Joel gets his act together.
RAH would have written the story with fewer words, or at least been edited down to them, but Spider brings in a lot of dimension that moves this up from a strictly juvenile story to something that still works for those of us somewhat past the golden age of science fiction (12).
Riding a relativistic torch to the stars is part boredom, part terror, and Joel gets first hand experience with both. If the boy who ran away from Earth wasn't ready to take responsibility for saving the human race, the Heinlein/Robinson universe will be happy to give the man he becomes another shot at it, and trust me, we're really going to need saving.
Among the things that impressed me was the way that Spider managed to slip in a number of bits of Heinlein's "Future History" without making the novel seem dated. Ultimately he blows that connection up, but it's ok, he does a nice job of it. There's room at the end for a sequel but I'm pretty sure Robinson is too smart to risk it. In a way that's a pity, as the groundwork laid here could provide for an entire pastiche universe and a franchise that could rival anything media SF can come up with. But it wouldn't be Heinlein. Then again, neither is this, but it's good.
The strain between RAH and Robinson's world views is evident throughout the story, especially as it turns the tiller hard over from "taking the fight to the enemy" to "this universe is big enough for everyone". Partly that's because RAH didn't live through the last few decades and get to process the results of our global adventures, and partly it comes from Spider's own style. True, the bunch at Callahan's will pull together to repel any threat to family, tribe, race, or continuum, but preferably with more wit than wallop, and hopefully with a song and an Irish Coffee at the end. Personally, I think they're a thesis/antithesis sort of mix, and the workable synthesis has yet to arrive. But maybe that's just me.
If you're a seasoned RAH reader, what does Variable Star mean to you? Nothing but good news, really. Spider has manged to conjure up enough of the spirit of the master to let us spend a few enjoyable hours with him, but he's put enough of his own spin on the procedures to keep the story from being vulnerable to criticism of his WWII word view. The result isn't true Heinlein, but it's very good, and after all this time, we're not the same readers we were when we first read him. unless you're lucky enough to be a young reader discovering RAH for the first time, in which case, just ignore me.
The rest of us should just be grateful that this job was done by someone with real affection for the original, rather than the folks who've done so badly with the movie versions. Spider, we owe you.
Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein & Spider Robinson
Tor, 2006 (2006)
Reviewed by Hilary Williamson, BookLoons.com
Apparently, Robert A. Heinlein began working on ideas for this book in 1955. On his death in 1988, he left a brief outline - 'seven pages and fourteen quasilegible index cards', without an ending. Spider Robinson took on the daunting project of writing a novel from those sparse notes left by SF's beloved Grand Master. The result, Variable Star, is very much Robinson's work, but with a strong RAH flavor. The science is solid, the characters quirky and well-developed, the story absorbing ... and there are all kinds of echoes from Heinlein's works to delight fans. There's the enchanting child, Evelyn Conrad, who declares she will marry the hero when she grows up (shades of The Door Into Summer); reference to a line marriage (as in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), and of course TANSTAAFL gets a mention. Aspects of the plotline also reminded me of another great classic, Poul Anderson's Tau Zero, in which a colony ship launches into the Big Deep, in an early SF version of Speed.
Variable Star is a coming of age story extended across interstellar space, starring Joel Johnston, the orphaned son of a Nobel prize-winning physicist from Ganymede. It begins on Earth, where Joel is dancing with the love of his life, fellow impecunious orphan Jinny Hamilton. They plan to marry - in a few years after Joel wins a music scholarship and gets established. The future looks rosy till Jinny drops her bombshell, taking Joel home to meet the family he didn't know she had and revealing that she's really Jinnia Conrad, member of a clan 'whose combined interests ranged from the scientific outpost on Mercury, to Oort Cloud harvest - to interstellar exploration as far as sixty-five light-years away.' All is still not lost for Joel and Jinny, until the inevitable meeting with her grandfather, the Mr. Conrad, an absolute despot who approves Joel's genes but has rigid expectations of a grandson-in-law's future role in his family empire.
Joel flees the 'fabulous Conrad compound', and after a bender of epic proportions, signs on to the RSS Charles Sheffield as a colonist for Brasil Novo, a planet he knows nothing about. He bunks with an engaging collection of eccentrics (one of them a telepath) and, early on, befriends two of the ship's six Relativists, rare individuals who 'spent their days reaching into the cosmic vacuum with their naked organic brains, and persuaded it to yield up its inconceivable energy in a measured fashion.' Joel's saxophone playing wins him more friends, who stand by him when he gets in trouble. Finally, helped by Dr. Amy's meditative therapy, Joel wakes up to the fact that he needs to figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. His upbringing on Ganymede (including an awareness of goat behavior) gives him handy farming skills that he applies to the dirt-based Destination Farm Deck on the ship. He works out who he is - 'a guy who was going to sing to the stars' and 'a guy who was going to talk to strange dirt.'
The author makes the reader feel they're on board the Sheffield alongside this colorful cast of characters as they coast towards their destination. Then disaster strikes. After they survive by the skin of their teeth, a second hit makes the first seem inconsequential. Joel gets the surprise of his life in a plot sequence that reminded me of Heinlein's later works and, after some mayhem, the Sheffield colonists get another chance. It's an engrossing read, in which the mysticism and artistic (especially music and dance) references, are all Robinson, as are views on the Terror Wars, post-9/11 responses etc. (though he does not come across as politically forceful as the even more opinionated Heinlein). While I found Joel's breakdown early on in the voyage a little awkward, I don't think anyone other than RAH himself could have told this tale better. I thoroughly enjoyed this unexpected foray into Heinlein's mental universe, and hope that Spider Robinson continues to tell Joel Johnston's (and humanity's) unfinished story.
Variable Star By Heinlein and Robinson
Reviewed by Cam Turner at Slashdot.org
In late August, Slashdot reported that a lost Robert A. Heinlein novel was mere months away from being released. True enough, it was completed and released on October 18th, 2006 by Spider Robinson, himself a distinguished speculative fiction writer. On the back cover, John Varley is quoted as saying "Completing a book from notes by a dead author is almost always a mistake. But apparently Robert A. Heinlein isn't really dead. He was at the side of Spider Robinson as he wrote this book." I'd have to agree. This story is a valuable addition to any speculative fiction collection, even that of a purist Heinlein fan.
In the afterword Spider Robinson describes how he came to be the writer who took Heinlein's eight pages of notes — penned in November 1955 — and turned them into a full length novel released half a century later and 18 years after Heinlein's death. He describes it as "literally the most difficult and intimidating challenge that could be handed to a science fiction writer." However, as a lifelong fan of Heinlein's work, Robinson said "I wanted to read a new Heinlein novel so badly that I didn't care if I had to finish it myself."
The protagonist, Joel Johnston of Ganymede, is a man of his late teens or early twenties. His life as he knows it falls apart when his fiancé turns out not to be who she says she is. As he struggles to regain control of his identity and his direction in life, he decides to join a starship as it travels 85 light years — and 20 ship years — to found the colony on a newly discovered Earth-like planet. Variable Star is the story of his journey, his regrets and the friends he makes en route.
Identifying the antagonist is a little more complicated — as it is with many of Heinlein's novels. It could possibly be his struggle with adapting to his new life in a small colony of only 500 people, his regrets over leaving the love of his life, or his tenuous escape from her family's vast influence. Regardless, the possibilities weave together to create a richly imagined story that is a believable description of how events might unfold for a character in Joel's position on a long journey between the stars.
The rest of the characters are also vivid and well constructed. At no time did they act counter-intuitively to their rich back stories. Certainly each character is revealed and built up over the course of the book, but I found their actions and motivations to be entirely believable and flawed in the way that only humans — even future humans — can be.
Heinlein fans will recognize many nods to the Future History timeline. From Leslie LeCroix being the pilot of the first moonship to the Covenant (and Coventry) that brought enforceable peace and tolerance to the human civilization after the fall of the Prophet. Robinson also incorporates many of the various sexual ideas that Heinlein had in his works like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, however he doesn't go into as lavish and descriptive detail as Heinlein often did.
As a downside, I don't think that Variable Star is going to be as timeless as some of Heinlein's better works. Robinson managed to work into the Future History (timeline two) nods to both the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq wars. Reading through them jarred me back to reality momentarily and thus detracted from the story. Robinson is careful not to mention these events by name, but readers for years to come may find their mention distracting. It's true that we'll look back on these events in the future as part of our violent history, but invented wars would have served the same purpose in terms of story development and would have allowed the reader to stay in the imaginary world.
As mentioned, the outline was created in 1955 and, as expected, fits perfectly into the Heinlein Juvenile and Young Readers works of that time. It appeals to teenage boys and furthers Heinlein's propaganda agenda about the colonization of space. It is not what Heinlein would have described as "adult" fiction and has a single, linear storyline and a well defined main thread. Teenage readers will be able to identify with many of the struggles Joel faces through the course of the book and Heinlein fans will get a kick out of seeing how Robinson weaves in numerous references to Heinlein's earlier works. For other adult readers the story is still a fantastic, quick and entertaining read.
In the afterword Robinson makes a point of mentioning that the notes Heinlein left behind contained no climax or ending. Robinson tells the story of how both were inspired by some audio clips of Heinlein interviews in the 80's and extrapolated from his views on the true future of humanity. That said, the climax was not a typical Heinlein climax and was entirely unpredictable up until the exact moment it occurs.
To be honest as the number of remaining pages dwindled I began to wonder how exactly Robinson was going to get where I thought he was going in the pages he had left. I feared a Neil Stephenson-like abrupt ending was the fate of the story and characters I had come to love. I was very happily surprised with what I got. The ending fits the situation, motivations and expected behaviors of the characters so perfectly that, in hindsight, I can't imagine it concluding any other way.
Ultimately I give this book an 8.5/10. Robinson has done an excellent job of writing a strong story with strong characters as well as paying homage to the Grand Master and the vast legacy of richly imagined universes he left behind. Make no mistake, Variable Star isn't of the same caliber as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Stranger in a Strange Land, but it certainly holds up against many of the novels that have been nominated for the Hugo or Nebula awards the last few years. It might not win next year, but I'd be surprised if it didn't at least make both of the final ballots.
Lastly, potential buyers of this book should note that profits from the sales will help fund the $500,000 Heinlein Prize for innovation in commercial manned spaceflight, a goal Robert A. Heinlein considered crucial to humanity's long-term survival.
Aside: I haven't yet had an opportunity to read anything else by Spider Robinson, but I am now a fan of his work and intend to work my way back through his collection too. Does the Slashdot community have any suggestions on where to start?
Cam Turner is the author of Beginning Google Maps Applications, an internet software developer, a father and a long time Heinlein fan.
In 1955, Robert A. Heinlein outlined a novel, shoved his notes in a drawer, and forgot about it. If he had written it, it might have been one more of the famous Heinlein Juveniles. But he didn’t, and his notes were lost to the world until they turned up among his papers well after his death and Spider Robinson—who tells how it all came about in the Afterword—got the job of turning the notes into the novel Variable Star.
The plotting bears Heinlein’s mark. The writing and the sense of humor is distinctly Spider’s, enough so that if you expect to read a new Heinlein novel, you will probably be disappointed. But Art Dula, trustee for the Heinlein estate, told Spider “to take his outline and write the best damned Spider Robinson novel you’re capable of.” And Spider did that. The novel is easily good enough to occupy a place of honor on any shelf of Spider Robinson books.
Here’s the tale: Ganymedean Joel Johnston has been finishing high school on Earth and dating Jinny. College—where he hopes to study music—looms ahead. But Jinny puts the pressure on until he says yes! He wants to marry her, and then it’s off to meet Jinny’s family, who turn out to be the richest of rich and of course any poor chump who marries into the family will give up all his plans and start studying business. Said poor kid feels pressured and betrayed and immediately cuts and runs, though not before making a good impression on Jinny’s seven-year-old cousin. Since he wants to get just as far away as he can, he signs onto a colony ship. He will never see Jinny again! Good riddance! And What have I done? And Waaahhh!
Yeah, the kid’s a mess. But with a little help, he starts to grow up and learn who he is and where he’s going, which is a good part of the Heinlein Juvenile recipe. There are complications, of course, but they are all adequately if lightly foreshadowed (e.g., as soon as Spider mentions the Fermi Paradox, the Astute Reader knows that aliens will come into the tale at some point).
Buy it. You’ll be glad you did, both because it’s a good story and because it is unique in the history of the genre.
Tom Easton - Analog -- The Reference Library