Friday, December 24, 2010

Review - Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson

Short review: A Heinlein juvenile written years after his death by someone else with plenty of inside references for science fiction afficionados.

Heinlein juvenile
With sex and drugs thrown in too
The Earth is destroyed

Full review: Several years after Robert A. Heinlein died, and a couple years after Ginny Heinlein had also passed away, a detailed but unfinished outline that he had written during his years producing juvenile novels was uncovered. Spider Robinson was asked to create a novel based upon this partial outline. The novel Variable Star, an odd amalgamation of some of the sensibilities of a Heinlein juvenile, the sex and drugs in later Heinlein works, and Spider's own style, was the result. Happily, this combination turns out to be a pretty good story.

The story itself is pretty straightforward. Our intrepid protagonist is madly in love with a red-headed woman who turns out to be the stupendously wealthy heiress to a vast mercantile empire. After being more or less connived into proposing marriage, he learns that he is expected to fulfill a collection of obligations to take his place in the family business. He balks, and ends up on a ship bound for the stars, whereupon he has a collection of adventures typical of the hero in a Heinlein novel. He eventually finds his place in the world, his true love, and more or less lives happily ever after. Along the way, there's some drugs, some sex, and a lot of inside references to other Heinlein works.

The first thing any person who has read any amount of Heinlein will notice is that the book is something of an homage. The opening scene is reminiscent of the opening scene of The Number of the Beast, although things progress quite differently in this story. The central character of the book, Joel Johnston, is something of a hick from the farming colony of Ganymede, a clear reference to the book Farmer in the Sky. His love interest is a strong-willed redhead named Jinny, a reference to Heinlein's red-headed wife Virginia. References are made to Neimiah Scudder, the telepathic twins of Time for the Stars, loonies and group marriages from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Friday, and so on and so forth. To certain extent, the novel, published so long after Heinlein's death, is a walk through memory lane for his fans. In addition, Robinson sprinkled several more contemporary references to other science fiction authors (the most obvious being the name of the starship central to the story, the Charles Sheffield), and even a reference to Smethers from The Simpsons.

This is not to say that the book is merely a giant pile of references to please those with insider knowledge. In his afterword, Spider notes that he was instructed not to write a novel in a style imitating Heinlein's, but to use the outline to write the best novel he could. Despite this, in the early pages of the novel, Robinson does a pretty good job at making a Heinlein juvenile, although it diverges from this sensibility more and more as one progresses through the book. With the entire library of Heinlein works to draw upon, Robinson adds in many elements that would have never shown up in a Heinlein juvenile, exploring how Joel deals with losing the woman he thought would be the love of his life as he descends into experimentation with excessive drug and alcohol use, leading to an interesting exchange that calls into question Joel's reliability as a narrator before he sets about transforming himself into a more productive member of the ship's crew. The book also deals with Joel's sexual experiences in a straightforward manner that would have been entirely out of place in a juvenile, but thankfully avoids elements such as incest that crop up in some of the later Heinlein titles.

As he notes in his afterword, the outline he was handed was incomplete, and contained no indication at all as to what the ending should have been and thus he was forced to come up with one that would be suitable. Left on his own, Robinson demonstrates that he is more than up to the task (and more than willing to discard elements of Heinlein's Future History to suit his story) as he takes Heinlein's beginning, and crafts a suitably satisfying conclusion. In many ways, Variable Star is a novel written with the quality of a Heinlein juvenile aimed at a more adult audience without delving into Heinlein's personal sexual preferences. A fan of Heinlein who is looking for something that will remind them of works like Citizen of the Galaxy or The Door into Summer or any number of other Heinlein titles will enjoy this book. Any fan of Spider Robinson will also probably find this book to their liking. In short, anyone who is looking for some space adventure coupled with a little nostalgia and a bunch of contemporary references will probably be happy if they pick up Variable Star.

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