Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Variable Star Power


I did not want to read Variable Star, and put off doing so for eight years. I was afraid I wouldn't like it. I was afraid I would like it. I was afraid of it in general. Before I explain all that, let me cut directly to the chase: If you are a fan of the work of Robert A. Heinlein or Spider Robinson or both, don't be afraid. Read this book.

So, am I a Heinlein fan? You're durn tootin' I am. So far as I know I have read (and re-read) every word of his that was published in his lifetime for mass consumption (I've also read some of his posthumously published letters, etc.). In particular, I try to get around to reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress every year or two and Starship Troopers and "If This Goes On ..." (the short novel that begins Revolt in 2100) not quite as often, but often. His "juveniles" were still the best thing around for young readers 20 years or so later when I discovered them and I proceeded to the "adult" section immediately thereafter. By the early 1980s I eagerly awaited, snapped up and found myself completely absorbed in any new Heinlein material (The Number of the Beast, Friday, etc.). Yes, I even had a cat named Pixel.

Am I a Spider Robinson fan? Yes. Not nearly to the level of my Heinlein fandom, but definitely. In fact, I think the first time I noticed him was in 1980. In "Rah, Rah, R.A.H." (in Destinies, a Baen "magazine" that was actually a thick mass paperback book every, IIRC, quarter ... cool!) Robinson eviscerated "critic" Alexei Panshin's "criticisms" of Heinlein (no, I've never read Panshin's gripe firsthand). So he was firmly connected with Heinlein in my mind from the start. I haven't read his entire oeuvre, and I'm just going to offer one selection that I've always found particularly interesting but that many might consider very unrepresentative: Night of Power.

So here was the basis of my fear:

We've all watched it happen. One day the books on the local store's shelves are labeled "Tom Clancy" or "James Patterson." Then awhile later they're labeled "Tom Clancy's [series name]" or "James Patterson with [author you've never heard of]."

This means one of two things. Either the author in question has died under circumstances in which a publisher has acquired the "intellectual property" rights to continue publishing novels set in that author's "world," or the author has stopped writing such novels himself and farmed the task out to others, perhaps doing a bit of initial outlining or whatever.

Either way, it almost always indicates an immediate, steep and continuous drop in story and story-telling quality. If I'm a fan of Author X, I want to read books by author X. Not books "in the tradition of" Author X. Not books Author X thought up but had someone else write. Not a series begun by Author X and continued by others.

So you can see the first half of my problem, I'm sure. I love Robert Heinlein like nearly no other author. I like Spider Robinson ... I like him a lot ... he's always been associated with and compared to Robert Heinlein ... but he is not Robert Heinlein.

Except when he is. And in Variable Star, he is.

And there's the second half of my problem, folks. If he is Robert Heinlein, then what I'm reading is the last of the Robert Heinlein novels. There will never be another, and I know that even as I read it. I know that at the end I am going to find myself aching for just one more book, one more story, one more page, one more sentence from the universe Heinlein surgically implanted in all his fans' hearts.

Which is exactly what happened. I raced through the book. Then I had a good cry because this was it. The End. Finis.

But you know what? It was worth it.

Reading up a bit, I see that Robinson "was told by his publisher that they wanted him to write in his own style, not Heinlein's, and the abundance of profanity and puns makes it clear that this is not a Heinlein novel." Your Honor, I object. Neither a few puns (recalled Heinlein line, I think from The Number of the Beast: "Je t'adore." "You shut the door!") nor a smattering of profanity (just noticeable but not overbearing at all) can turn Variable Star into anything other than what it is.

What is it? A Robert Heinlein novel, obviously plotted (because of when it was plotted) in the style of his "juveniles" (young character finds a compelling reason to take off for space unknown, making his way and winning through with the help of strong women, bold leaders and committed friends) but with some of the added depth and subtlety of his later work. Yes, there's some sexuality, but nothing approaching the level of, say, Stranger in a Strange Land and certainly not to anywhere close to To Sail Beyond the Sunset). And that's all you're going to get from me by way of details/spoilers. Read it yourself.

I am convinced that this book is, nearly to the word, the novel Heinlein would have written had he lived another few years and decided to dig the outline out of his files and get it written. I don't mean this disrespectfully -- Spider Robinson is a fine author in his own right -- but it's frankly a little spooky. He clearly channeled Robert A. Heinlein.

Read the book. Read it! Read the damn book!

Side note: One character, Solomon Short, particularly warms my heart. A David Gerrold/War Against the Chtorr reference. Huzzah!

Second side note: I also see, in the Wikipedia article linked above, that "Robinson posted a note on his website in 2009 noting that his agent had sold a trilogy of sequels based on the novel and its characters." At Robinson's own web site, no further news on that and neither I nor anyone else has any right to get snivelly or pushy about it (among other tragedies in the last few years, he's lost his wife, had a heart attack and, just last week, his daughter, Terri Luanna Mountainborne Robinson da Silva, died of cancer ... best wishes, sir, whatever you do next and forever).

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