by John Varley
Review by Sam Lubell
Ace Hardcover Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0441013643
Date: 04 April, 2006 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
John Varley's Red Lighting is a sequel to his Red Thunder, but set a generation later. For readers who grew up on Heinlein's juveniles Red Thunder was a fun nostalgic romp. In that book, four friends out of high school find an alcoholic ex-astronaut and his super genius cousin who has invented a new energy source. Together, they decide to build a homemade spaceship from the various things around their Florida homes (okay, one of the kids uses a million dollar trust fund) and beat the Chinese to Mars and rescue the crew of the American ship while outwitting the FBI agents investigating some of their doings. The kids are likable and fun, the ex-astronaut soon sobers up and becomes a wise older mentor familiar from Heinlein, and much of the light bantering is amusing and the book is suspenseful enough that the reader does not care that how implausible the book is.
In Red Lightning however, the tone is much darker. An object hits the Earth at near lightspeed, causing a tsunami that swamps much of the U.S. East coast, especially Florida. Ray, the narrator of the book, his sister, and their parents (who are two of the main characters from the first book) quickly leave their home on Mars to try to rescue Ray's grandmother. The tsunami has plunged the U.S. into a combination of martial law and anarchy but thanks to their ex-astronaut friend, now the richest man on Earth due to his cousin Jubal's inventions, the family is able to get through the roadblocks and, after many adventures, rescue grandma and return home.
This is where the book changes from a Podkayne of Mars type feel (especially the parts where Ray is sulking about hating Mars and the section on the luxury space liner that transports the family from Mars to Earth) to a Moon is a Harsh Mistress feel. Mercenaries and other armed forces from Earth have taken over Mars, looking for the super-inventor, who has disappeared on Earth. They are convinced that Ray and his family know where he is and they are willing to torture the Martians to find out. Ray finds out that Jubal has used a new invention, that will seem familiar to anyone who has read Vinge, to essentially mail himself to Mars. Now the bad guys are trying to get there hands of Jubal, Ray and his family and girlfriend are trying to save him, and the poor Martians are trapped in the middle.
Unlike Thunder which was more of an ensemble work, Lightning is about the growth of Ray. In the beginning of the book Ray is described by his sister as someone who complains but never takes action. But he insists on going on the rescue of his grandmother even though all the adults try to talk him out of it. Then when Mars is invaded, Ray is one of the few who fight back, and ultimately he plays a crucial role in the solution that resolves the book. While the other characters have some development – there is a nice scene where the sister stands up to their parents on Ray's behalf and Ray's girlfriend has unusual spatial awareness in and adjustments to zero gravityonly Ray really develops and changes.
A major problem with the book's structure is that the Earth based rescue and the Mars based Jubal hunt have only a slight connection to each other. It's like reading a very short book and sequel in a single volume. Even the tone of the two sections is different with the second section including torture (brief and non-graphic) and government misdeeds. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the author's note in which Varley describes how he originally wrote the tsunami as hitting Indonesia, but then one hit that region in real life. Then, after he moved it to the U.S., he saw the fictional breakdown of the civil order he described as a result of his tsunami happen in real life (to a lesser extent) in Louisiana after Katrina.
I recommend readers start with Red Thunder, which is very much the better of the two books, and then decide if they want to follow the family and friends to new, less nostalgic adventures. Also fans of Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars may want to see how Varley treats a similar voice and themes.