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Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 076531312x
Date: 19 September, 2006 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

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.

Our Readers Respond

From David Riegler:
    It's interesting... while reading this, I could hear both voices, both authors, but not fighting each other; rather, it was as if I was listening to a concerto written by a master and performed by a virtuoso.

    Spider Robinson's fans should be satisfied by the almost painful puns, the accurate music references, and the brilliantly fleshed-out characters (both Spider's originals and RAH's constructs).

    The Master's legions will be equally pleased that Robinson didn't compromise on Heinlein's tone, if not his economy of prose, and that the concept of the narrative (boy meets girl, boy gets rid of girl, boy goes on a journey with no way back, boy finds out he didn't need girl in the first place), while a bit misogynistic, is pure RAH.

    At just over 100,000 words, this should have been a more tedious read, but Robinson keeps the plot development moving, and provides plenty of surprises along the way. I thought the "poor when I left, rich when I get there" device was a bit too convenient, but hey, sometimes we need a MacGuffin to work out the plot points. An enjoyable book, and one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to Robinson and Heinlein fans, or newbs to either author, for that matter.

From: Andy Simon
    If not for the commendable novel itself, Spider should be given the Hugo for daring this and pulling it off. Haven't read anything that was as much fun while immersing me in the world for the past five years.

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