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Red Thunder by John Varley
Review by Ernest Lilley
Ace / Penguin Putnam HCVR  ISBN/ITEM#: 0441010156
Date: 4/1/2003 List Price 24.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Rocket Ship Galileo Goes to Mars. Varley's created a superb Heinlein trbute with a cast of redneck floridians building a spaceship out of railroad tank cars to beat the Chinese to Mars.

Also this issue: John Varley Interview (Interview)

For an author of such importance to SF, not enough people have read Varley.

Red Thunder should change that. To begin with, it reads like a flat out Heinlein tribute, and while there are many who are compared with RAH, few could be thought to beat him at his own game. Varley is that good.

His last novel was The Golden Globe, in 1998. Ironically, even if you don't know who he is, you probably know the movie made from his short story, "Air Raid." In it, a babe from the future comes back to steal folks about to die in air crashes for the future's gene pool. Ring any bells? Kris Kristofferson, Cheryl Ladd...Millennium (1989 IMDb) Varley did the screenplay, by the way.

He's also picked dual Hugos and Nebulas for his Novellas: "The Persistence of Vision"(1979) and "Press Enter" (1985), though he only managed a Hugo for his Short Story: "The Pusher" in 1982.

In Red Thunder, Varley reprises Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo, only he's brought it into the new millennium for a new generation of readers, tightened up the writing and plotting, and aimed his sights not at the moon, but at Mars, and instead of an eccentric rocket scientist, we're off to space with a Cajun ex-astronaut courtesy of the space warping drive cooked up by his brain damaged cousin...cooked up in the bayou. Our young protagonists are college age kids...Manny, Dak, Kelly and Alicia, as ethnically diverse a crew as you could hope for but none of whom are stellar students. They all live near Daytona. Manny spends his days fixing up his family's broken down motel, the "Blast Off", Dak works with his dad at their auto repair shop, and both Manny and Dak dream about becoming astronauts. Taking their girls down to watch shuttle launches is about as close as they expect to ever get, though until they run into...or actually over...Travis Broussard, a former astronaut that would have been a NASA legend if he hadn't gotten kicked out for flying the shuttle drunk.

Travis is the legal guardian of his cousin, Jubal, who never had a lick of schooling and suffered significant brain damage as a child. He can't speak so well, but he sees things that no one else sees...like a way to create force fields and other treats to make a physicist scratch his head and say it can't be done. He doesn't have a practical bone in his body, though, and it takes Manny and Dak to realize that that his gadgets are the ticket to space they've dreamed of.

Not that they're taking advantage of Jubal. Well, maybe they are, but it's a win-win situation, where everyone gets more than they give. Dak and Manny get space, Travis gets his pride (and sobriety) back, Jubal gets friends, and the girls get to make vital contributions, demonstrating their worth and equality...and everybody gets along. Mostly.

Meanwhile, the Chinese are already on the way to Mars, and the US entry into this space race is way behind. Jubal figures the US ship, with Travis's ex-wife aboard, isn't going to make it, the way they're pushing the ion drive, and nobody likes the idea of America coming second. So they decide to pool their talents and resources (which include a handy couple mil) and build a ship to get there first.

Varley puts a lot of effort into getting his space science right, without beating the reader over the head with it. Building a spaceship in your backyard (or even in an industrial facility you rent at a good price 'cause your father's business owns it) turns out to be a lot of very complex work. Bringing it in cheap is only possible because of all the surplus space hardware they can get, and the money that's been spent developing little things like space-pens, personal computers and the sum of everything learned about living in space. As much as I liked Jerry Oltion's Getaway Special, and other stories written along similar lines, the detail Varley manages to slip in separates him from the pack.

At times I can't quite figure out whether Red Thunder is serious or send-up, but if RAH came out with Rocket Ship Galileo today we'd all just about choke to death wondering where this guy came from. So I'm voting for serious.

The final message Varley leaves us with seems to be that it's time for regular folks to get into space, and if he's preaching to the choir, that's all right with us.

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