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ROBERT A. HEINLEIN & SPIDER ROBINSON

VARIABLE STAR
2006

Book cover art by Stephan Martiniere.
Review © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner.
AUTHOR'S SITES: Heinlein (estate-approved) | Robinson

Variable Star was written entirely from scratch by Spider Robinson from notes by the late Grand Master dating back to 1955, for a never-written novel with the working title The Stars Are a Clock. I suppose that if any contemporary SF writer were to be entrusted with finishing out an unrealized and forgotten Heinlein opus, Robinson would have to be that writer. He is nearly as famous for his reputation as a Heinlein partisan and devoteé — some might even say "sycophant" — as he is for any of his own work. Nothing wrong with that. Every artist has a mentor, and some are more staunch in their devotion than others. Robinson's eagerness to defend Heinlein tooth and nail against the harshest of the man's detractors shows an integrity you can't not admire, though you may roll your eyes at the excess of his hero-worship.

So when Robinson gets the chance to realize what must have been a lifelong dream — the kind one fantasizes about often but never actually expects to achieve, like sleeping with a favorite celebrity or winning the gazillion dollar lotto jackpot — you want to cheer him on and hope he pulls it off with flying colors.

The thing is, I think he has. I don't think that's turned out altogether a good thing. Variable Star reads briskly, is unabashedly (and understandably) retro, and completely preposterous. The opening chapters contain enough absurd contrivances for any dozen books. But you keep reading anyway, and soon enough it starts getting better, before, ultimately, getting mad cheesy. Like its title, its merits are best described as variable. The book does have a Heinlein-esque flair, mixing in equal parts the fresh-faced naivety of the famed juveniles with the weirdly off-kilter sense of whimsy one finds in later works like Job or The Cat Who Walks through Walls. Now personally I think John Scalzi does "Heinlein-esque" better than Robinson. But then Robinson makes a point, in an engaging afterword, that he was not trying to do the "literary equivalent of a Rich Little impersonation" of Heinlein, so he deserves kudos for putting some mental distance between his devotion to the man and his mission of writing his own novel.

But what a novel! There are at least two competing plots here, both passable at best — one's a romantic coming-of-age thing, the other an unoriginal but intermittently entertaining adventure about starrrr trek-kin' across the universe. The romance is worse. See if you can think of a book in recent memory that tops the following for absurdity in the setup.

Joel Johnston, come to Earth from his native Ganymede (where he was a Farmer in the Sky!), is eager to enter college on a music scholarship. He's even more eager to marry his beloved girlfriend, Jinny. But Joel sensibly wants to wait until his career takes off and money is no longer a problem, which it currently is in a big way. At this point Jinny drops a bombshell. She's no ordinary lovestruck teenager. She's the granddaughter of the wealthiest, most powerful man in the whole solar system, Richard Conrad, who makes Bill Gates look like the pandhandlers you ignore on street corners. Jinny's been sort of like an undercover high schooler, living a life of subterfuge — apparently with the full knowledge and consent of her deifically influential family — because she's been looking for a prospective husband who will love her for herself and not her family's money.

I'll give you minute to recover from the towering silliness of all this and reel your jaw back into place. (How could Jinny have kept her identity secret? It's like trying to imagine Paris Hilton doing it.) But it gets sillier. Jinny whisks Joel away to one of her family's secret homes, located — are you ready? — inside a glacier, where he meets the old man and finds out how far in over his head he really is. Conrad is looking to groom nothing less than an heir to his entire empire. Why that can't be Jinny is perhaps an indication Robinson has internalized some of his master's sexism. Conrad calmly lays out the course of Joel's entire life for him. Outraged at the proposal and stunned by Jinny's deception, he tells the tycoon to get stuffed and literally flees Earth forever, getting one of the last berths aboard the colony ship Charles Sheffield (an incongruous name, but a touching tribute to the late writer), headed for a distant star.

It helps somewhat that Robinson isn't entirely asking you to take all of this with a straight face. Robinson's Callahan's stories have given him plenty of practice doing spoofy SF (even if I'd die happy never to see another one). So when Joel boards the Sheffield for his new life, we get several scenes that really are pretty funny. But then the tone shifts, and Robinson gets us caring about Joel. The first scene where Robinson dials down the farce and gives the story its first dose of heartfelt emotional truth comes when Joel, at the request of new shipboard pals, performs on his sax. The music becomes Joel's cathartic release, his break from his past, his purging of his emotional turmoil at losing the life he hoped he'd have with Jinny. Robinson gives this scene some of the most powerful emotive writing of his career, and you realize that, despite the cartoonishness that has come before, he genuinely has his heart in this novel.

Things continue on a promising note for some time. Naturally, any story about a colony vessel has to have problems turn up. Robinson hits our heroes with the worst of all possible disasters, and then another one, in rapid succession. What's most interesting about this sequence is how Robinson plays what happens as a 9/11 allegory, and uses the opportunity to engage in a little contemporary political commentary. (It's interesting because I think the politically conservative Heinlein might frown at some of Robinson's conclusions. I thought he was on the money, which should tell you all you need to know.) It's a little like The Forge of God meets Tau Zero for a moment (neither Heinlein titles, intriguingly), and at this point I thought, You know, if only Spider had just gone with this, started the book with Joel boarding the ship and leaving out all of the Fortress-of-Solitude nonsense about the Conrads in the early scenes, this could have been brilliant. I settled in, hoping the story would stay consistent enough to resolve itself thrillingly, giving the book a powerful climax to mitigate its early foolishness.

Instead, Robinson turns in one of the most risible endings it's been my misfortune to read in many a year. Think you'd seen contrivances in the first three chapters? Trust me — nothing will prepare you for what you get in the last three. It's as if the book collapses into a singularity of the absurd from which not even plausibility can escape. The only way the finale could have possibly been worse would have been with an "...and then I woke up," and even Robinson on a bad day isn't that insane. The ending of Variable Star reminded me in some ways of the banality of Michael Bay's film Pearl Harbor, in which America's worst military tragedy was portrayed as this thing that inconvenienced Ben Affleck's love life. Variable Star's ending has that sort of banality; it's one of those annoyingly pat, "tie everything up and solve all problems in one swell foop" climaxes that not only defies any sense of storytelling realism, but gives it — and you, come to that — the finger to boot.

While I'm cookin', I might as well air another gripe. I'm always wary when science fiction novels flirt with mysticism. Robinson doesn't go whole hog, exactly, but there's just enough woo going on here that I was starting to anticipate a walk-on by Gandalf. The Sheffield is powered by a magical mystery drive that must be maintained by crewmembers called "Relativists," who appear to control the vessel by psychically communing with its engines or something. Robinson tries to give this some hard-SF cred by having Joel go off on detailed explanations. But for all that there's any valid scientific content here, Robinson might as well be writing things like, "...and then Tinkerbell waved her sparkly wand to make the spaceship go." He also has one physicist character make an asinine speech blaming arrogant 20th century scientist stereotypes, with their supposedly godlike claims of absolute knowledge of everything (sound like anyone you know? not me), for the public's embracing of religious fanaticism. Groan. I guess well-funded, media-savvy religious demagogues spouting anti-science agitprop couldn't possibly be to blame. No, it isn't their fault people prefer "intelligent design" to evolutionary biology. It's the fault of all those mean old curmudgeonly ivory-tower scientists with their stupid observations and peer-reviewed research and evidence. Whatever.

I think Variable Star will be widely read, and will be the sort of book where people who like it will say things like "But it was fun!", while those who hate it will do so with such incandescent rage they'll melt entire blog servers with bandwidth-crushing vitriol. As for its being a successful, impassioned homage to Heinlein from his greatest admirer among all SF writers...? Well, part of me thinks that Heinlein would approve. Certainly Heinlein's handling of young love wasn't necessarily less dopey than Robinson's version of it. And in his later books especially, the master allowed his plotting to slip and slide fairly carelessly, too. Perhaps this is the problem: Robinson has captured both Heinlein's qualities — his wit; his sense of wonder at science and the universe; his optimism that humanity can work through its worst crises if only it comes together — and his faults. The verdict on Variable Star? File it under "writers who love too much."