Red Thunder by John Varley
Published by Ace, April 2003.
Review by Mark Yon
One of the things I’ve been doing over the last year or so is re-reading old Robert A. Heinlein. It’s been an interesting experience, some of it not always good, others being wonderful.
It’s partly because of that that I’ve had this copy of Red Thunder around Hobbit Towers for a while and actually not got to reading it. As you might expect from a five-time Nebula and Hugo Award winner, John Varley is a wonderful prose writer, one of those, like Heinlein, whose deceptively smooth style just keeps those pages turning. His reverence of Heinlein is well known (and mentioned in The John Varley Reader, also recommended) and from the outset of his published career, his admirers have mentioned the two authors together. Like Allen Steele, like Joe Haldeman, like Spider Robinson* and now John Scalzi, there’s a page-turnability to many of John’s books that are in the style and tone of RAH.
It’s something that is very difficult to do. Sometimes such a skill can be a writer’s undoing. A good writer can become labelled and the label can make a writers own talents become submerged or lost in the homage.
And that’s where I’ve been with John. Though I loved his short stories (and recently digging through my old copies of Analog and F&SF I’ve found some of them again) and Steel Beach, I’ve found it difficult to persuade myself to get to a more recent read.
Seven years after publication, really, now I’m kicking myself for not doing so. For Red Thunder, the first in a trilogy of Heinlein-esque novels, is a glorious treat, a wonderfully uncomplicated read.
The signs are apparent in the plot, which is clearly an upgrade on Heinlein’s Rocketship Galileo. Manny Garcia is a teen in a near future where space exploration is continuing, yet China now seems to be the power in charge. Meeting a disgraced US astronaut, Travis Broussard, Manny, his friend Dak, his girlfriend Kelly and Travis’ autistic cousin Jubal, are inspired enough to build their own spaceship to travel to Mars. Using a propulsive invention of Jubal’s called ‘the Squeezer’, their homemade spaceship is built in order to travel faster than both the Chinese and the US missions already on the way to Mars. In true Heinleinesque style, Manny’s efforts are with the intention not only to reclaim the race into space for America, but also for the future of the human race, as well as restoring their friend Travis’ reputation.
After their launch and arrival on Mars they find out from the Chinese that the American spaceship (as predicted by Jubal) has blown up in transit. They rescue the stranded explorers and return to Earth as heroes.
So: the plot isn’t particularly new, the characterisation of smart heroes (and heroines!) is a common enough theme and the plot may be a tad unrealistic in places (getting $1 million to fund your experiment is not that easy, these days) but somehow it works. There’s an enthusiasm, a can-do, a hopefulness that we can make things right that runs through this book. There’s a comfort that, in the end, it all turns out OK.
For the Heinlein fans there’s a wealth of little homages. For example, Manny and Jubal are two well known names for Heinlein characters (see The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land for starters.) They’re not overt and don’t spoil the tale, but they are fun to spot.
But John is cleverer than that. In his modernisation there’s a lot of clever touches that make the book not as positive a commendation of Heinlein’s values as you might at first think. All of the key characters are not really heroes in the truest Heinlein sense of the word. Rather than sticking to the 1950’s home-values, in Red Thunder they come from homes divided by divorce, racism and alcoholism – Travis is a washed-up space pilot, Alicia’s dad’s in jail for shooting and killing her mother, Jubal’s dad is in protective care after beating Jubal into an autistic condition, Kelly’s family are not keen on her going out with a non-white boy.
Sometimes this wanting to be different comes across as a little too forced. We have a mixed race group of travellers – a rich white kid, a Cajun autistic, a ‘spic’ (to quote a description of Manny) the typical stereotype of a black minority…. and a white alcoholic adult on the wagon. It works, but only when you don’t pause to think about the implausibility of what’s going on.
However I must say that I wouldn’t think of this particularly as a YA book: there’s a few sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll elements that may be uncomfortable for some, but bring this more up to date than Rocketship Galileo. It’s like Heinlein’s juveniles, yet it’s not. In a good way.
In terms of the gung-ho, can-we-do-it mode often used by Heinlein, well, there’s plenty of that. Perhaps like the 1969 real Moon event, the pressure to get to Mars is not for any scientific endeavour, but more to beat the Chinese to it. And there’s a few points in there about how nasty Communism is, which may sit a little uneasily with some readers. Here the Chinese are the new Russians (though when they meet they’re found to be not that bad after all.)
Similarly, one of the greatest annoyances for me as a reader was Jubal’s Cajun accent which made for some torturous reading at times. It can really irritate the reader.
However if we look at the book’s strengths, as well as the characterisation and the smooth prose (on the whole) that echoes Heinlein so well, it is that nostalgia kick, back to the SF of my youth that resonates so strongly. It reminds me of a time when there was an optimism, a positive-looking upward and outward, when things seemed simpler and more straight-forward, that made me as a reader feel that anything was possible. Red Thunder does that for me.
On finishing the book, I now realise that it is of a style that I need to go back to now and then, even in these depressingly mundane times, perhaps more so in these difficult times. It’s not a particularly challenging book, but it is fun. If ever there was a need to justify the entertainment value of SF, this book delivers. For those who dislike Heinlein’s writing, (not to mention his personal views, his lecturing-as-plot or his political beliefs), I’m not sure this is going to persuade them any differently of his skill. It should, if nothing else, impress them with John’s ability to write as an alternate-Heinlein. For many, like me, it’s a great read. And I’ll confidently pick up the next.
Mark Yon, December 2009/February 2010.
*At one point this book was intended to be a collaboration between Varley and Robinson. (And it would be an interesting thing perhaps to compare John’s reinvention of Heinlein with Spider Robinson’s Variable Star, which I reviewed for SFFWorld HERE.)