Red Lightning by John Varley
Published by Ace Books, originally in 2007.
Review by Mark Yon
Having reviewed the first of this series (Red Thunder, HERE) and being pretty impressed, I quickly moved on to the second of John’s books in this series.
As I had hoped, this is an interesting novel with many of the pleasing attributes of the first. It is, in simple terms, Red Thunder: the Next Generation. The tale here moves on from Manny, Kelly, Dak and Travis to the teenage prodigy of Manny and Kelly. Now living on Mars and helping run Manny and Kelly’s Red Thunder Hotel, the tale is told in the first person by their son, Ramon (Ray) Garcia-Strickland.
Things have moved on since the first novel. The Squeezer has now made travel across the solar system relatively easy and comparatively quick. People have spread from Earth to create a community on Mars and turn Phobos into a sports centre (for air-boarding between itself and Mars, no less.)
The expansion across the system suddenly halts when something lands in the Atlantic Ocean, travelling at near-light speed. The resulting tsunami obliterates the east coast of the USA. Ray and his parents travel to Earth to rescue Betty, his grandma, still living at the Blast-Off Motel in Florida. At the same time Jubal, the only person who really knows how to create and operate the Squeezer, disappears from his luxury prison on the Falkland Islands.
The majority of the book deals with the journey to save Grandma (driven by Travis Broussard in a DUKW) and the rediscovery of Jubal, as well as to find the origin of the tsunami. There’s also the revolution and independence of the Martians who are suddenly placed under martial law by Earth power factions and tortured (with clear similarities to Guantanamo Bay.)
However, it all (in Heinlein-esque style) ends pretty much happily ever after.
As with the first novel, John writes entertainingly. Ray’s commentary is gawky, embarrassingly humorous and seriously down-played. As Ray puts it, in that wonderful reductive way writers can have (page335), ‘And that’s how I saved Mars and maybe the whole human race, and in the process kicked some of the most powerful people on Earth in the butt.’
As a reader, it felt good to revisit and continue on from Red Thunder. More pleasingly (for me) Jubal is less important than previously, though he is still an important character. This means that we get less of his irritating Cajun accent, which really didn’t work for me in the previous novel, as I spent more time trying to decipher his speech in writing than enjoying the plot.
More negatively, what didn’t work for me this time was a little more serious. John writes in an interesting Afterword that this book was inspired (if that is the right word) after both the events of 9/11 in 2001 and the devastation caused by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, though much of it had been spookily written by the time of that disaster. Poignantly, Hurricane Katrina, in September 2005, happened as this book was being finished and, like the tale told In Red Lightning, emphasised how quickly civil order could break down in sudden disasters. However, with its inspiration obvious and with its heart firmly on its sleeve, Red Lightning became for me an imperfect novel.
In particular, the journey on Earth, from the Garcia-Strickland’s arrival to their rescue mission in Florida, is just too long. Whilst I can see the need to tell the tales of devastation and horror following a major tidal-wave, travelling there by the use of a DUKW amphibious vehicle just makes no sense. A journey that, based on previous journeys by the Red Lightning would take hours, or possibly a day, takes much longer. If the need to see whether relatives had survived was so urgent then I’m sure the family could’ve pulled a few strings and gained a spaceship to get there quicker, despite all the bureaucracy and zoning-off that has occurred. (That was basically what they did by building Red Thunder in the first novel.)
If it was a case of helping without having to deal with bureaucracy it could’ve been done by flying in, picking up, dropping off supplies and getting out in a matter of hours. Whilst it is important to tell the tale of a government struggling to come to terms with a major disaster, this could’ve been done without having to drive through it. And they could’ve taken rescue supplies to boot. Whilst the story of devastated America was shocking, it was marred for me by being, in this instance, illogical.
Overall this is still a tale told with panache. Better in some ways than Red Thunder, but less so in other aspects, it is still a great page-turner if you can cope with the odd logical lapse.
Mark Yon, February 2010.