Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson
Published by TOR Books, September 2006
Review by Hobbit
This is a book that’s been about fifty years in the making. The story to it is, as you therefore might expect, a little complex.
In 1955, Robert Anson Heinlein wrote an outline for a book. Called The Stars Are a Clock, it was quite a detailed one, but, for reasons unbeknownst to others, it was put to one side and left unfinished. Heinlein instead went off to write Tunnel In the Sky, Double Star (Hugo Winner 1956) and Time for the Stars, being in his so-called juvenile stage of writing.
Heinlein died in 1988, but his estate was maintained by his widow Virginia (usually called Ginny – a point I’ll come back to later). Upon her death in 2003, this outline was found, as was Heinlein’s other recent posthumous novel, For Us the Living, published in 2004.
So the book I’m reading now is a nearly-300-page novel written by Spider Robinson (three times Hugo Winner) based on that Heinlein outline. Complicated? Strangely, at this point I was rather reminded of the furore created by the release of The Beatles’ Anthologies in the 1990’s. Like those releases of old material rejigged into a new format, such tinkering with the past can generate mixed feelings. A long lost master or a last chance of rummaging through the waste basket of a now-dead author? Hmm. Perhaps a bit of both, I believe.
The story? Rather typical Heinlein of that period, I think. Joel Johnson, a Ganymedean on Terra, a financially poor-composer-yet-musical-genius, is in love with Jinnia / Jinny Hamilton, (notice the Jinny thing?) a fellow student with (what he thinks) are similar interests. However, on the night of their prom, Jinny drops the bombshell that she is in actuality Jinny Conrad, who just so happens to be the granddaughter of Richard Conrad, the family head of the richest family in the solar system. Before we’re fifty pages in, Joel is whisked away to the Conrad’s secret hideout to meet the folks with a view to marriage and the siring of the next Conrad dynasty.
Well, this can be a little unsettling for a young lad; and so it is for Joel. Running away from the Conrad’s, with almost a cry of “I am not a number – I am a free man!” Joel finds himself signed up and away on a one-way near-light-speed trip to Immega 714 aboard the colony ship RSS Sheffield. Journey time on board = 20 years; time on Earth = 90 years, due to near light speed, by which time presumably Joel and Jinny would be too old to care.
So. Typical Heinlein, in that we seem to have young protagonists who start with nothing and against seemingly insurmountable difficulties, yet manage through adversity, spirit and pluck to ‘make it right’. See other Heinlein books from the 1950’s and 60’s (pre-Starship Troopers, perhaps, or definitely Stranger in a Strange Land) to follow a similar pattern.
However what works for me in those novels is not so much the situation as much as ‘the Heinlein style’. Heinlein’s balance between hectoring lecturing with enough clever conversational asides to keep you engaged is a difficult one to do; others have tried and failed.
However, the choice of Spider Robinson to write this was an inspired one, if one that was not too left-of-field. Spider has been the herald to Heinlein’s work since the 1980’s; there is no-one I can think of, other than perhaps Pournelle and Niven, John Varley (Red Thunder) or Allen Steele (Coyote), who has been so closely allied to the ideas and spirit of Heinlein’s visions in the last quarter-decade.
As you might expect, therefore, if you are looking for a writer to speak with Heinlein’s voice, Spider has it nailed. This book is such a skilful homage to Heinlein that it reads as if Heinlein was still writing today. For some, that can be no greater an achievement (see the John Varley and the David Crosby (yes, that David Crosby!) blurb on the back.) For all its faults, of which more in a moment, I can say that, like a juvenile-Heinlein, it was readable.
For others, though, such a style will not win any awards. There are some classic missteps – try this one from page 189, referring to Joel’s blossoming relationship with a co-worker:
‘Loving Zog’s Farms was another profound connection, one that went back in time almost as far as music. Plunging hands into soil together is very close to thrusting them into one another. And of course both of us were simultaneously fertile and ripe, a paradox whose metaphorical impossibility accurately reflects the turmoil of that condition.’
It does read, with the exception of some oddly jarring references, as a determinedly old-fashioned novel. It is single person narrative without the fairly common split narrative and viewpoint so common today. The chapters are short, yet logical, and written in that clever way Heinlein had of making you want to read the next chapter. Straightforward, deceptively simple.
The tone of the book however is perhaps uncomfortably traditional. Try this quote from page 13:
‘ “Bingo. Marriage is for making jolly babies, raising them up into successful prditors, and then admiring them until their old enough to reward you with grandchildren to spoil.”
She’d acquired the car by now; she safed and unlocked it. “My baby-making equipment is at its peak right now,” she said, and got in the car. “It’s going to start declining any minute.” She closed, but did not slam, the door. ‘
Or this one on page 33:
‘ “ The family name my left foot! The family genes. Stinky, I’m a female human animal; my number one job is to get married and make babies. And because I’m who I am, a member of a powerful dynasty, it makes all the difference in the world what baby I have – and who its father is.” ‘
So, in this future world of Robinson/Heinlein, people still go around calling each other ‘dear’ (page 24) , ‘honey’ (page 96) and ‘Stinky’ (see also page 21). This will make readers either laugh or wince. It is the tone o’1950’s Heinlein, but brought screaming, and no doubt at near-light speed, to the twenty-first century (or as the book states, 2286.) And frankly, it is here that things jarred for me a little. Robinson tries to bring it up to the present a little more than previously possible – there are references to The Simpsons and 9/11 which really stood out for me. In fact there were places along the way where I felt that perhaps Robinson was too constrained by the outline – where there was a feeling that Robinson wanted to break free but was constrained by the limitations created by Heinlein’s ghost. If this had been a Robinson novel written in a Heinleinesque style, would that have worked better?
Nevertheless, there were lots of brilliant nods to Heinlein’s tradition – dilating doors, references to telepaths (such as those in Time for the Stars) and Ganymede (seen in Farmer in the Sky), moving walkways (such as those in The Roads Must Roll) – lots and lots, which was part of the fun of reading. There are also many of the commonly recognisable Heinlein themes – the rite of passage, the importance of older mentors, an unswerving need to show common decency and a belief in a future through spatial expansion, as exemplified by the use of a song lyric, ‘On the Road to the Stars’.
However, the limitations of the plot, despite Robinson’s valiant attempts to paper over the implausibilities, ultimately lead to the book’s downfall. The ending is just one coincidence too far, one that led me to go ‘pffft’ in disgust, though perhaps a little understandable in that it is a Heinleinesque trait – a need to end on a positive note.
There is a lot to enjoy in this book, particularly if you enjoyed the enthusiasm and positivity of early Heinlein novels. For me, it was very nice to see something of that nature that was new. However, for all the book’s strengths, I doubt that this will create too many new fans of Heinlein. Admire the skill, respect the style, amuse yourself with the references, ignore the plot. (And the typo using the name Ginny, rather than Jinny, on page 12.)
Hobbit, November 2006.
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