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Variable Star By Heinlein and Robinson 201

Cam Turner writes "In late August, Slashdot reported that a lost Robert A. Heinlein novel was mere months away from being released. True enough, it was completed and released on October 18th, 2006 by Spider Robinson, himself a distinguished speculative fiction writer. On the back cover, John Varley is quoted as saying "Completing a book from notes by a dead author is almost always a mistake. But apparently Robert A. Heinlein isn't really dead. He was at the side of Spider Robinson as he wrote this book." I'd have to agree. This story is a valuable addition to any speculative fiction collection, even that of a purist Heinlein fan." Read the rest of Cam's review.
Variable Star
author Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson
pages 320
publisher Tor Books
rating 8.5/10
reviewer Cam Turner
ISBN 076531312X
summary An excellent additon to your speculative fiction collection.

In the afterword Spider Robinson describes how he came to be the writer who took Heinlein's eight pages of notes — penned in November 1955 — and turned them into a full length novel released half a century later and 18 years after Heinlein's death. He describes it as "literally the most difficult and intimidating challenge that could be handed to a science fiction writer." However, as a lifelong fan of Heinlein's work, Robinson said "I wanted to read a new Heinlein novel so badly that I didn't care if I had to finish it myself."

The protagonist, Joel Johnston of Ganymede, is a man of his late teens or early twenties. His life as he knows it falls apart when his fiancé turns out not to be who she says she is. As he struggles to regain control of his identity and his direction in life, he decides to join a starship as it travels 85 light years — and 20 ship years — to found the colony on a newly discovered Earth-like planet. Variable Star is the story of his journey, his regrets and the friends he makes en route.

Identifying the antagonist is a little more complicated — as it is with many of Heinlein's novels. It could possibly be his struggle with adapting to his new life in a small colony of only 500 people, his regrets over leaving the love of his life, or his tenuous escape from her family's vast influence. Regardless, the possibilities weave together to create a richly imagined story that is a believable description of how events might unfold for a character in Joel's position on a long journey between the stars.

The rest of the characters are also vivid and well constructed. At no time did they act counter-intuitively to their rich back stories. Certainly each character is revealed and built up over the course of the book, but I found their actions and motivations to be entirely believable and flawed in the way that only humans — even future humans — can be.

Heinlein fans will recognize many nods to the Future History timeline. From Leslie LeCroix being the pilot of the first moonship to the Covenant (and Coventry) that brought enforceable peace and tolerance to the human civilization after the fall of the Prophet. Robinson also incorporates many of the various sexual ideas that Heinlein had in his works like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, however he doesn't go into as lavish and descriptive detail as Heinlein often did.

As a downside, I don't think that Variable Star is going to be as timeless as some of Heinlein's better works. Robinson managed to work into the Future History (timeline two) nods to both the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq wars. Reading through them jarred me back to reality momentarily and thus detracted from the story. Robinson is careful not to mention these events by name, but readers for years to come may find their mention distracting. It's true that we'll look back on these events in the future as part of our violent history, but invented wars would have served the same purpose in terms of story development and would have allowed the reader to stay in the imaginary world.

As mentioned, the outline was created in 1955 and, as expected, fits perfectly into the Heinlein Juvenile and Young Readers works of that time. It appeals to teenage boys and furthers Heinlein's propaganda agenda about the colonization of space. It is not what Heinlein would have described as "adult" fiction and has a single, linear storyline and a well defined main thread. Teenage readers will be able to identify with many of the struggles Joel faces through the course of the book and Heinlein fans will get a kick out of seeing how Robinson weaves in numerous references to Heinlein's earlier works. For other adult readers the story is still a fantastic, quick and entertaining read.

In the afterword Robinson makes a point of mentioning that the notes Heinlein left behind contained no climax or ending. Robinson tells the story of how both were inspired by some audio clips of Heinlein interviews in the 80's and extrapolated from his views on the true future of humanity. That said, the climax was not a typical Heinlein climax and was entirely unpredictable up until the exact moment it occurs.

To be honest as the number of remaining pages dwindled I began to wonder how exactly Robinson was going to get where I thought he was going in the pages he had left. I feared a Neil Stephenson-like abrupt ending was the fate of the story and characters I had come to love. I was very happily surprised with what I got. The ending fits the situation, motivations and expected behaviors of the characters so perfectly that, in hindsight, I can't imagine it concluding any other way.

Ultimately I give this book an 8.5/10. Robinson has done an excellent job of writing a strong story with strong characters as well as paying homage to the Grand Master and the vast legacy of richly imagined universes he left behind. Make no mistake, Variable Star isn't of the same caliber as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Stranger in a Strange Land, but it certainly holds up against many of the novels that have been nominated for the Hugo or Nebula awards the last few years. It might not win next year, but I'd be surprised if it didn't at least make both of the final ballots.

Lastly, potential buyers of this book should note that profits from the sales will help fund the $500,000 Heinlein Prize for innovation in commercial manned spaceflight, a goal Robert A. Heinlein considered crucial to humanity's long-term survival.

Aside: I haven't yet had an opportunity to read anything else by Spider Robinson, but I am now a fan of his work and intend to work my way back through his collection too. Does the Slashdot community have any suggestions on where to start?

Cam Turner is the author of Beginning Google Maps Applications, an internet software developer, a father and a long time Heinlein fan.

You can purchase Variable Star from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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Variable Star By Heinlein and Robinson

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  • Yeah RAH (Score:5, Insightful)

    by stoolpigeon ( 454276 ) * <bittercode@gmail> on Monday November 13, 2006 @04:26PM (#16828058) Homepage Journal
    I wrote up a few of my impressions of the book in this journal entry. [slashdot.org]
    I've thought about the book quite a bit more since. I did not make the same connection to 9/11 that the reviewer made. There were similarities, but the description could have fit another set of events that would be in our future. Heinlein did this himself and so I took it the same way - as referring to events that have not happened yet.
    I think part of the appeal RAH's juveniles hold is the naivete they present. By mixing in some of the 'worldliness' of the later novels, a bit of that is lost. Sometimes it felt like watching an old Andy Griffith re-run and having Aunt Bea drop the occasional f-bomb. I don't think someone new to Heinlein would notice it, but having re-read those older works many times, it was a bit jarring.
    I had pre-ordered my copy and read it right away. Of course, you can't really go back. It's not Heinlein, it couldn't be. But it is pretty close and I guess it speaks volumes about how many of us feel, that we would be willing to grasp at those straws. And as excited as I was to have had two 'new' Heinleins come out, I hope they are done and will just let his body of work stand as it is. The great thing is the works we have can still be just as powerful. Hopefully somewhere right now, some young kid is getting chills, just like I did, as he reads about Johnny Rico's combat drops. Or maybe some other kid is closing their copy of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and feeling that same sense of loss, and hope that Mike is still alive in their somewhere.
    I used to wonder why Hollywood wasn't cranking out movies based on Heinlein now that special effects are so good. But after what they did to troopers, I hope they stay away from all the rest. I think his biggest impact will be with all of those like Spider Robinson and myself, who found the master at our public library.
  • by glrotate ( 300695 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @04:44PM (#16828314) Homepage
    Come on. It's sci-fi.
  • by Dachannien ( 617929 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @04:44PM (#16828320)
    He'll never truly be discorporated, as long as we continue to grok him.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 13, 2006 @05:22PM (#16829020)
    yes, it's even simple to explain. You missed the important Heinlein, and have only read the "later" Heinlein.

    The impression most people have of RAH is formed by starting with his juveniles. The Rolling Stones, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, Red Planet. Then, progressing to his early adult fiction, Starship Troopers, etc.

    The later Heinline, including Stranger and Mistress are works by a man who grew up in post WWI Kansas City, Mo, and lived to be idolized by geeks in the 1960's.

    To understand RAH, you have to read the early works that co-existed with those early Clarke's you fed on.

    And, you may be too old now.

    -_ Rick
  • Re:Dune (Score:3, Insightful)

    by aquabat ( 724032 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @06:46PM (#16830476) Journal
    I liked the film version of The Running Man, probably because I haven't read the book, if what people tell me about it is true.

    I think I got the major points the film was trying to make:

    1) the shock and horror conveyed by the extreme popularity of torture and murder made into a game show, especially the audience participation aspect.

    2) the hipocracy involved in having a hero named Captain Freedom, whose purpose is to distract people from their lack of same.

    3) the irony of Captain Freedom's interpretation of his job, and his ignorance of role he plays in the system.

    4) the meta-irony expressed by people watching the film, who watch it as a game show. In other words, they get into the superficial story, and miss the deeper issues of the above points. I think film is ideally suited to this effect.

  • by wbd ( 88361 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @08:52PM (#16832038)
    Funny you should mention this. Spider Robinson wrote about this sort of response Heinlein seems to get from some women. (and remember, Heinlein's novels were largely written before 1980...hell, mostly before 1970. Attitudes have changed....and mostly seem to catch up with Heinlein, frankly.)

    See his article "RAH, RAH, R.A.H." which you can find a copy of on the Heinlein Society site:

    http://www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/works/articles/ rahrahrah.html [heinleinsociety.org]

    The two relevant passages:

    (2) "Heinlein is a male chauvinist." This is the second most common charge these days. That's right, Heinlein populates his books with dumb, weak, incompetent women. Like Sister Maggie in "If This Goes On--"; Dr. Mary Lou Martin in "Let There Be Light"; Mary Sperling in Methuselah's Children; Grace Cormet in "--We Also Walk Dogs"; Longcourt Phyllis in Beyond This Horizon; Cynthia Craig in "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag"; Karen in "Gulf"; Gloria McNye in "Delilah and the Space-Rigger"; Allucquere in The Puppet Masters; Hazel and Edith Stone in The Rolling Stones; Betty in The Star Beast; all the women in Tunnel in the Sky; Penny in Double Star; Pee Wee and the Mother Thing in Have Space Suit--Will Travel; Jill Boardman, Becky Vesant, Patty Paiwonski, Anne, Miriam and Dorcas in Stranger in a Strange Land; Star, the Empress of Twenty Universes, in Glory Road; Wyoh, Mimi, Sidris and Gospazha Michelle Holmes in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; Eunice and Joan Eunice in I Will Fear No Evil; Ishtar, Tamara, Minerva, Hamadryad, Dora, Helen Mayberry, Llita, Laz, Lor and Maureen Smith in Time Enough For Love; and Dejah Thoris, Hilda Corners, Gay Deceiver and Elizabeth Long in "The Number of the Beast--. "[1] Brainless cupcakes all, eh? (Virtually every one of them is a world-class expert in at least one demanding and competitive field; the exceptions plainly will be as soon as they grow up. Madame Curie would have enjoyed chatting with any one of them.) Helpless housewives! (Any one of them could take Wonder Woman three falls out of three, and polish off Jirel of Joiry for dessert.) I think one could perhaps make an excellent case for Heinlein as a female chauvinist. He has repeatedly insisted that women average smarter, more practical and more courageous than men. He consistently underscores their biological and emotional superiority. He married a woman he proudly described to me as "smarter, better educated and more sensible than I am." In his latest book, Expanded Universe--the immediate occasion for this article--he suggests without the slightest visible trace of irony that the franchise be taken away from men and given exclusively to women. He consistently created strong, intelligent, capable, independent, sexually aggressive women characters for a quarter of a century before it was made a requirement, right down to his supporting casts. Clearly we are still in the area of delusions which can be cured simply by reading Heinlein while awake.


    (2) "Heinlein can't create believable women characters." There's an easy way to support this claim: simply disbelieve in all Heinlein's female characters, and maintain that all those who believe them are gullible. You'll have a problem, though: several of Heinlein's women bear a striking resemblance to his wife Virginia, you'll have to disbelieve in her, too--which could get you killed if your paths cross. Also, there's a lady I once lived with for a long time, who used to haunt the magazine stores when I Will Fear No Evil was being serialized in Galaxy, because she could not wait to read the further adventures of the "unbelievable" character with whom she identified so strongly--you'll have to disbelieve in her, too. Oddly, this complaint comes most often from radical feminists. Examination shows that Heinlein's female characters are almost invariably highly intelligent, educated, competent, practical, resourceful, courageous, independent, sexually aggressi
  • by eriks ( 31863 ) on Tuesday November 14, 2006 @12:32AM (#16833818) Homepage
    I actually just finished reading "Number of the Beast", for the first time, having read (and at least liked, mostly very much) almost everything else he had ever written.

    I can understand thinking that characters in the NotB are sexist, but I think that he is actually hard on his characters for their sexist attitudes, they often learn the hard way that their sexism is harmful. Case in point, when "Sharpie" is (ultimately) deemed the best commanding officer of the crew, not because she is a man or a woman, but simply because she has the best skills for the job.

    "To Sail Beyond the Sunset", which I also just read for the first time, is the life story of Maureen Johnson Smith (Long) -- and sort of picks up where NotB leaves off... it (I think) demonstrates Heinlein's very strongly anti-sexist (by his generation's definitions anyway) attitudes. It is his "craziest" and probably "sexiest" book, being his last, and having gotten to be (apparently) an even older and dirtier old man. But I enjoyed both books immensely, entertainment value alone was worth it.

    I literally jumped for joy when I got to meet Lazarus Long again in NotB and tSBtS. Read I may sometimes disagree (sometimes strongly) with some of his (which are possibly Heinlein's actual) philosophy, but I find that I agree strongly with most of the really important things he has to say. Read "Notebook of Lazarus Long" for a thorough sampling, including such (still apropos) gems as:

    Always store beer in a dark place.

    Always listen to experts. They'll tell you what can't be done, and why. Then do it.

    Rub her feet.

    Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other "sins" are invented nonsense. (Hurting yourself is not sinful -- just stupid.)

    I sincerely doubt that he was a capitalist, at least not in the current sense of the term. Perhaps his ideas could be classified as Anarcho-Capitalist, or even Anarcho-syndicalist.

    One of his most important (because it's the most true) social ideas (imho) is that one of society's (in the US) biggest problems is prudishness about sex. It was the case when he started writing, and continued to be so throughout his writing career, so I think he kept turning up the volume on that particular issue. And perhaps he was a "horny old goat" to boot.

    Anyway, I like Asimov (even) better also. Foundation rocked my world, and his robot novels are some of my favorite novels, period. In any genre of fiction (and I like a lot of non-scifi).

    So why do geeks love Heinlein? I think it's because he cuts through a lot of bullshit, and is entertaining for those that like his particular brand of wit. Also for the pure action/adventure style of his writing (particularly in novels like Friday), which admittedly, isn't very "literary". It's pulpy, but fun.

    I mean come on, "Pantheistic Multiple-Ego Solipsism"? Most geeks eat that kind of shit up.

    I've never read Starship Troopers, although I'm sad to say I watched the "movie" they made "from it". I wish we had the technology so I could erase those two hours from my head.

Man will never fly. Space travel is merely a dream. All aspirin is alike.