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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 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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  • I just don't get it (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jbrader ( 697703 ) <> on Monday November 13, 2006 @04:43PM (#16828294)
    I have read a ton of SF over a huge range. Everything from the genre's most literary (Olaf Stapledon and Phillip K Dick) to the really fun but maybe not so deep (Alastair Reynolds and Ben Bova) and from way back in the 19th century (Wells, god I love The Time Machine) to stuff published within the last couple of years. I can't even begin to estimate how many hundreds of novels and thousands of short stories I've read since I was 11 or so and discovered Arthur C Clarke (the author who got me started down my geeky path).

    But, for the life of me I cannot understand the appeal of Heinlein. I've tried s few of his novels (Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and The Number of the Beast [that's the right title I think, anyway it was so bad I actually tore it in half before i used the pages to get the kindling going in my fireplace]) as well as a number of short stories in various collections. Where he's not ridiculous he's offensive, and I'm usually very difficult to offend. And his politics strike me as something that would come out of a bright but not terribly nice 14 year old.

    So can anybody clue me in? What am I missing?

    Does anybody else agree with me or am I the lone voice of geek dissent out here?

  • by Nefarious Wheel ( 628136 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @05:05PM (#16828696) Journal
    So can anybody clue me in? What am I missing?

    I think it might help if you think about the era Heinlein was born into -- culturally WWI and environs. Although his style is archaic by modern mores it helps to consider him as a bridging phenomenon -- we got where we are today by shifting from where we were then, and it's great to have some record of the steps in thinking between then and now. For example, in his day the military was the only visible source of integrity, people didn't challenge authority and women were perceived as without any career path beyond mother, nun or nurse.

    Heinlein challenged everything, including the reader and most definitely himself. His SF was as real as he could make it -- before the advent of ubiquitous computing he and his lady sat in their room working iteratively through mounds of spherical trig functions by hand in order to get his orbits believable. That's character, that is. My wife says he's the most eminently readable author she's ever violently disagreed with.

  • by EMB Numbers ( 934125 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @05:21PM (#16829010)
    Are you perchance female ?
    I have known several women who called Heinlein a misogynist. He certainly had unconventional ideas about gender roles and complex relationships. His widow must be a saint.

    Heinlein has also been criticized for only having one character, and that character is recycled for both heroes and heroines. One woman I know calls Heinlein's heroines "femaleins."

    I love Heinlein, and I think it is ironic that Lois McMaster Boujold (a woman and my favorite author) has in some respects picked up the mantle for Heinlein IMHO. For those who enjoy Heinlein, you will love Boujold... It is Heinlein with more distinct characters.
  • by EPAstor ( 933084 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @05:53PM (#16829608)
    Disclaimer: I'm male.

    It's not that Heinlein actually puts women down. In fact, I thoroughly agree with you that he essentially worships them. However, he does so in a fashion that some modern women find offensive, in that he assumes certain basic aspirations on biological grounds. As I recall (I haven't read Friday in a few years now), Friday is one of his worst books that way, largely because he takes the questionable step of narrating from the point of view of a female protagonist. The result is that the basic prejudices that he had (which, by the way, almost all members of either gender have in their mental conception of the opposite) come through in spades, and end up feeling almost directly sexist.

    Where Heinlein differs from modern radical feminism is in his explicit upholding of the view that men and women have distinctly different roles to play in society. This break doesn't appear to be based in prejudice, but rather in his basic feeling that the average woman actually has far more significance, and thereby deserves better treatment, than the average man. Even this is not inviolable for him... several of his female characters break stereotypes right and left.

    The primary way to defend Heinlein from these accusations, though, is to highlight how much POWER he attributes to women in each novel... Just as an on-the-fly interpretation, a one-sentence summary might be: "Men die for the world... Women live for it." Heinlein's world could almost survive without men; the essential role of women is beyond question, both biological and societal. The world revolves around women - men are an accessory of the real power. Hell, just look at his rather extreme views on sexuality and marriage... In each case, his societies give far more power to the women involved than the typical modern realization - and much more than did the society Heinlein was raised in! The Moon is a Harsh Mistress presents particularly good examples of this. In this context, and in every one of his non-dystopian visions of the future, one of the most despicable things any man can do is to force his views (and/or actions) on a woman.
  • by brassman ( 112558 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @05:54PM (#16829640) Homepage
    The article author hasn't read Spider's other books? Hasn't heard Spider sing "A Boy Named Spider" (his own Weird Al retelling of Shel Silverstein's "A Boy Named Sue")?

    Wow, you got some good reading ahead of you, fella.

    Spider has something else in common with RAH -- and I'm glad I got to tell him so, on a CompuServe chat one day:

    Why Spider Robinson Has My Eternal Gratitude []

  • by WalksOnDirt ( 704461 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @07:28PM (#16831116)
    I find Bujold ok, but a little boring. Probably too much characterization, of which Heinlein had plenty for me. If fact I'd love to find some more science fiction authors like Doc Smith and Keith Laumer: No time wasted in character development by them at all.
  • by TheRaven64 ( 641858 ) on Monday November 13, 2006 @07:54PM (#16831478) Journal
    I agree. I found that Heinlein seems to be aware of his sexist bias and try to overcompensate for it. Instead of producing female characters who are actually interesting though, he manages to just take two-dimensional ones and give them some kind of special ability or extra attribute as a substitute for a personality. As such, his female characters really, really grate on the nerves of anyone who's ever had a conversation with a real human female.

    Stephen Baxter I can't stand because he feels the need to destroy the universe at the end of every one of his books that I've read (as well as butchering H.G Wells' Time Machine, and basing the entire plot of one of his novels on horrendously obviously flawed mathematics). Kim Stanley Robinson I enjoyed, but found hard work to read. Orson Scott Card wrote one good book twelve times. I'd recommend Alastair Reynolds; I found his books to be quite hard to read at the start, and much harder to put down at the end.

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