October 29, 2006

BOOKS: Variable Star, Robert A. Heinlein & Spider Robinson (2006)

In 1955, Robert Heinlein wrote a detailed outline and several pages of notes for a novel that he never finished. Heinlein died in 1988, but that outline and notes were not discovered among his papers until after the death of his widow a few years ago. The Heinlein estate asked Spider Robinson if he would be interested in completing the novel, and Robinson agreed.

It was an obvious choice; critics have long compared Robinson to Heinlein, and their work shares many traits. They're both optimistic authors, believing that it is humanity's destiny to settle other worlds, and that we can and will resolve our problems well enough to allow us to do so. They both have a mistrust of authority -- government in particular -- though that distrust reveals itself somewhat differently in their work. Heinlein leans toward a rugged individualism, and his characters are often extraordinarily well-rounded men and women, masters of all trades who could survive on their own indefinitely in any environment; Robinson's characters tend to believe in the importance and power of community and friendship.

Heinlein's novels of the 50s were written for a relatively young audience. They were called "juveniles" at the time; today, we'd probably call them young adult novels. They're fine books, and fifty years later, they're still the first science fiction novels a lot of kids read.

The main character of Variable Star is a typical Heinlein juvenile hero. Joel Johnston is preparing for college -- he wants to study music and composition -- when on the night of the senior prom, his girlfriend reveals that she's been keeping a secret from him. She still loves him and wants to marry him, but it's clear that their life together would be very different from the life that they've discussed. Joel feels tricked and trapped; he goes on a massive bender and decides to join the crew of a ship leaving Earth to establish a new colony on a distant planet. There is much self-discovery, lots of details about life on a spaceship, and eventually a major catastrophe that threatens not only the colony ship, but humanity itself.

The biggest problem with the story is that there's too much time spent on the "life on a spaceship" stuff and too little spent on the catastrophe, which feels like something of an afterthought, as if the authors suddenly realized that they hadn't actually provided much of a plot and decided to throw one into the final chapters. But the crisis is resolved in fine fashion, and Heinlein/Robinson even find a clever way to tie in a resolution of the romantic subplot from the beginning of the book.

Robinson talks about the events that led to his getting this job in an afterword, and tells us that he's not trying to do "a Rich Little impression" of Heinlein, and indeed this is no slavish imitation. There are elements that are distinctly Robinson -- lots of puns and wordplay, more humor than you'd generally find in Heinlein, an openness about sex that Heinlein wouldn't have been allowed in his juveniles (though when his novels became more targeted to adults in the 60s, he certainly wasn't shy about the subject) -- and it's hard to imagine a Heinlein protagonist who wanted to go into so frivolous a career as music.

And yet, it does have the flavor of Heinlein's novels. There's an awareness that the life of space travelers will be hard, a precision and attention to the details of how life aboard a ship will work, and an unusual method of starship propulsion that I don't believe I've seen elsewhere.

It's not among the very best work of either author, but minor Heinlein and minor Robinson are still pleasant reading, and Variable Star is an amiable piece of entertainment. It's hard to imagine that anyone could have completed Heinlein's work with any more grace or charm than Robinson.

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