Books by Varley, John

Varley, John. Red Thunder. New York: Ace, 2003. ISBN 978-0-441-01162-9.
In my review of Ark (June 2012), I wrote that one of the most time-tested forms of science fiction was assuming a counterfactual (based upon present knowledge and conventional wisdom) and then spinning out the consequences which follow logically from it. While Ark was a disappointment, this full-on romp shows just how well the formula works when employed by a master of the genre. First, one must choose the counterfactual carefully. In this case Varley vaults over the stumbling block of most near-future science fiction and harks back to Doc Smith's Skylark novels by asking, “What if propulsion were not the problem?”.

This sets the stage for the kind of story many might have thought laughably obsolete in the 21st century: a bunch of intrepid misfits building their own spaceship and blasting off for Mars, beating en-route Chinese and American expeditions, and demonstrating their world-transforming technology in a way that no government would be able to seize for its own benefit. The characters are not supermen, but rather people so like those you know that they're completely believable, and they develop in the story as they find themselves, largely through the luck of being in the right place at the right time, able to accomplish extraordinary things. There are plenty of laughs along the way, as well as the deeply moving backstory of the characters, especially that of the semi-autistic savant Jubal Broussard who stumbles onto the discovery that changes everything for humanity, forever. His cousin, disgraced ex-astronaut Travis Broussard, gets to experience the “heady feeling to put the President on hold, refuse an order, and hang up on her, all in the space of ten minutes.” (p. 392)

The novel, dedicated to Spider Robinson and Robert A. Heinlein, is the peer of their greatest works and an absolute hoot—enjoy!

July 2012 Permalink