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Red Thunder

August 13th, 2005

Redthunder200I just got finished with John Varley’s Red Thunder. It’s a pretty good book.

Naturally, with the plot of a recovering-alcoholic ex-astronaut and four teenage kids making a spaceship to beat the Chinese to Mars, one must suspend a certain amount of disbelief. A large part of that is the acceptance of the ex-astronaut’s eccentric-genius cousin’s invention of a multi-dimensional space drive out of spare video game parts. But Varley does a good job of making the character both eccentric and interesting enough that you forgive that rather outrageous and necessary story twist. Once you get past that, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

The story is told from the viewpoint of one Manuel Garcia, a youth of Cuban descent in Florida. He and his friend Dak, a young black man with an affinity for race cars and who shares Manuel’s dream of becoming an astronaut, and their respective girlfriends, the beautiful, business-savvy Kelly and the health-conscious Alicia, run into (or over) former astronaut Travis Broussard, through whom they meet the awkward but lovable Cajun Einstein, Jubal. All are put off that the nasty Chinese are going to land on Mars, so they decide to do something about it.

Varley goes to lengths to make the story more plausible, but in the end, the fascinating characters he creates make it worthwhile to just go along with the gag and accept all the implausibilities. And, reading the story, you get a sense of how to really make a spaceship right–right down to the freezer full of pizzas and the espresso machine. The details throughout the novel make you laugh, but the situations, reactions and decisions involved are what make the book more memorable, from the somewhat-exciting (but a bit hard-to-follow) action/danger sequences, to the occasional laugh-out-loud coverage of how things work out. I won’t give any away, I’ll just state that you will very likely enjoy them as much as I did.

Heinlein fans will undoubtedly get a kick out of the story, too. It is, in fact, more or less a modern re-make of Heinlein’s youth-fiction novel Rocket Ship Galileo, the plots being remarkably similar–from the mixed-background youngsters teaming up with an older authority figure who gets the spaceship project going, right up to the government agents arriving at the scene just as they’re about to lift off.

But Galileo was not the only of Heinlein’s work that Varley borrowed from (just as he did, heavily, in Steel Beach, another very good read). In Red Thunder, you can see elements from Heinlein’s Between Planets (the mirrory sphere-force field-slash-space drive), Time for the Stars (surveys of close-by Earth-type planets and missions sent out to them), Stranger in a Strange Land (the name “Jubal”), Have Spacesuit–Will Travel (getting and fixing up old space-suits for a trip into space)–and of course, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. The main character is Manuel Garcia and his girlfriend is named Kelly–a clear reference to Harsh Mistress‘s protagonist, Manuel Garcia O’Kelly, his introduction at one point as “Manny, my best friend,” and the reference near the end in terms of his age upon reflection of events also matches up. There are likely more references I missed–though interestingly, I believe there were no references to one Heinlein novel that should have been a natural: Red Planet. But maybe the reference is there, in a location on Mars or some character’s name. The Heinlein references run thick, but I liked Heinlein, too, and that makes them fun to find. If you don’t know Heinlein, you won’t be confused–you just won’t catch the references.

If you like Varley and/or Heinlein, you’ll like this book–and if you can suspend your disbelief enough, you’ll like it anyway. Just about anything Varley writes is good and worth reading.

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