A review by John of Variable Star ~ by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson
Love, teenage angst, mysticism, music, humor, rites of passage, pioneering and adventure - all wrapped up in a hard-core science fiction novel.
Robert A. Heinlein (regarded by many as modern science fiction’s greatest author) died in 1988, but among his belongings was found the detailed outline of a novel that he was never to complete. Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Spider Robinson was offered the opportunity to take the outline and to turn it into a full novel, and what resulted was Variable Star.
Joel Johnston is the orphaned son of a deceased Nobel prize winning scientist, and is now a struggling music student who is deeply in love with fellow student Jinny Hamilton. He’s ecstatic when she says that they should marry and have children – but he is flat broke and thinks that they should wait until he has finished his studies and has established himself as a composer so that he can support them financially. Then comes the bombshell. Her name isn’t really Hamilton but Conrad, granddaughter of the richest man in the solar system and part of the Conrad dynasty. Suitably convinced that Joel loves her for who she is and not for what she has, Jinny introduces Joel to her family who share their vision of him becoming part of the business empire and siring a family to carry on the dynasty.
Joel is horrified - by the prospect of joining a business empire, by the fact that his future has been mapped out for him, and most of all by the fact that Jinny has been lying to him. After going on a drink and drug fuelled binge, he decides to join a starship that’s setting off to colonize a planet many light years away from Earth and the solar system; as far away from Jinny and the Conrads as it is possible to be.
And so he joins 500 others on a dangerous voyage that will take 20 years, locked inside a ship traveling at very near the speed of light. The starship’s drive is controlled by six “relativists”, and the only meaningful contact between the ship and the solar system is via telepathic twins whose communications are virtually instantaneous despite the distance. Of course, things go wrong. Horribly wrong. The ship and the crew appear to be doomed after a cataclysmic catastrophe in the solar system they have just left.
I enjoyed the read and the book has many merits. It has a clever storyline, tons of imagination, some strong and interesting characters, a lot of puns and droll humor, and some great scientific concepts. The story builds very nicely, but as I got nearer to the end of the book I kept on wondering how on earth (or off Earth!) was this all going to end with so few pages remaining. And that for me was the trouble. The ending came all too soon and seemed to lack a lot of the detail and believability that had characterized the rest of the book; I flat out didn’t like the way the story was wrapped up. Maybe this has something to do with Robinson announcing recently that there would be three sequels to variable Star – but I think not. Most loose ends were tied up, just not in a way that I found very satisfying.
Oh well, I really did enjoy the first 90% of this book, and maybe others will like the ending better than I did. The book is probably a “must” for all Heinlein and Robinson fans, and I’m sure many other science fiction readers will enjoy it too. For me this book gets 3.5 stars; and not variable ones!
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Thanks for reading!