Book Notes 24: Variable Star, by Robert A Heinlein and Spider Robinson
These are still the 2006 Book Notes. I'll finish them soon, honest.
Heinlein used to be my absolute favourite author. Indeed, he is in large part responsible for me developing a lifelong love of science fiction. And I’m also very fond of Spider Robinson. So when I found out that this existed, obviously I had to buy it.
It seems that, sometime after the death of Heinlein’s widow Virginia, his literary executor discovered an outline that Heinlein wrote in 1955, but never expanded into a novel. If remarks by Heinlein, that Spider refers to in his afterword, are true, then it was John W Campbell who talked him out of doing so. Which seems strange, and rather sad. Still, if Heinlein had written that novel, it’s possible that we wouldn’t have had one of his other ones; and of course, we wouldn’t have this one.
Would that be a good or bad thing, though? That is what we are here to decide.
I became intensely irritated by the story early on. The first-person narrator is supposed to be eighteen years old at the start, and he just doesn’t sound like an eighteen-year old. I don’t mean the narrative voice: that would not be a problem, as we can assume that the narrator is supposed to be telling his story in later years. I’m talking about his dialogue, and particularly his thought processes.
Tied to this is the fact that we are left largely in the dark about the society on Earth where the novel starts. The only thing we learn is that sexual mores have gone backwards by several hundred years, in North America, at least. Our narrator and his beloved can’t move in together, or even just spend the night together (despite living independently from any parents or guardians): they have to get married if they want to have sex. That his how Spider gets round the fifties expectations of Heinlein’s outline, of course, but it doesn’t sound like any eighteen-year olds I’ve ever heard of.
Except, perhaps, those who subscribe to one of the world’s many anti-sex religions, which these two don’t. In fact, the handling of religion in this work is quite interesting.
It is slotted into the timeline of Heinlein’s ‘Future History’ stories. In that timeline, the name of Nehemia Scudder appears, but I don’t think there is a story in which he ever appears directly as a character. Scudder is some kind of Christian fundamentalist leader, who becomes, I think, the World President. In this novel we are after the time of the Prophets – Scudder and his successors – and the world is still recovering from the restrictions that were placed on life, on scientific research, by them: “We could have had immortality by now,” one character complains.
It’s a good story, but not as good as it could be. Robinson has obviously worked hard at “channelling” RAH, but it seems to me that there are parts of the story where things just don’t quite fit together, or totally make sense. Though this may in part due to the speed with which I read it.
It is, of course, a good thing when a book makes you read it quickly: it usually means that the plot is compelling and you are keen to find out how it will play out. But if it causes you to skim, and miss – or at least, imperfectly absorb – important information, then that’s not so good. Though I don’t think that can really be considered a criticism of a book.
It’s worth a read, and I suppose I might read it again at some point, to see whether I did just miss some bits; but I’d probably prefer to re-read, say Have Space Suit, Will Travel.