Cam Turner writes "In late August, Slashdot reported that a lost Robert A. Heinlein novel was mere months away from being released. True enough, it was completed and released on October 18th, 2006 by Spider Robinson, himself a distinguished speculative fiction writer. On the back cover, John Varley is quoted as saying "Completing a book from notes by a dead author is almost always a mistake. But apparently Robert A. Heinlein isn't really dead. He was at the side of Spider Robinson as he wrote this book." I'd have to agree. This story is a valuable addition to any speculative fiction collection, even that of a purist Heinlein fan." Read the rest of Cam's review.
In the afterword Spider Robinson describes how he came to be the writer who took Heinlein's eight pages of notes — penned in November 1955 — and turned them into a full length novel released half a century later and 18 years after Heinlein's death. He describes it as "literally the most difficult and intimidating challenge that could be handed to a science fiction writer." However, as a lifelong fan of Heinlein's work, Robinson said "I wanted to read a new Heinlein novel so badly that I didn't care if I had to finish it myself."
The protagonist, Joel Johnston of Ganymede, is a man of his late teens or early twenties. His life as he knows it falls apart when his fiancé turns out not to be who she says she is. As he struggles to regain control of his identity and his direction in life, he decides to join a starship as it travels 85 light years — and 20 ship years — to found the colony on a newly discovered Earth-like planet. Variable Star is the story of his journey, his regrets and the friends he makes en route.
Identifying the antagonist is a little more complicated — as it is with many of Heinlein's novels. It could possibly be his struggle with adapting to his new life in a small colony of only 500 people, his regrets over leaving the love of his life, or his tenuous escape from her family's vast influence. Regardless, the possibilities weave together to create a richly imagined story that is a believable description of how events might unfold for a character in Joel's position on a long journey between the stars.
The rest of the characters are also vivid and well constructed. At no time did they act counter-intuitively to their rich back stories. Certainly each character is revealed and built up over the course of the book, but I found their actions and motivations to be entirely believable and flawed in the way that only humans — even future humans — can be.
Heinlein fans will recognize many nods to the Future History timeline. From Leslie LeCroix being the pilot of the first moonship to the Covenant (and Coventry) that brought enforceable peace and tolerance to the human civilization after the fall of the Prophet. Robinson also incorporates many of the various sexual ideas that Heinlein had in his works like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land, however he doesn't go into as lavish and descriptive detail as Heinlein often did.
As a downside, I don't think that Variable Star is going to be as timeless as some of Heinlein's better works. Robinson managed to work into the Future History (timeline two) nods to both the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Iraq wars. Reading through them jarred me back to reality momentarily and thus detracted from the story. Robinson is careful not to mention these events by name, but readers for years to come may find their mention distracting. It's true that we'll look back on these events in the future as part of our violent history, but invented wars would have served the same purpose in terms of story development and would have allowed the reader to stay in the imaginary world.
As mentioned, the outline was created in 1955 and, as expected, fits perfectly into the Heinlein Juvenile and Young Readers works of that time. It appeals to teenage boys and furthers Heinlein's propaganda agenda about the colonization of space. It is not what Heinlein would have described as "adult" fiction and has a single, linear storyline and a well defined main thread. Teenage readers will be able to identify with many of the struggles Joel faces through the course of the book and Heinlein fans will get a kick out of seeing how Robinson weaves in numerous references to Heinlein's earlier works. For other adult readers the story is still a fantastic, quick and entertaining read.
In the afterword Robinson makes a point of mentioning that the notes Heinlein left behind contained no climax or ending. Robinson tells the story of how both were inspired by some audio clips of Heinlein interviews in the 80's and extrapolated from his views on the true future of humanity. That said, the climax was not a typical Heinlein climax and was entirely unpredictable up until the exact moment it occurs.
To be honest as the number of remaining pages dwindled I began to wonder how exactly Robinson was going to get where I thought he was going in the pages he had left. I feared a Neil Stephenson-like abrupt ending was the fate of the story and characters I had come to love. I was very happily surprised with what I got. The ending fits the situation, motivations and expected behaviors of the characters so perfectly that, in hindsight, I can't imagine it concluding any other way.
Ultimately I give this book an 8.5/10. Robinson has done an excellent job of writing a strong story with strong characters as well as paying homage to the Grand Master and the vast legacy of richly imagined universes he left behind. Make no mistake, Variable Star isn't of the same caliber as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Stranger in a Strange Land, but it certainly holds up against many of the novels that have been nominated for the Hugo or Nebula awards the last few years. It might not win next year, but I'd be surprised if it didn't at least make both of the final ballots.
Lastly, potential buyers of this book should note that profits from the sales will help fund the $500,000 Heinlein Prize for innovation in commercial manned spaceflight, a goal Robert A. Heinlein considered crucial to humanity's long-term survival.
Aside: I haven't yet had an opportunity to read anything else by Spider Robinson, but I am now a fan of his work and intend to work my way back through his collection too. Does the Slashdot community have any suggestions on where to start?
Cam Turner is the author of Beginning Google Maps Applications, an internet software developer, a father and a long time Heinlein fan.
You can purchase Variable Star from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.