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Variable Star    by Robert A. Heinlein & Spider Robinson order for
Variable Star
by Robert A. Heinlein
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Apparently, Robert A. Heinlein began working on ideas for this book in 1955. On his death in 1988, he left a brief outline - 'seven pages and fourteen quasilegible index cards', without an ending. Spider Robinson took on the daunting project of writing a novel from those sparse notes left by SF's beloved Grand Master. The result, Variable Star, is very much Robinson's work, but with a strong RAH flavor. The science is solid, the characters quirky and well-developed, the story absorbing ... and there are all kinds of echoes from Heinlein's works to delight fans. There's the enchanting child, Evelyn Conrad, who declares she will marry the hero when she grows up (shades of The Door Into Summer); reference to a line marriage (as in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), and of course TANSTAAFL gets a mention. Aspects of the plotline also reminded me of another great classic, Poul Anderson's Tau Zero, in which a colony ship launches into the Big Deep, in an early SF version of Speed.

Variable Star is a coming of age story extended across interstellar space, starring Joel Johnston, the orphaned son of a Nobel prize-winning physicist from Ganymede. It begins on Earth, where Joel is dancing with the love of his life, fellow impecunious orphan Jinny Hamilton. They plan to marry - in a few years after Joel wins a music scholarship and gets established. The future looks rosy till Jinny drops her bombshell, taking Joel home to meet the family he didn't know she had and revealing that she's really Jinnia Conrad, member of a clan 'whose combined interests ranged from the scientific outpost on Mercury, to Oort Cloud harvest - to interstellar exploration as far as sixty-five light-years away.' All is still not lost for Joel and Jinny, until the inevitable meeting with her grandfather, the Mr. Conrad, an absolute despot who approves Joel's genes but has rigid expectations of a grandson-in-law's future role in his family empire.

Joel flees the 'fabulous Conrad compound', and after a bender of epic proportions, signs on to the RSS Charles Sheffield as a colonist for Brasil Novo, a planet he knows nothing about. He bunks with an engaging collection of eccentrics (one of them a telepath) and, early on, befriends two of the ship's six Relativists, rare individuals who 'spent their days reaching into the cosmic vacuum with their naked organic brains, and persuaded it to yield up its inconceivable energy in a measured fashion.' Joel's saxophone playing wins him more friends, who stand by him when he gets in trouble. Finally, helped by Dr. Amy's meditative therapy, Joel wakes up to the fact that he needs to figure out what he wants to do with the rest of his life. His upbringing on Ganymede (including an awareness of goat behavior) gives him handy farming skills that he applies to the dirt-based Destination Farm Deck on the ship. He works out who he is - 'a guy who was going to sing to the stars' and 'a guy who was going to talk to strange dirt.'

The author makes the reader feel they're on board the Sheffield alongside this colorful cast of characters as they coast towards their destination. Then disaster strikes. After they survive by the skin of their teeth, a second hit makes the first seem inconsequential. Joel gets the surprise of his life in a plot sequence that reminded me of Heinlein's later works and, after some mayhem, the Sheffield colonists get another chance. It's an engrossing read, in which the mysticism and artistic (especially music and dance) references, are all Robinson, as are views on the Terror Wars, post-9/11 responses etc. (though he does not come across as politically forceful as the even more opinionated Heinlein). While I found Joel's breakdown early on in the voyage a little awkward, I don't think anyone other than RAH himself could have told this tale better. I thoroughly enjoyed this unexpected foray into Heinlein's mental universe, and hope that Spider Robinson continues to tell Joel Johnston's (and humanity's) unfinished story.

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