John Varley,
Red Thunder
(Ace, 2003)

John Varley has won five Nebula and Hugo awards. He is one of science fiction's best writers and Red Thunder is one of his most entertaining books. It's a throwback to a style more common in the '1940s and '50s. Robert Heinlein's work, especially his early novel Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), is an obvious influence.

Four young adults nearly hit a passed-out ex-astronaut while driving too fast on a deserted beach in south Florida. He is Travis Broussard who, though a hero and a highly skilled captain, was forced to retire from NASA after he'd been caught drinking while on a mission. It's been downhill since then. The teenagers go through his wallet to find an address, then drive him home. They become his friends and help him back to a healthier lifestyle.

They also get to know his genius-cousin Jubal, an unconventional inventor who has discovered a powerful new way to produce cheap energy. He's better at discovery than useful application, and so it's Manuel Garcia, one of the teenagers and the story's wiseguy narrator, who convinces Broussard and the others that the invention will make it possible for them to beat NASA to Mars. Concede Varley the invention and he'll provide enough plausible detail to convince you of the rest.

Garcia takes us through space-trip logistics. Among other tidbits we learn how much water each person will need (about eight pounds a day), how to shield the crew from both cosmic and solar radiation, and how to turn a railroad car into an air-tight, temperature-controlled unit that will hold up in the vacuum of space. Manny Garcia is an unassuming, often funny guide. In addition to space travel how-to's we learn that Broussard's uncle Travis has "sworn off liquor, fornication and fighting, which [leaves] quite a hole in his social life." And I'll bet you didn't know mildew is Florida's "state flower."

The first half of the novel ambles along, with the narrative giving it the feel of a young-adult novel. The characters mature though as the story unfolds and Varley provides some fine, tension-filled moments in outer space as the flight progresses.

Red Thunder is a big improvement over his last book, The Golden Globe, and a refreshing, optimistic break from the dyspeptic, anti-utopian futures that dominate the field today. It doesn't have the aliens, strange worlds or far-future societies of the author's earlier work, just likable, near-contemporary characters with a most improbable destiny. It's an effective tribute to the old SF masters. Highly recommended.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 30 August 2003

Red Thunder was intended to be a collaboration between John Varley and his longtime friend Spider Robinson. And in reading the book one can certainly feel the ways in which Varley was tailoring this tale to fit Robinson's storytelling style. Both puns and fits of laughter among the protagonists show up with far greater frequency than is the norm in SF.

Red Thunder is a classic Boy's Own adventure that attempts to recapture the DIY spirit of golden-age science fiction. Back then, in the 1940s and '50s, under the watchful eye of John W. Campbell Jr., SF was full of scientist-adventurers who built rockets in their garages then flew off to battle bug-eyed monsters on Venus. The more realist approach to science fiction that supplanted the golden age made SF a more relevant, thought-provoking genre but it sacrificed some of the gee-whiz that writers like Varley and Robinson remember with such fondness.

So, let's bring it back, I imagine them thinking. Let's write a modern science-fiction novel in the tradition of the Heinlein juveniles we grew up on. The problem with this plan is there isn't much of a market for juvenile science fiction outside the confines of such media crossover franchises as the Star Wars empire and other similarly marketing driven venues. And therein lies the problem with Red Thunder. Varley could have made this a really wonderful juvenile novel by taming down some of the raunchier sexual encounters. Or, with quite a bit more attention to detail, it could have been a serious, completely adult science-fiction book. But the novel is hindered by a split personality that doesn't let it completely succeed in either camp.

The basic plot of Red Thunder has our hero, Manuel "Manny" Garcia, his buddy Dak and their respective girlfriends befriending an alcoholic ex-astronaut by the name of Travis Broussard. Travis has a brain-damaged cousin who can't properly function in normal social situations but whose mind grasps abstruse scientific principals with tremendous ease and clarity. Cousin Jubal has in fact invented the basis for a revolutionary new space drive. And with the U.S. poised to lose the race to Mars to a Chinese mission, our unlikely band of misfits decides to take things into their own hands. It's DIY time!

OK, in any good science-fiction story the author is allowed one big "what if" -- so Jubal's Squeeze drive is permissible. But then it's time to pay close attention to the realities of the modern world. If the FBI has Travis Broussard down as a possible connection to the unauthorized launch of what must be a new type of rocket, it's damned unlikely that his subsequent trip to Star City in Russia will go unnoticed. And it's even less likely he'll be able to import large quantities of surplus Soviet space gear. You may be able to get away with this sort of plot fudging in a kids' book but I, as a less gullible adult reader, expect a more rigorous attention to credibility.

This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy Red Thunder, I did. John Varley is a very entertaining storyteller. Back in the 1970s his short fiction such as "The Persistence of Vision," "Options" and "Press Enter" were among the main reasons I became so enamored with SF. But where those stories have stayed with me for decades because they made me think, Red Thunder felt lightweight ... fun but forgettable. If you're looking to lose yourself in an amusing space adventure this summer then by all means read Red Thunder. Just don't expect it to challenge your intellect.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 30 August 2003

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