Variable Star by Robinson and Heinlein

I‘m a sucker for space stories.  I grew up on Star Wars, Alien and NASA reports in the 80s, so it makes sense that nothing makes me happier than a tale of a bunch of people in a ship going through space.

Variable Star is just that sort of story.  It was written by Spider Robinson off of some detailed notes Heinlein had made on a novel, but never written.  In 2003 Heinlein’s estate asked Robinson to write it.  A collaboration 50 years in the making.

When the novel starts, Joel Johnston has a problem.  He is broke and wants to marry his girlfriend, Jinny.  Turns out Jinny is an heiress and her family wants him to become the next in line to run the solar system wide family business (I know.  Why can’t she run it, but Heinlein outlined this 20 years before women’s lib).  Joel decides not.  Now broke and heartbroken, he gets drunk a lot and finally signs up on a colony ship that will go to a planet about 90 light years away.  That will show her!

Joel is 18 when the novel begins.  An intelligent 18, but 18 nonetheless with all the annoying quirks of a kid who knows everything.  He goes through tantrums, makes stupid statements, and all in all Mr. Robinson did a remarkable job of creating a completely real, brokenhearted, intelligent 18 year-old which makes anyone above the age of 25 cringe with recognition.

But largely this is the story of a boy on a ship growing up out in space and is an interesting read.  It could stand some more description and more characterization of some of Joel’s friends.  The ending comes up fast.  But it is an enjoyable book and makes some interesting observations.  It is clear Robinson really thought through what travel would be like, what would be needed, who would be on board.  Even the quantum ramjet is based on an actual theory of close-to-speed-of-light travel.  Though using mind power to keep an engine running requires a huge suspension of disbelief.  I wonder if I can use that for my car.  It’s an enjoyable little jaunt back into the world of one of the great sf writers and a short read.  It’s a little early to be recommending beach reading, but if you are going to Cancun this week, Variable Star would be a good book to take along.