NESFA Members' Reviews

coverRed Thunder

by John Varley

A book review by Mark L. Olson

Ace, 2003, $23.95, 411 pp

I have not been much of a Varley fan – his stories have always seemed to me to have a superficial glitz to them which isn't justified by the result. I'm happy to say that I found Red Thunder to be a very good story, completely unlike anything I've previously read by him. The best comparison I can make is to a Heinlein juvenile: a fundamentally straight-forward, generally up-beat story with young protagonists. That's what this is and it's a very good example.

The story is set in Florida near Cape Canaveral perhaps 15 years from now. Manny is around 20 years old, space-happy, and too poor to go beyond a high school education. His mother owns a beat-up motel that just barely stays in business.

One day while driving on the beach, Manny and a friend narrowly avoid running over a sleeping man, who turns out to be an alcoholic cashiered ex-astronaut. They become friends with the ex-astronaut (Travis) and his brain-damaged cousin Jubal. Jubal, it seems, is a certified genius who suffered a terrible head wound as a child which affected his speech and emotional stability. But he's still really bright and invents things. Mostly advanced versions of animatronic animals that he finds amusing, but he also built a gadget which makes weightless, indestructible silver globes the size of baseballs.

He makes them for fun, but it turns out that they have some very interesting properties, effectively liberating the mass-energy of whatever is trapped inside them when they're created. Jubal can also make small holes in them and let the energy come out in a controlled fashion.

Manny has been bummed out that the Chinese Mars expedition is going to arrive at Mars first, beating the US expedition. Jubal is annoyed, also.

Why not build a spaceship and beat the Chinese?

Manny, Jubal, and several friends make the pitch and Travis agrees to help. Travis is rich and is willing to pay expenses and pilot the thing if Manny and friends can come up with a decent design and build it in two months (the Chinese will be on Mars in just over two months, but a constant boost ship – which Jubal's energy source will allow – can make it to Mars in three days.)

A good part of the story is the project to build the ship. Varley has done a wonderful job here. Without turning it into a nuts-and-bolts story, he has sketched out a plausible plan and has the kids implement it. Given Jubal's magic drive, their spaceship would probably work and could be built fairly quickly. For example, the pressure hull is seven surplus railroad tank cars with the wheels removed, one in the center and six around it. An elegant solution, since weight really isn't an issue! I also liked Travis' emphasis on safety – even given a magic drive, this is a very dangerous thing to do.

Compare this book to Jerry Oltion's recent book Getaway Special which I reviewed a few months ago. In Oltion's book some people invent a teleportation device which can teleport a volume of space and anything in it to anywhere there is a vacuum, and the less gravity you start with, the further you can go in a jump.

The heroes build a makeshift spaceship and go exploring. In Oltion's book, the ship is jerry-built, highly unlikely to survive a vacuum, and utterly unable to deal with any kind of problem at all. It has no redundancy, and no safety margin. It is wishful thinking – science-fantasy – and nothing else.

Oltion's characters spend as much time being paranoid about the unbelievably effective Federal Government (who spends the entire time chasing them) as about thinking about how to build a spaceship which might have a hope or surviving space. Oltion's book was a lot of fun to read, but not very good SF.

Varley's characters are chased a bit, too, but the government isn't quite so crazed and is no more effective than it might be in reality. (A test flight of a model from the Florida Everglades goes much farther and faster than expected and is tracked. The Feds start looking. In fact, FBI agents visit the building where they are constructing the ship, but their cover story – that it's a movie prop – is convincing. After all, it looks like a spaceship, but without a rocket! What else could it be?)

Oltion wrote a mildly entertaining fantasy; Varley wrote a book which is more entertaining and a good piece of hard SF.

The characters themselves are all believable and human, even weird Jubal. They have their share – but no more than their share – of human problems while building the ship and flying it to Mars. And they grow up a bit.

And I loved the scene where they drive up to the Chinese one-giant-step ceremony in a Marsified pickup truck with a huge flag flying overhead!

Highly recommended!

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