Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson

Reviewed by Nicholas Whyte

Variable Star cover

You're reading Strange Horizons, so I don't need to start by explaining who Robert A. Heinlein was. If you need reminding about Spider Robinson, he won three Hugo awards for short fiction in the late 1970s and early '80s, and has since settled down to a series of humorous SF stories set in and around Callahan's Cross-Time Saloon. In Variable Star, Robinson (who was described as "the new Robert Heinlein" by a reviewer back in 1982) has written a novel based on seven pages of an incomplete typescript (and fourteen hand-written index cards) compiled by Heinlein in 1955. It has been published just in time for the centenary of Heinlein's birth this coming July.

This is, frankly, not a great book. The warning signals are all there in the hype on the dust jacket (and more of the same was helpfully supplied by the publishers to this reviewer), which encourages us to admire the fact that this book has been written at all rather than to consider whether it has been written well.

In particular, the opening chapters are simply atrocious. (You don't have to take my word for it; they are online here.) Our narrator, a young and impoverished genius, proposes marriage to his girlfriend at a student dance, on the grounds that they want to have babies; but he is unwilling to actually consummate their union until his musical career takes off, on the grounds that they have insufficient economic means. Said girlfriend, unhappy at the prospect of waiting years for the wedding, reveals that conveniently she is the heiress of the richest man in the solar system, so economics need not be considered an issue (nor should her failure to reveal this information to her boyfriend previously). The dialogue is stilted and embarrassing—actually worse, if you can imagine it, than the opening chapters of Heinlein's 1980 stinker The Number of the Beast—and the social attitudes displayed by the two protagonists would surely have been barely believable in the 1950s, let alone now. The first chapter, for example, features this excruciating exchange:

"What is marriage for?"
The car told her she was heading the wrong way; she reversed direction and came back past me toward its voice and pulsing beacon. "Babies, obviously."
I followed her. "Bingo. Marriage is for making jolly babies, raising them up into successful predators, and then admiring them until they're old enough to reward you with grandchildren to spoil."

I suspect that many readers who are not already fans of one or both authors will put the book down in despair at some that point in the first fifty pages, and may even ask for their money back.

It does improve. Our hero, rejecting his former love and the glory promised to him by her manipulative family, boards a starship setting off to found a new colony light years away, and most of the rest of the book becomes a bildungsroman as he learns important life lessons and copes with the various necessary disasters that strike the ship and its crew. It is, in fact, reminiscent of several of Heinlein's lesser juveniles, except that there is more sex. (But not a lot more.) Then, unfortunately, we have an abrupt deus ex machina ending, and our hero lives happily ever after having saved humanity.

Heinlein fans will find some crumbs of comfort in spotting the many links and references placing Variable Star in one version of his Future History (though there is an event about three-quarters of the way through that firmly detaches it from the main sequence). There are amusing references to other SF writers, mostly involving their insertion as minor characters (one C. Platt is brought in only to be killed off immediately), and the starship itself is named the Charles Sheffield. And the Future History is partially retconned to take account of what has happened in our own world since Heinlein stopped writing about it. In particular, we are told that the Christian fundamentalist regime overthrown by the protagonists of his 1940 story "If This Goes On—" came to power as an inevitable consequence of the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have to say that I think Robinson is trying too hard here: I am not convinced that Heinlein would have opposed the War on Terror.

James Nicoll has urged us not to criticise Spider Robinson too badly for having written such a bad book, and blames Heinlein's estate for allowing the book to be written in the first place. Some blame must surely also attach to the publishers for putting this book out in the confident expectation that Heinlein's and Robinson's fans will snap it up. But the main responsibility must lie with the author, or rather, authors. Late in 1955, Robert A. Heinlein put the notes for this book away, and never took them out again. Perhaps he had the right idea.

Comments

Posted by Jonathan Schattke at February 2, 2007 11:11 AM:

OK, well...
I read through the 8 chapters. it's Spider Robinson, it's got his really crappy puns (he does them in person, I guess he's and invertebrate punster).

The fact that it has a passing resemblance to a Heinlien setting and has a Heinlienesque plot makes it, for me at least, tolerable in the length. Spider may be a nice guy and all, but he can't craft a story like ol' R.A.H. - and it shows in the availiable hcapters on-line.

The Relative Believability/Bull$4!7 Factor is decent; assuming the Heinlienverse of "Red Planet" and "Podkayne of Mars" and such. I'd have preferred him to have used the colloquialisms from "Friday" and "I Will Fear No Evil", but I suppose we can't fault him for using "google" as a verb.


As long as you don't go in expecting a Heinlien story, you'll end up with a half-way decent read; which is about all you can expect in Novel Length from Spider.

Posted by A.R.Yngve at February 3, 2007 4:42 PM:

This sort of literary grave robbery (did anyone stop and think of whether Heinlein himself wanted this book to be written after his death?) will continue as long as there is a market for it.

Sigh.

Posted by Kelly Clowers at July 6, 2007 9:48 PM:

I have to disagree violently with those people who think Variable Star is a bad book. I am a big Heinlein fan (I haven't read any of Spider's other stuff), and I think this was a fantastic book. No, it doesn't read exactly like a pure Heinlein, but you can't really expect that. My brother and I both found this to be a top quality book, and think it deserves all the praise on the dust jacket and then some.

Posted by Tyler at August 23, 2008 8:53 AM:

I was skeptical when I read a couple chapters at first, but was delighted to find that the book was very much like Heinlein, though spoken through the voice of Robinson. I have not had the pleasure to read another Robinson book, but I have to disagree with the criticism of his humor. I found it to be different than Heinlein's own, but who wants to read a mimic of any great author? I found Robinson's taste of humor to be sharp, subtle, and to the point. Here's an example:

"When you're too scared to move, there's a simple fix. I'm not saying easy - but simple. Just lean forward. That's all you need to do. Keep it up long enough and you'll fall on your face - but your body won't let you. It will automatically put a foot out... and now you're moving forward. Repeat as needed. Remember to alternate feet."

Classic!

As far as the story goes, the settings and situations were very Heinlein, somewhere in the vein of "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" or "The Green Hills Of Earth" stories, yet also very different. I find with music that collaborations conjure up chemistries of new entities of their own nature, and it is no different with literature. That's how I think of "Variable Star." Not Heinlein, not Robinson, but more of a Roblein or Heinson (or something to that effect) and that is refreshing.

The story is full of references to The Future History, and in general does not defy what Heinlein has set fourth too much. At times the reader might find plot-holes in reference to past Heinlein works, but I feel that people miss the point. Heinlein on serveral occasions made references to the concept of multiple TIME LINES branching off, and I think of "Variable Star" as justified with artistic license to break a few rules for that reason.

I also very much praise the idea of mysticism and quatum physics magic incorporated into the book a la "Waldo and Magic Inc.," a subject I felt Heinlein was very good at, but tends to avoid. Robinson made the "magic" very believable and had several references to back up such an argument that many scoff at. Thumbs up for the Fantasy/Sci-Fi merge!

I am not saying I felt this book was without flaws.

One that pops into mind is the author's apparent disregard in the respect of a common ignorance humans possess to the knowledge of "ancient music." While I, myself, am an avid music nut and try to learn as much as I can, I find that a current generation cannot possibly be aware of too much of the art expressed in eras of long-past, with the exception of specialists and afficionados. In this book, it is apparent that he, himself, is a music nut, but the problem lies therein with forcing the entire population of all backround and social status to hold his same musical elitist taste, views, and knowledge, when clearly in a post-Nehemiah Scudder world (with a vast array of societies and cultures) more than likely this would not be the case. Even in our time, I find that too few people have any idea who Sun Ra is in the music world, and I doubt a future Earth would hold the unanimous preference for Jazz and classical and disregard the rest. From aristocrats to street thugs, we hear a common appreciation for the likes of Phillip Glass and some very obscure musicians even for their own time. Some may feel I am probably blowing this out of proportion, but this example pops up quite often througfhout the course of the book.

At times I felt Robinson was trying to slip in a little too much Heinlein here and there to please Heinlein fans, and really, I preferred him to speak on his own behalf rather than play monkey-see monkey-do, but really, who can blame him? Such a project must be very delicate so as not to disturb the Heinlein name and get himself burnt at the stake (though I wouldn't be the one with the pitchfork,) and at the same time, try not to assume the role of his doppleganger. At times I detected deliberate mimicking of Heinlein's personal values and recurring themes, though it could be that I was mistaking them for actual bits of information Heinlein himself had written on the flash cards and outline. Who knows?


I respect Robinson for writing this book, knowing full-well he would not please everybody, and taking the risk out of devotion and the hope to spread the word of another lost tale from the mind of my favorite author Robert Heinlein. Without his work on "Variable Star" it would be lost to me, and I very much enjoyed it. Had he given himself the full-credit, I might be the first in line to hand the match to the RAH fanatics (joking of course!) but I felt that he handled it very well, presenting the book with an introduction explaining his motives and crediting Heinlein honorably. Whether Heinlein wished for the book to be released or not is another issue, but something tells me he didn't mind the move considering he gave the go-ahead for his trustees to be accountable for his estate, and Robinson knew him personally. It is clarified that Heinlein's "Variable Star" was his brain-child, and nothing more. Now what is so wrong with that?

Thank you Robinson for a great story and another small glimpse into the genius of Heinlein. It certainly won me over and introduced me to a knew perspective of a potential future!

Posted by andrei at June 21, 2010 1:30 AM:

I agree fully with Tyler. The book was excellent, and I see no reason in laying on Spider Robinson the weight of your unsatisfied nostalgia.

I especially found the implications of running away to a different galaxy to be fascinating and I did think that the ending was a little wishy washy and weak- but then again I don't mind a happy ending...

Posted by Yousef at October 27, 2011 11:54 PM:

The first Heinlein novel I ever read was Stranger in a Strange Land, and have since read just about everything else he's ever written.

I'm not a fan of SF en mass, but Heinlein always appealed to me, not for the stories (which were entertaining enough to keep me going) but for the little jewels of wisdom sewn throughout that urged you to THINK and to QUESTION conventions most of us take for granted.

Moreover, Heinlein was more than just a writer: He was an engineer, a soldier, a mathematician, a political activist, a scientist and well-traveled to boot! All of this lent "legitimacy" to his work. He didn't just slap together some acronyms and jargon – all aesthetics and no function.

I saw none of this in Variable Star. Instead, it oscillated between slap-stick humor and the trials and tribulations of a bunch of emotionally unstable, incompetent jackasses I wouldn't trust to push a grocery cart, let alone, pilot a star ship...

While Heinlein used controversial ideas to build a world the was the logical conclusion of what might be, Robinson seems to have haphazardly interjected clumsy pop-culture references, personal tastes in art, music and spirituality with no real purpose other than to perhaps tickle his own vanity. I wouldn’t mind so much if there was a point to it all, perhaps a social commentary or a new way of looking at something, but if there was I clearly missed it. Instead, the characters are just as clueless as the reader, but unlike them, I couldn’t bring myself to shrug and accept it without qualms.

I really wanted to like this book, but in the end I just felt let down and disappointed. By his own admission, it's not a Heinlein novel, and it's not a Robinson novel, just a steaming pile that never should have seen the light of day.

I just hope that the proceeds help the Heinlein Society do some good in this world.

Posted by Andy Simon at July 2, 2012 4:09 AM:

Regarding the "atrocious" passage about marriage ("What is marriage for?") -- ist it out of the question that these kind of old-fashionedness might re-surface in the future? It reads odd for a contemporary SF aficionado, but who is to say that a world shaken up enough would never revisit the past in search for "stable" society concepts?

It may not sound p.c., but then SF never should be.


Nicholas Whyte works in international politics in Brussels, Belgium, and reads SF unashamedly.