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.

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