Book review: Dark Lightning

Dark Lightning, released this week (August 2014) is the fourth and final novel in John Varley's "Thunder and Lightning" series.

The first three volumes of the series have featured teenage protagonists in succeeding generations of the same family. Book one was a Tom Swiftian romp about the first trip to Mars; the second was about a disaster on Earth and the establishment of an independent Mars; and book three centered on a naval base on Europa and an alien invasion of Earth. If you look at the plots of these stories in progression, it's pretty obvious where the fourth and final book had to go.

"Dark Lightning" is, like the others, a coming-of-age story, this time featuring the first person accounts of Cassie and Polly, the eighteen-year-old twin daughters of musician Podkayne Strickland-Garcia-Redmond and brain-damaged uber-genius Jubal Broussard. Most of the Strickland, Garcia, Redmond and Broussard families are living in the hollowed out asteroid starship Rolling Thunder on their way to a new planetary home. Everything seems to be going well, until Jubal realizes that something terrible is about to happen.

When a first person account shifts, it can often be difficult to keep track of which person is talking. That happened to me a few times during the course of the novel, even though twins Cassie and Polly (yeah, yeah, heavenly twins) were well established as individuals and easily distinguishable from each other. They start the book playing a game that sounded just a bit like science fiction quidditch, and end by having to make adult decisions and take adult action, which I don't think is a spoiler since that's pretty much what happens in every coming-of-age story.

Generational starships with artificial habitats are fascinating and I enjoy reading about them. Varley most certainly did his homework and pulled out all the stops. The Rolling Thunder is complex, cool, believable and exceptionally well-detailed with twenty thousand people living in and around fifteen townships, with tons and tons of people, animals, seeds and objects suspended in stasis. But as much I enjoy reading about this stuff, it can be a mistake to explain too much. I think Varley may have made this mistake, although he was careful to continually advance the action as he did so. He was also stuck with explaining in detail what happened in the previous three books, so the exposition was pretty thick on the ground.

A topic that was barely explored but could have been interesting is politics on a huge starship. The Rolling Thunder was designed, created and paid for by Travis Broussard. Travis chose the contents, the destination, and every person who would sail on her. Yes, the captain is the final authority on a starship, but is it right that the fate of all those thousands of people should be decided by one person? I wish there had been a less lopsided exploration of this particular theme.

Dark matter and dark energy are big topics in the space and science documentaries I like to watch. The title of this book, "Dark Lightning," is Jubal Broussard's name for dark energy, and there was much discussion of its possible properties. I thought that worked a bit better than Jubal's inventions in the previous novels, the squeezer bubbles that create energy and the black stopper "stasis" bubbles. They were the most unrealistic and hardest to swallow part of the book series for me, even though Varley is incredibly imaginative in describing what could be done with them.

I've loved Robert A. Heinlein since I was about twelve. I've read all of his works and I believe that he is the most influential writer of science fiction in the 20th century. The "Thunder and Lightning" series is John Varley's acknowledged and loving tribute to Heinlein's exceptional juvenile novels. But as I finished Dark Lightning, I realized that as much as I loved both Varley and Heinlein, this probably hasn't completely worked for me, that I would have been happier with more adult novels. The third and most adult novel of the series, Rolling Thunder, was my favorite of the four.

That said, I still raced through "Dark Lightning" in one day, the day after I got it. It was a fast, fun read, pretty much like everything else Varley has written, and I will certainly read the entire series again.

Here are my reviews of the first three books of the series:

1. Red Thunder
2. Red Lightning
3. Rolling Thunder
Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.

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