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Red Thunder by John Varley

[This is a book review of Red Thunder by John Varley, first published in 2003.]

Red Thunder feels a lot like a John Varley interpretation of a Heinlein juvenile. I love nearly all of Robert A. Heinlein's works, including his juveniles; they're science fiction classics for a reason. I love Varley's works as well. You'd think a combination of the two would ring all of my bells. And they sort of do now. But when I first read this book, I was very much entertained -- but I was also mildly disappointed and confused.

Red Thunder is told first person by Manny Garcia, an impoverished twenty-year-old college student living in Daytona, Florida in his failing family-run motel. His best friend Dak and their girlfriends Kelly and Alicia are out one night speeding across the beach in Dak's truck when they nearly run over an alcoholic former astronaut named Travis Broussard. The four young people become friends with Travis and his cousin Jubal, a brain damaged, emotionally fragile genius, who has invented an incredible quantum power source with unlimited potential.

We're never told exactly when the story takes place (at least not until book three), but it is obviously only a few years in the future. Two manned space flights, one Chinese and one American, are on their way to Mars. One of the seven astronauts on the American ship is Broussard's ex-wife, and when they learn that the ship is in trouble, Travis and the four young people decide to use Jubal's power source to build a space ship of their own and get to Mars first. The ship will be so fast that they'll beat the Chinese and be the first on the red planet, and they'll be able to rescue the American ship as well.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this story. It is a ton of fun. I especially enjoy the well-drawn characters and their families – especially Manny's sharpshooting mother and his clever girlfriend Kelly. Even though the story feels like a Heinlein juvenile, the details most definitely are not: the young people are sexually active, and Jubal's backstory in particular is horrendously tragic. And the details of getting a home-made space ship into the sky are done exceptionally well, right down to the TV dinners in a freezer bought from Sears, the problems with acquiring working space suits, the graffiti artist brought in to decorate the ship.

It's the foundation of the story that I find problematic. The magical quantum power source that will solve all of the world's energy needs is just too good to be true. Completing a working space ship in such a small amount of time is hard to swallow as well, no matter how well-written the details. And the entire story rests upon these two plot elements.

That said, this novel is still very much worth reading. Red Thunder is the first book of Varley's Thunder and Lightning series, although I didn't know it was a series when I first read it. If you're a Heinlein fan, the references are great fun. Many of the character names are from Heinlein's novels, and as already mentioned, the story has the strong flavor of a Heinlein juvenile while not being all that juvenile. And Red Thunder does its job of establishing a specific science fiction universe and introducing humanity to the planet Mars.
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

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