There are legions of Robert A. Heinlein fans out there that grew up reading the 12 canonical Heinlein young adult novels published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in the 1940s and 1950s, that if we were ever given three magical wishes would use our first wish to get the 13th novel. Many science fiction writers have tried to write that 13th Scribner’s novel hoping to pay it forward for the immense rewards they were given from reading the original 12 Heinlein juveniles, as they are now called.
In 2003 the Heinlein estate gave Spider Robinson the chance to write that 13th juvenile based on an outline and note cards Heinlein had developed in 1955. In 2006 Variable Star came out with Robert A. Heinlein as the first author and Spider Robinson as the second printed boldly across the top of the cover. I immediately bought the hardcover edition thinking I’d read it as soon as it arrived from Amazon, but I didn’t. I wanted it to be the 13th Scribner’s, but feared it wouldn’t. It’s taken me two and a half years to get ready.
Over the decades I have read many essays by all kinds of people explaining how their lives were affected and even shaped by reading the twelve Heinlein juveniles. Spider Robinson wasn’t specifically tasked to write the 13th, and he even explains in the afterward that he was given leeway to write pretty much anything he wanted, but I feel from reading the results that he wanted to write another Heinlein juvenile. Since Robinson includes profanity, sex and drugs, we know he wasn’t seriously writing a novel that Alice Dalgleish, Heinlein’s editor, would have accepted back in the 1950s.
On the other hand, there is so much Heinlein in Variable Star that it is obvious that Robinson does want to write a novel that Heinlein fans will love, and maybe even praise as a novel that Heinlein would have written. This is a dangerous task to take on. What if you were a writer and William Shakespeare’s estate asked you to write a new play that they could sell to the fans of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet? I think Robinson intentionally hedged his bets and put enough of his known style and favorite topics into Variable Star so if reviews were really bad he could claim he wasn’t crazy enough to imitate Heinlein completely. But this book is stuffed to gills with Heinlein cliches.
I am 57 years old and I still try to understand why those twelve Heinlein books imprinted so strongly on my adolescent psychology. It is enticing to think about Heinlein’s formula. And it would be a fun challenge to analyze those 1950s books and try and recreate updated versions of them for the 2010s. So here’s a quick overview what I think were his essential ingredients:
- All the books are about boys of high school age
- In most of the stories the boys are free of parental control
- Girls and romance are not part of the story
- No sex or profanity
- All the stories involve outer space travel
- Most of the stories involve exotic aliens
- Success depends on the boys and their talent
- Science, math and engineering are of supreme importance
- Violence is often a solution
- Great things can happen to kids if they are ready
Robinson breaks several of these points in Variable Star. Joel Johnston has finished junior college and wants to get married. He drinks, gets high, has sex, and he and his friends cuss. But if Robinson had jettison the insanely stupid romantic plot, cut the boozing, drugs and cussing, this book could have been very much like a Heinlein juvenile. Robinson appears to be as romantically tone deaf as Heinlein. Many of Heinlein’s later books had characters wanting to get married ten minutes after they meet, and Robinson’s writing follows later Heinlein in dealing with the same silly male and female relationships. Both write romances that feel like they were written by eleven year old girls trying to write about sex and love.
Variable Star is not the 13th Scribner’s juvenile by Robert A. Heinlein. Alice Dalgleish would have wanted to edit out Heinlein’s reproductive organs if he had submitted this novel to her back in 1955. I will admit Variable Star had many of Heinlein’s pet ideas from the time period, and the novel is somewhat structured like a Heinlein juvenile, but it’s more of a structural copy of Starship Troopers, because both are essentially one long first person monologue. I love Starship Troopers and have read it many times. Heinlein was at his best talking straight to the reader with Starship Troopers. It’s a very hard writing style to pull off, and he never got away with it again, at least in my opinion. Sadly, it’s the number one fault of Variable Star. Since I listened to the book on audio it was all too obvious how much the narrator told the reader information and how little came through real dramatic action. I wished Robinson had copied the more restrained and dramatic first person style of Time for the Stars.
Heinlein was great on coming up with far out science fictional ideas, but he was a damn poor writer when it came to dramatic scenes and plot, and Robinson marches right along in his footsteps. For all the wrath Heinlein fans give poor Alice Dalgleish, I feel she kept Heinlein from boring his readers. Alice Dalgleish is an evil woman among Heinlein’s true fans for censoring the master’s words, but I don’t think she deserves their scorn, nor does she deserve the evil portrayal of her as Alice Dahl in Variable Star. To me grumbling from the grave is just whining after you’re dead. Google Alice Dalgleish, she’s rather obscure, but she had a major impact on children’s literature. Heinlein fans should worship her for giving them twelve cherished books from the leading American literary publisher of the time, that won all kinds of awards for their children’s line, were these books were published.
Most of the juveniles are stories written in the first person, heavy with info dumps, but they were kept under control, probably by Alice, and in the juveniles the info dumps were just long enough to teach and inspire kids without sounding like lectures. Later Heinlein and in Variable Star, all too often the story comes to a complete stop so the author can pontificate.
Variable Star should have been published with only Spider Robinson’s name on the cover. Many of my criticisms of the book would have been removed if that had been the case. Of course we’re all savvy enough to know that writers estate’s want to maximize their profits by pulling various literary gimmicks. If Variable Star had been published with only Robinson’s name on the cover, but with an intro about how he was given the Heinlein outline and note cards in a forward I would have had much more respect for the estate.
Since I bought the book in hardcover and audio, I also feel cheated that neither edition contained the actual Heinlein outline and notes. I would have had much more respect for the Heinlein estate if they allowed Robinson to publish that working outline and notes in the back of Variable Star. The book is a gimmick, and we should be allowed to see how good Robinson was at playing the game. Also, with Heinlein’s name on the cover, we should have gotten some actual Heinlein words.
Now if Variable Star had been published with only Robinson’s name, and no mention of Heinlein at all, and I read the book for its own merits then my judgment would be totally different. I think the book has many serious literary flaws, but it also has some fantastic science fictional speculation. If I had read Variable Star as a book with no link to Heinlein on the cover, or within, I still would have thought it was inspired by Heinlein and figured Robinson is one of his literary descendents. And I would have called him out on several 1950s Heinlein ideas that I feel are invalid for science fiction written after the year 1988.
Using telepaths for ship to Earth communication on slower than light spaceships following all of Einstein’s rules was a far out idea when Heinlein did it in his book Time for the Stars. And from what Robinson said about the various names Heinlein considered for Variable Star I’m guessing he didn’t use that outline because Time for the Stars is the book he wanted to write with those ideas. Since science has thoroughly trashed the concept of telepathy in humans in the succeeding decades it’s rather silly to bring back the idea. ESP is only suitable for fantasy stories, not modern science fiction.
Science has also killed many other Heinlein ideas from the 1950s, like farming on Ganymede, people being able to do astrogation calculations in their head, and faster than light travel. For Robinson to have near light speed travel, much less FTL, he has to resort to mystical mumbo-jumbo of the silliest kind. Now I don’t fault Spider Robinson too much on this though.
Diehard Heinlein true believers have total faith that FTL travel is possible even though they are reduced to counting the number of FTL drives that can fit on the head of a pin. Their religious faith depends on science finding a way around all the physics we currently know today. I’m willing to concede there may be a God, Heaven and Hell, life after death and faster than light travel, but the odds are about equal for all of them. I try not to be too critical about people’s deepest desires, but if Robinson wanted to write a cutting edge 2006 science fiction novel he should have stuck to all the rules of known science today.
Now it might seem like I’m totally trashing this novel as unworthy of reading, and I don’t want to do that. I think Variable Star does have some merits, some even equal to the sense of wonder of the 1950s Heinlein juveniles, but I can’t discuss them in detail without spoiling the story. There is a core tragedy that if the novel had been written differently could have made this novel into a major SF classic. This part of the novel made me feel totally satisfied with my purchase, even counting that I bought the book twice. Sadly, I consider it a shame that these great elements were stuck inside a gimmick novel.
Robinson narrated the audio book and did a great job. Usually I don’t like audio books read by their authors. He also includes an afterwards that makes me really like him, so I hate to be critical. We’re both lovers of Heinlein’s juveniles, which I consider a stronger bond than blood relationship. However, I’m not like many of the spiritual children of Heinlein because I rebelled against the old man. Many of my Heinlein brothers and sisters hate me for the things I say about Heinlein’s later books.
The true believers raise their hackles at any criticism of Heinlein. I had a different take on the old man. Heinlein preached science, and the lesson I learned from him is go with what’s logical and real. Heinlein threw out many hypothetical ideas to research. Most didn’t pan out, no big deal. Science moves on. Heinlein always believed mankind was the toughest varmint in this neck of the galaxy, and you can’t be tough living in your naval gazing on fantasies.
Variable Star’s many faults remind me of later Heinlein, and I can almost imagine a much older Heinlein writing Variable Star trying to recapture his glory days at Scribner’s. I think Robinson missed the mark at writing the 13th juvenile but still came very close to writing a Heinlein like novel. This can be seen as praise and insult, since I think later Heinlein is a bloated parody of younger Heinlein. I truly hate stories like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls where Heinlein dredged up cherished characters I loved in adolescence turning them into silly kissy-kissy wife-swapping swingers. I give Robinson great credit for not doing this. Robinson is far more liberal than Heinlein, and I admired those liberal qualities in Variable Star, but I wonder what Heinlein would have thought though.
This is going to sound weird, but those twelve Heinlein juvenile novels from the 1950s are sacred to me. As much as I would love to read another one I can’t. The world of 2009 is too different. Heinlein vastly improved my troubled childhood with his stories, and I will always love them, but I had to grow up. I don’t think anyone can write the 13th 1950s Heinlein Scribner’s novel in 2009. I think Alexei Panshin came closest with his 1968 novel Rite of Passage but that novel worked because I was still in my teens. Maybe a 2009 teenager will find Variable Star just as magical as I found Time for the Stars all those years ago. I think that’s possible. But for us old Heinlein fans, I don’t know.
If I was going to write a series of young adult science fiction novels for the 2010s, that I hoped would be as inspirational as the 1950s Heinlein stories had been for me, I think they should include these elements:
- The lead characters could be boys or girls
- The main character would still be high school age kids who find some way to live independent of their parents
- Science, math and engineering would still be vitally important
- I would accept the importance of sex and romance in these stories because realistically sex and romance is a huge part of teenage life, but the primary subject of the story would be sense of wonder and the future
- I’m not sure what role violence would play
- I could skip profanity, although I think editors accept it now in young adult novels
- Success of the plot would still depend on the kids
- Nearly all the ideas Heinlein had about space travel have turned out to be wrong, so it would be vitally important to invent new realistic explorations of space that kids could evaluate
This is where Robinson really missed the boat with Variable Star. By focusing on Heinlein’s peak ideas he seems to have forgotten they are over a half century old. Heinlein speculated about many things that we’ve since come to realize as completely wrong. Kids can’t built atomic rockets that take them to the Moon. There is no intelligent life on Venus and Mars. Just the radiation will keep us from farming Ganymede. And all the forms of space travel Heinlein envisioned are no more realistic than Tinkerbell’s fairy dust as a mode of transportation.
Just because science has outpaced science fiction doesn’t mean those twelve Heinlein juveniles aren’t great stories, still readable today. They have just migrated to the world of lovable childhood fantasy stories. The job of the next Heinlein is to write speculative fiction based on the science we know today. Like I said, there are some core elements of Variable Star that does this, unfortunately Robinson ruins it with a fantasy invention that fits in a plot that’s based on a sequence of way too many coincidences to be believable. I’ve read that Robinson has gotten the go ahead to write three sequels to this book. I would have loved to read those books if they were based on Variable Star’s core problem, and if the book from chapter 19 on had been different.
The idea of developing many colonized worlds through slower-than-light travel is excellent speculative matter for current science fiction. Having the main event of chapter 17 affect those worlds is another great idea for science fiction to explore. But the story needs to do it without telepathy or breaking the speed limits imposed on information. That would be a far out story worthy of many books.
Finally, hey Spider, one mention that a door dilates is cool homage to Beyond This Horizon, mentioned over and over again is just story stopping agony. One unbelievable coincidence in a novel is forgivable, but one per chapter is authorial suicide.
JWH – 4/25/9