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Dark Lightning
by John Varley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Dark Lightning is the fourth book in a series that began in 2003. There are reasons I wish this is the last in the sequence, as well as reasons I hope it isn't. The former due to the fact it is my least favorite of the group, the latter because I don't want it to end on such a weak note. None of the books are close to Varley's best work, although the second and third titles were better, and more serious, than the first. I suppose a bit of a recap is in order, but you can also refer back to my reviews of the previous titles.

Red Thunder began the story, and it was much in the spirit of early Heinlein. Jubal Broussard is an uneducated, backwoods Cajun, but an extremely brilliant savant genius. He came up with a technology, which he called a "squeezer" bubble, which was utilized as the propulsion system for the first manned Mars landing, and later was adapted as a power source for most all of the Earth's energy needs. Both Jubal and his cousin Travis, a former astronaut, became the richest men in the world due to not patenting the technology, but rather maintaining all control of it themselves. Travis is the one who had a head for business and public relations, leaving the naive Jubal to think up more revolutionary tech.

I didn't mention it in the other reviews, and now I can't recall whether it was in the second book, Red Lightning (2006), or the third, Rolling Thunder (2008), when Jubal came up with another variation, the "black" bubble, essentially a stasis bubble where anyone or anything could be stored in suspended animation. Everyone else believed that inside the bubble no time passes, so a person could stay inside indefinitely without the need for oxygen, water or food. Jubal thinks there may be another explanation, that the black bubbles actually contain a link to an alternate dimension. That is why he thinks he became aware of Podkayne Garcia-Strickland-Redmond before he ever met her or knew of her existence, since they were both inside different stasis bubbles at the same time, but separated by billions of miles. If not for his knowledge of Podkayne, she would have remained in her bubble buried under the ice on Jupiter's moon Europa forever. Also, on numerous occasions Jubal would go into a black bubble for various lengths of time, but when he came out he would have an idea for another experiment or invention, leading him to believe that his consciousness was still active in the bubble even though he couldn't have been aware of it at the time, nor could he explain where his new idea came from.

Each of the books has been written in first person, the narrator of the first being Manny Garcia, one of the first humans on Mars. The second book was from the perspective of his son, Ray Garcia-Strickland, and the third was told by Podkayne, Ray's daughter. This latest volume has alternating chapters from two narrators, Cassie (Cassiopeia) and Polly (Pollyanna), twin daughters of Podkayne and Jubal. I'm not sure why Varley chose this technique rather than a single narrator, since I couldn't distinguish that much variation between the two as to their personality or "voice." There are several mentions of how each is different from their sister, but those comments are the only indication of them. Since all of the books have been homages to Heinlein in varying degrees, the twins' names automatically brought to mind Castor and Pollux Stone, characters in The Rolling Stones, but since Cassie and Polly are girls I also thought of Lapis Lazuli and Lorelai Lee, the cloned daughters of Lazurus Long in Time Enough For Love.

At the end of Rolling Thunder we were introduced to Travis' latest project, a starship bearing that name, constructed out of a captured asteroid and which would use the squeezer bubbles for propulsion. Their power would be essentially inexhaustible, with a constant boost of 1/20th of a gee, with the asteroid's spin giving the passengers inside the feeling of 2/3 gee force. This novel begins about twenty years into the journey, and the ship's speed has increased to about .73 of the speed of light. The black bubbles are utilized for storing food, water, tools and other materials that will not be needed until they reach their destination, New Home around New Sun, although they do intend to give them more appropriate names by the time they have arrived. Many people are also in stasis in the bubbles, some for the entire voyage, others for infrequent periods of time. Jubal is much older than his wife Podkayne by calendar years, but he has been spending time inside a bubble so that their biological ages become more in sync. His schedule has been to come out of the bubble for a few weeks each year. Cassie and Polly were born on Rolling Thunder, and the ship's policy is that children should complete their primary education before deciding whether to continue on to college level courses, find a job and live day to day on the ship, or else go into a bubble for the remainder of the voyage. The girls are in their senior year of high school when fate steps in and decides for them.

The girls are almost late for the gathering of their extended family to welcome their father as he comes out of his bubble. The party is quickly derailed when Jubal immediately declares, "Stop the ship!" It seems he has a notion that their increasing speed will be a danger to them, as it probably had been for previous interstellar ships which had never been heard from again. He tries to explain that his concern is for the "dark lightning" in space, which is what he calls dark matter or dark energy, an elusive substance or entity, still a mystery to modern physicists. Travis, who is ship's captain, along with Podkayne and her daughters, as well as other close family members, trust that Jubal's fears are genuine, even if he is not able to fully explain his ideas to others. Even though the group that accompanies Jubal to present the idea to Travis is a small one, somehow word quickly spreads through the ship, and many do not want Travis to follow Jubal's advice. A mutiny ensues, with Travis, Podkayne and others taken prisoner. Cassie and Jubal have taken Travis' personal space yacht out of the ship and are attempting to analyze how much dark energy the ship is being exposed to, while Polly is left to her own devices as she is able to escape capture. Working individually, and then later together when they are reunited, the twins are able to rescue the others and the mutiny is squelched. That's the minimum amount of info you need.

Even though there is a lot of action, as well as a few deaths, it's not as serious a book as I had been anticipating, since the two previous books had been more serious than the first. I would much rather have seen the story go in a different direction. Too much of SF these days is pessimistic, manufacturing drama and conflict rather than showing cooperation. If it wasn't for the fact that Jubal cannot communicate his ideas well, none of the conflict in this story would have been necessary. In the end, he comes up with another notion that negates the fear he had about dark lightning in the first place. It is also an idea that is even more far-fetched than all the totally fabricated tech that came before it. It does open up the possibility of further stories in the sequence, and I'm likely to read them if Varley writes them, but I fear they won't be what I want from him.

The link to in the overview column is for the mass market paperback, which won't be released until March 2015. Even if you're a big Varley fan like me, I see no reason to spend more money than necessary. At the current time it is in hardcover and for Kindle (and other e-book versions), but the publisher's price is higher than I think it is worth. I have the other three books in Science Fiction Book Club editions, but they were not offering this title, so I put the Kindle version on my wish list and bought it one day when they had temporarily dropped the price. If you can find the hardcover at a used book store or on Ebay for a reasonable price and just can't wait, then go for it, if only to complete the set. Otherwise wait until the paperback hits the used book shelves.

Related Links:
Varley's Official Website
My John Varley profile page
My reviews of the previous books Red Thunder, Red Lightning, and Rolling Thunder


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