A Tunnel in the Sky

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Red Lightning
by John Varley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted July 16, 2006

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If you liked 2003's Red Thunder, chances are you will enjoy Red Lightning as well. It is fast-paced, with several very powerful and emotional sequences, with just enough humor interspersed throughout to offset some of the tragedies depicted. Varley provides an afterword, in which he relates how the genesis of the story was inspired by the events of September 11, 2001, and that two other disasters occurred during the writing of it; the tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina. The tsunami itself forced him to relocate a similar incident in his story, from the Indian Ocean to the North Atlantic, which then necessitated alterations in the events that followed.

I'm pretty sure this book could be read and enjoyed by someone not familiar with its predecessor. There is enough exposition and description of characters for most to understand the situations in this story, which is set approximately twenty years later. Both books were written in first-person narrative form, Red Thunder's story being told by Manny Garcia, this one by his son, Ray Garcia-Strickland. A few years after the events in the first book, Manny and his wife, Kelly Strickland, return to Mars with others to establish the first permanent settlement, Thunder City. At first, Manny manages the Marineris Hyatt, then later they build the Red Thunder Hotel. Readers of the first book will recall that Manny grew up working in his mother's hotel near Cape Canaveral.

Jubal Broussard, who invented the technology which made their first Mars trip possible, is a virtual prisoner in the Falkland Islands, held there by a consortium of world governments and the power conglomerate that was established to manage the revolutionary new power source and regulate it for an energy-hungry world. Jubal's cousin Travis, a former astronaut, is now the richest man in the world due to the way he negotiated the deal for Jubal.

With these basic facts established, Ray then begins the narrative of his adventures following a crisis on Earth. An object has struck the planet in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Brazil. What is puzzling to most scientists consulted, and thus the newspeople reporting the incident, is that the object's travel through the solar system and it's entrance into our atmosphere was totally undetected, leading them to speculate it had been traveling near the speed of light. The resulting tsunami devastates Caribbean islands as well as the Atlantic seaboard of the United States, from Florida to New England. Manny's mother is still on Earth, so the family quickly books passage back to the home planet, in hopes she has survived, and to make contact with Travis and Jubal as well.

As tragic as the 2004 tsunami was, with the loss of so many innocent lives, it also gave us another example of the lengths to which many people will go to help out others in need. The same is true in this fictional story, with many foreign countries sending food and other supplies, along with trained medical and strategic support personnel to aid our stricken nation. But something else that Varley addresses is how devastating would such a disaster be if it effected such an important area of the world as the Eastern U. S.? What if such a disaster wiped out the financial district of New York, the political infrastructure of Washington, D. C., our space-faring capabilities in Florida, along with many of our military bases?

While reading I couldn't help but think of a recent news report concerning a statement made by Stephen Hawking, who said he felt it was an absolute must for humanity to establish settlements on other worlds, not just on the Moon, Mars or any terraformable asteroids or moons in our system, but also in other solar systems. Of course, we are many years away from the technologies that could make that a feasible option, but it is definitely something mankind must seriously consider in the coming years. We know for a fact that incidents in the past have wiped out whole species and ecosystems, and there is no guarantee such will not occur again. However, to balance that, Varley has presented a situation wherein we could possibly sow the seeds of our own destruction by pursuing such a course. I won't say anything more about that, or else I would be getting into spoiler territory.

There are only a couple of negatives I might mention about this book. One is that a central mystery presented early in the book was a bit too obvious to me, or at least I correctly guessed it based solely on info presented on the book jacket blurb, as well as something one of the characters says in the first few pages. [NOTE: Don't read the review on the homepage at varley.net, linked below, since it gives that mystery away.] However, I did not figure out the mystery of the foreign object that struck the Earth, in fact had been thinking it was something that might have happened in reverse, something that originated on Earth then rocketed out into space. Also, anyone who is a stickler about wanting their SF to stay as close to real science as possible might have a problem with this book, as well as the one that came before. The technology that Jubal discovers is a pure fabrication, about as close to real science as a perpetual motion machine. It is simply something that Varley felt was needed to tell the story he had in mind, and since that story is very entertaining, I can forgive him that indulgence.

One other thing. Even though both books are self-contained, and the first really didn't need a sequel, I wouldn't be surprised if we get another one set in the same timeline a few years down the road. Just as the technology presented in the first book led to the Mars trip and eventually to the settlement and exploitation of the red planet, events in this second one present even more possibilities for further explorations.

Next up, to the stars?

Related Links:
Varley's official Website
My John Varley profile page
My review of Red Thunder, the previous story in this sequence
And two more sequels Rolling Thunder and Dark Lightning


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John Varley


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