Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I suppose you could call this novel "Retro SF," in that it recalls the subject matter (and even a little bit of the style) of the Golden Age, particularly Heinlein's juvenile novels. Early in his career, Varley was hailed as the heir-apparent to RAH, and although I do not think he has fully lived up to that pronouncement, he has been able to establish a definite niche for himself with stories that bridge the gap between the old scenarios and a newer, and somewhat more sociologically realistic perspective. That's a fancy way of saying that the characters in this book are still stereotypical, but at least they are more up to date in their actions and language.
The main character is the narrator, Manny, an intelligent young man who is smart enough to realize his limitations. He and his best friend Dak have always dreamed of being astronauts, but they can't even get into a decent college. Instead, they have enrolled in an online university course, and what little time they have left over from their studies and their work is spent in observing launches at nearby Cape Canaveral. Dak works in his father's auto shop; Manny's mom runs an old, delapidated motel, The Blast-Off Inn. Manny helps her out as best he can, but in truth the place would be better off being bulldozed. A newer, and much fancier equipped hotel has been built across the highway from them, effectively cutting off oceanfront views any of their rooms had. The little trade they do get is from old-timers who remember their landmark sign of a rocket blasting off, memories of the glory days of the Cape during the Gemini and Apollo missions.
But this is some thirty years into our future, and on the launch pad this night is the Ares Seven, poised to begin it's long journey to Mars. Manny and Dak are on the beach with their girlfriends Kelly and Alicia, anticipating the glorious dawn that will come with the fiery liftoff. Manny accesses various camera views via his laptop as they discuss how much they would like to be aboard the craft. Afterwards, a bit discouraged they are still stuck on Earth, they decide to race along the beach in Dak's souped-up truck, Blue Thunder. Their speed (and inebriation) make it impossible for Dak to slow down or avoid running over a dark object in their path. On close inspection they find a drunk laid out on the beach, with his lower legs luckily half buried by sand brought in by the tide. Otherwise his legs would certainly have been broken.
Rummaging through his clothes they find his wallet, which contains his ID, along with an inordinate amount of cash. Stifling their first reaction, and realizing that if they leave him where he is he will more than likely drown in the rising tide, they decide to take him home. On the way they come to the realization that the drunk, one Travis Broussard, is a former astronaut. They leave him in the care of his cousin Jubal, a short and very shy man who speaks comically with a strong Cajun accent. The next day Manny tries to find out more information on Broussard, only to discover all his NASA files deleted from any website he his able to find. Going to a newsgroup he frequents, he is able to get at least one person to acknowledge that Travis Broussard was a real person and that he at one time had been one of the agency's shining stars. Even though he will not reveal details, it is apparent there had been several incidents, tied to excessive drinking and seemingly careless disregard for regulations, which led to his dismissal from the astronaut corps.
Manny and Dak venture back out to Broussard's home a week later, only to find Alicia and Kelly already embarked on a rehabilitation campaign, helping Travis to clean up his house and supplementing his diet beyond the usual steaks and booze. They also find out why Travis had been out on the beach that night - saying farewell to his ex-wife who is one of the Ares Seven crewmen. Manny takes a walk around the house, and over to the barn where they first met Jubal the week before. It is there he spies something, a shiny, spherical object, bouncing across the grass much like a soap bubble. He is puzzled by its unusual feel, but thinks no more about it and puts it in his pocket for a closer inspection later. Little does he know that the sphere will prove to be one of the most revolutionary discoveries ever made, one which will take them on a long and glorious journey.
As close as this book is to several Heinlein juveniles, most particularly Rocket Ship Galileo, it also reminded me of one of the Grand Master's "adult" stories, and a fantasy at that. Jubal Broussard reminded me of Gramps Schneider from the 1942 novella "Waldo." The mysterious spheres, which are an invention of Jubal's, are sheer fabricated fantasies, with no connection to any existing physical theories. But that's okay, since without them Manny's dreams of going into space could never have been realized. Even if you have not heard anything else about this book before now, I'm sure you have been able to figure out that the spheres prove to be the key to a new space drive, which the quartet of young people utilize to construct their own Mars vehicle, dubbed Red Thunder. I won't give you details of how, and from what materials, their craft is constructed, but the fact that they are able to hide their activities under the guise of preparing for a movie about the Little Rascals going into space should give you a idea of how unconventional it is.
This is a good and entertaining book, even though it is not the type of story I have come to expect from Varley. Most of his work has been set in a common future history known as the Eight Worlds sequence. Up to this time, his only novels not to be part of that series have been the Gaea Trilogy (Titan, Wizard, Demon) and Millennium (expanded from his short story "Air Raid"). Shortly after the release of his previous book, The Golden Globe, I read an interview with Varley in which he spoke of a work in progress entitled "Irontown Blues," which would be yet another addition to the Eight Worlds universe. More recently, in a chat at scifi.com, he admitted he had been having difficulty completing that book, several aspects of it proving hard to bring to a conclusion. It seems apparent that Red Thunder was something much easier for him to write, a way for him to make a bit of money while he struggled with the other book.
EDIT: Varley has finally finished Irontown Blues.
To conclude, this is an enjoyable book, one that is interesting enough to hold your attention, with characters so much like people you probably know, and situations filled with the "sense of wonder" I remember from my early explorations in the genre. I'll probably even re-read it some time, maybe more than once, as I have so many times with Heinlein's books. It compares favorably to RAH, not as much as Gerrold's Dingilliad for sure, but still not a waste of time at all. However, I have to say I was a bit disappointed that I was not reading "Irontown Blues" instead. After the complexities of Steel Beach and The Golden Globe, Red Thunder left me wanting more than mere entertainment. Here's hoping Varley can work out his difficulties with "Irontown Blues" in the near future (and hopefully the very near future at that).
Varley's Official Website
My John Varley profile page
My review of Red Lightning, the first sequel to this book.
Plus Rolling Thunder, another continuation of this story sequence.
And now Dark Lightning, another sequel, with maybe more to come in the future?
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