A Tunnel in the Sky

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Rolling Thunder
by John Varley

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted May 19, 2008

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Rolling Thunder is the third book in a series which began with Red Thunder in 2003, followed by Red Lightning in 2006. Like its predecessor, this book jumps ahead another generation in the saga of a space-pioneering family. The Heinlein homages continue (possibly laid on a bit too thick toward the end), so anyone who is a Heinlein fan or who liked the two previous books should enjoy this one as well. Just as with several of RAH's novels, this one seemed to be one type of story at the beginning but changed pace and perspective at least twice as the narrative progressed.

While I was reading I was also thinking about writing this review, and several different approaches occured to me. One was to start the review with the first sentence of the book...

Once upon a time there was a Martian named Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Podkayne Strickland-Garcia-Redmond.

...which not only references the first sentence of RAH's Stranger in a Strange Land but also his Podkayne of Mars, at the same time tying this narrative to the history of the other volumes in this saga by Varley. The Podkayne in this new book is the daughter of Ray Garcia-Strickland and Evangeline Redmond (featured in the second book), and the granddaughter of Manny Garcia and Kelly Strickland, two of the first humans to venture to Mars, as told in the first book.

One other thing that I kept thinking about while reading was to paraphrase an old Paul McCartney tune: "Some people want to fill the world with silly entertaining books, so what's wrong with that I'd like to know?" But later I decided that might not apply because the story began to get more serious about halfway through. While the beginning of this series seemed to be a tribute to Heinlein's juveniles, and a lot of his other work has been reminiscent of the Grand Master, Varley has always had his own unique voice, and he updated RAH's adventuristic style with a more modern perspective and a more liberal attitude towards teenage and young adult sex (more in line with some of RAH's later work).

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In my review of the previous book I had speculated that the next volume might concern a journey to other solar systems, but that is not the case. That might happen if he does a fourth book in this series. Rolling Thunder takes place on Earth, Mars and various military and scientific outposts in our system, including Europa. Podkayne is in the Martian military, but she is not a soldier. When we first meet her she is on Earth, manning a Mars recruitment office. Her superiors feel she is doing an excellent job, which surprises her since she has turned down almost all applicants. That is what they want of course, since their ideal requirements for emigrants to Mars is a much higher standard than most Earthlings can meet.

But Podkayne's official assignment is to a division of the navy known by its acronym of MADDMN, also euphemistically referred to as the MADMEN. She is a singer, and tours various military bases with other members of the Music, Arts and Drama Division of the Martian Navy. After her stint on Earth she is reassigned to Europa, then a tour of different installations there and on other Jovian moons is scheduled. On a scenic tour of a research station Podkayne and the other members of her party witness what might possibly be evidence of an intelligent life, or at least a life, on Europa.

Quite a few of Varley's other novels and short stories have been part of an ongoing sequence, known as the Eight Worlds series. In them, humanity has been driven off Earth by some powerful other species, and man has had to adapt to life on the other worlds in the system already established. In none of those other stories has he ever described that species or given any specifics as to their nature or their purpose in inhabiting Earth. Other than having driven man away from his home planet, that other species has left humanity alone and seems to hardly be aware of them as being intelligent or worth their concern. I don't want to go into specifics here, but I have to speculate that it is possible Varley has finally given us the beginnings of that sequence, based on what this entity on Europa does.

I'm not saying that is the case, since at the end of this novel there are still humans on Earth, but it seems the seeds have been planted for the later events already told in other books. Or perhaps not. We may have to wait for another book in this series to be sure, or maybe someone will interview Varley in the meantime and ask that specific question.

As I stated earlier, the tone and perspective of this book changes several times, with Podkayne having to adapt to several different traumatic events, both personal and historical. It is told in first person as the other two books have been, and we learn that while she is a very intelligent person, she is not without her weaknesses and worries. The few new characters introduced are mainly peripheral, the focus usually being on the family members and friends with which we are already familiar. Travis and Jubal Broussard figure into a lot of the narrative, and in the case of Jubal in one particular way that took me by surprise. But that surprise turned to joyful acceptance, as I later realized it was a very natural progression, although it may not be to everyone's liking.

Varley continues to be one of my favorites, both for his own abundant talent at story-telling, but also because of his apparent love for the type of story that made me fall in love with science fiction so many years ago. I look forward to any new work from him, whether it be an entertaining homage such as these last three books, or if and when he finishes what I expect to be a much more serious book, "Irontown Blues."

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EDIT: Irontown Blues has finally been published. In some ways it's more serious than this series, in others it is less so.

Related Links:
Varley's Official Website
My John Varley profile page
My reviews of the first two books in this sequence - Red Thunder and Red Lightning
And now another sequel, Dark Lightning


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John Varley


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