At the end ofRolling Thunder, the great asteroid starship Rolling Thunder leaves the solar system led by the extended Garcia-Strickland-Broussard clan. The ship is a classic hollow rotating cylinder, propelled to a high fraction of the speed of light by the mysterious squeezer-bubble technology invented by Jubal in Red Thunder. As with previous installments in the series, we again jump forward a generation. The story is told in the first person by identical twins Cassie and Polly, daughters of Jubal and Podkayne. After one of Jubal’s regular exits from stasis in a “black bubble”, he screams that the ship must be stopped. Eventually he figures out that Dark Energy (catchily referred to as “Dark Lightning” in the book) may be a danger when traveling at a very high percentage of the speed of light. However as always with Varley, the story is about the people. Jubal’s scream of “Stop the Ship!” triggers shipwide unrest, and the twins are the ones who have to sort things out.
In true Varley form, the worldbuilding is first-class, detailed and intricate. The characters are authentic and easily engage the imagination. The twins are in their late teens, and as such their commentary is peppered with talk of boys and fashion, but without being annoying. Mostly it is just plain funny. After the pessimistic tone of Red Lightning and very gloomy one of Rolling Thunder, it is also nice to read an installment in the series with a brighter outlook.
In the sequel to Red Thunder and Red Lightning, we yet again skip ahead a generation, this time to Podkayne, granddaughter of Manny and Kelly. Martian born and bred, she is drafted (as all are) into service with the Martian Navy. The book starts by ridiculing Earthies (those who live on Earth) as generally helpless and whiny. It is hard to find too much fault in that assesment, but more about that later. As is sometimes the case with Varley, he writes more chronicle than anything else, and thus we follow the meanderings of Podkayne. It isn’t until the second half that things really start to happen. By then a very gloomy post-9/11, post-Katrina view has settled onto the book. If it weren’t for cheery Podkayne, this would not be a very cheerful book. In the end, the protagonists make a big decision, and there is a happy ending, of sorts.
While Red Thunder was a very positive book, and Red Lightning was at least mildly optimistic, Rolling Thunder paints a very bleak picture of Earth’s future, with billions dead and the planet rendered uninhabitable. Certainly the catastrophes depicted are not man made (unlike in Red Lightning) but it is clear that mankind had already started the processt”. Podkayne is a serviceable protagonist, but she is no Manny or Ray from the previous books. The end, and I won’t give away the surprising development there, feels a bit too much as if Varley wanted to tie up the loose ends any which way. I do love reading Varley, and this was, as always, entertaining. His voice is mesmerizing and his insights into human character are always interesting and novel. However I do feel that this was not on par with most of his work. Or perhaps he just gave me a bit too much of the blues.
The sequel to the wonderful Red Thunder does not disappoint. A generation after the events of Red Thunder, the children of Ray Garcia and Kelly Strickland are growing up on Mars. An unexplained impact in the Atlantic and a consequent tsunami to dwarf all previous tsunamis are catalysts for the action. But this is not a disaster novel. It’s a novel about how Ray Garcia-Strickland grows from just another teenager into a man. Told strictly in Varley’s favored first person, we see the world through the eyes of an adolescent who wants to be a man but hasn’t quite figured out how yet. The tone is authentic and as usual Varley delivers on his characters. Thoroughly well imagined and believable, they feel like old friends by the end.
Varley’s novels, and especially the Red Thunder series, leave me with a feeling of well being after every section I read. The characters are so likeable and authentic it makes me want to be with them, in their world. Add to that the long section set in a fascism-leaning America logically and quite frighteningly extrapolated from today’s fear of terrorism as a convenient excuse for governmental power grabbing (the historical parallels are remarkably sinister), and it makes for a great novel.
For some odd reason I had never read Varley, an author who was first published in 1977, before I picked up this book. After this experience, I realized my mistake. Red Thunder makes some rather preposterous assumptions in order to underpin a story. A decade or two from now, two lower class Florida youngsters dream of going to space. They and their girlfriends accidentally run into (actually run over) an ex astronaut who has fallen from grace. Said ex astronaut has a quasi autistic genius cousin who has accidentally invented an immensely efficient and cheap form of energy generation/propulsion. Seeing as the Chinese are on their way to being first to Mars and the American expedition will not only be second, but may well have an accident on the way, this motley crew builds a spaceship.
Appalled yet? Most authors would have made a hash of this and turned out unreadable drivel. But Varley concentrates on the people aspect. The whole thing becomes an excellent, funny and exciting coming of age story.