Paul Di Filippo reviews John Varley

It’s a truism that many aspects of the fantastika genre today are vastly different from what they were in the Golden Age. One change that I don’t see much remarked upon is how long series tend to last nowadays. It often feels as if they roll on and on forever, outliving both their begetters and generations of fans.

Consider a couple of core series from the Golden years. Asimov’s Foundation cycle, in its magazine appearances, ran roughly from 1942 to 1950: eight years from start to conclusion, barring those unanticipated Bronze Age revivals. Once again, excluding the allied novels which appeared after a gap of silent decades, when the marketplace suddenly seemed beckoning, the Viagens Interplanetarias series by L. Sprague de Camp was fully fleshed out in just a couple of years, from 1949 thru 1951. Blish’s Cities in Flight: 1955 to 1962. Doc Smith’s Lensman series, however, took twice as long to complete as Asimov’s, running from 1934 through 1950, but that seems an outlier, due to Smith’s almost “amateur” rates of productivity.

Just as novels were shorter back then, the full working-out of any given multi-book conceit occurred more succinctly. But at some point—maybe with Heinlein’s endlessly percolating Future History, or Poul Anderson’s Polesotechnic League, or Moorcock’s Multiverse—series became lifelong projects for both authors and readers. Staying abreast of such sagas requires dedication and a long memory—and/or frequent recaps by the author.

In the current era, of course, a mere eighteen years is nothing. John Crowley’s Aegypt: 1987-2007, twenty years. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time: 1990-2013, twenty-three years. Piers Anthony’s Xanth: 1977 to present, thirty-seven years. Anne McCaffrey’s Pern: 1968 to present, forty-six years. There’s a point at which such intellectual properties become corporate franchises, like Superman or Mickey Mouse.

All this introduction by way of announcing that with his newest book, Dark Lightning, John Varley has admirably and resoundingly terminated his sequence that began with Red Thunder in 2003, finishing the job in a mere eleven years. (And I do think a fairly definitive conclusion has been reached, while still leaving open the portal for further adventures.) Nonetheless, readers might need a brief refresher, which I offer based on my previous reviews of the series for the SyFy Channel, pieces that are sadly no longer accessible online, or I would link right to them.

In the first book, set on Earth and Mars not too long from now, we meet Jubal Broussard, quirky genius, whose “squeezer” technology opens up the gates of interplanetary travel, as well as facilitating many other terrestrial changes. Teenage protagonists make the first trip to Mars in a cobbled-together craft. The sequel, Red Lightning, jumps ahead a couple of decades from there, with humans well established on the Red Planet and a new generation of heroes at center stage, extending the blended families into a true clan. When Earth undergoes a cataclysm, the daughter planet must help. Rolling Thunder leaps ahead by a similar interval, introducing a certain young woman named Podkayne, whose exploits take her as far out as the Jovian moon Europa.

I said then of the three books: “Each volume in this series has opened up new vistas in a cascade of quantum leaps. The first story was almost a simple Tom Swiftian adventure tale. The second escalated to world-wrecking and interplanetary war. Now this latest entry opens outward beyond the confines of our home star, proving no exception to the steady advancement of scope. By the book’s end, we are in exciting cosmic territory that’s entirely unforeshadowed on page one.”

The newest volume follows the pattern and promises laid down. Teenage Podkayne is now “Mama Podkayne,” whose twin teen daughters, Cassie and Polly, are the new narrators and focal figures.

The exfoliating Broussard tribe, along with 40,000 other pioneers, some enbobbled in stasis, are inside a hollowed-out asteroid, fitted out in traditional O’Neill habitat fashion, heading for another star-system, New Home, at three-quarters of the speed-of-light, twenty years into their voyage after the invasion of Earth by the Europan life forms. After opening with a dramatic personal incident where the sisters must deal with a near-death plummet from the axial skies, the book swiftly gets both newbies and longterm fans up to speed in very ingratiating ways, one of which is the embedded infodump called a “blinklink.” By the time Papa Jubal emerges from his stasis bubble to utter a cryptic warning and directive, the reader will feel quite at home.

The alternating voices of Cassie and Polly, while plainly consanguineous, are differentiated in quite believable fashion. They are each vibrant and spirited young women with the same can-do attitude tinged by idiosyncratic preferences. Through their eyes we get a multi-sensory portrait of life inside the asteroid, the unique physicality of the place and the sociocultural aspects. We also experience the many interpersonal dramas of their set, including their competition for the affections of handsome but somewhat dense cousin Patrick, who eventually comes to be seen as the dolt he is. Of course, larger issues are in play as well.

It eventuates that Papa Jubal’s sudden concerns about the ship relate to its interactions with the ambient cosmic dark energy (“dark lightning” in his quasi-naïve vernacular). He suspects that weird troubles will arise if the ship continues to accelerate. But while he is testing his theories, social tumult explodes, and it’s up to the twins to represent their clan and restore order and control. Varley keeps the suspense up nonstop from the midpoint of the novel to the end, and although readers will anticipate a “happy ending,” I don’t believe they will foresee the exact path to it, one moment of which brings into play a surprising trope that might have been found in some pre-Campbellian tale by Ray Cummings or Clifford Simak. Nor will they anticipate who makes the ultimate “goodbye” that ends the book on a solid note of finality.

One aspect of the novel meriting our attention is its deft dramaturgical compression and scope. The whole action takes place over only a few days—a week, tops—lending a sensation of well-stuffed plentitude to the fast-moving tale. Moreover, we are inside a Big Dumb Object, where infrastructure predominates. Sure, there is textural variety among the “villages” of the starship, which Varley brings out well. But basically the tale is like Die Hard, where the constraints of the locale shape the action.

Let’s talk about the homage aspects of this series, since they are paramount. It can’t be any surprise that books featuring characters named “Jubal” and “Podkayne” are intended to be tributes to the work of Robert Heinlein. Nominated early in his career as “the next Heinlein,” Varley has always plainly admired the Grandmaster, and has made his admiration explicit in these books, with the current volume modeled obviously on Orphans of the Sky. A “transparent” prose style; an emphasis on “competent men” characters (a type not excluding females); a certain knowingness about the hidden substructures of society (which has an objective correlative here in the way Cassie and Polly maneuver through the ship’s infrastructure)—these aspects of Heinlein’s writing, with 21st-century modifications, all fuel Varley’s quartet.

Now, your enthusiasm or distaste for Heinlein will completely determine your enjoyment of Varley’s homage. The reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly deemed the book a pastiche with an antique sensibility, and thought Polly and Cassie to be self-effacing specimens out of Mademoiselle magazine circa 1957. I thought the reverse, and I believe that most readers lacking the anti-Heinlein bias of the PW reviewer would be hard-put to adduce any evidence supporting that position. Instead, they will encounter a swift, exciting, emotionally resonant tale with no small moral fallout involving a group of pioneers, neither unalloyed saints nor pure devils, seeking to carry humanity’s legacy to the stars.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over thirty years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence, RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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