Just finished a really lovely read – Variable Star – which was written by Spider Robinson, from 1950s notes for a never-completed novel by Robert Heinlein. Quite a nifty piece of work it is, too, in genesis and execution.
Robinson’s curiosity and perspective is always a real treat, he’s one of the most interesting Science-fiction people working, and also one of those writers who always somehow feels like a pal when you read him, without ever being pushy about it.
As a child, Robinson was dropped off at the local library by his mother and told to ask the librarian for a book. The librarian offered him a classic Heinlein, and he ran back to the library the next day for another one like it. In the end – the first ten books (without pictures) that he read in his life, were all Heinlein’s – and to this day he considers him the man that showed him “how to do this thing.” As Robinson joined the ranks of Science-fiction professionals, they also became friends, a relationship Robinson treasured, right up until Heinlein died in 1988.
Robinson first heard about the existence of these long-lost notes at an international Science fiction convention, which was held that year (2005) in Toronto. He was excited to attend the presentation by Heinlein scholars – and as soon as those notes were announced, he realized they described a book that he remembered his friend regretting that he’d been talked out of writing.
The second thing that happened was that a woman in the audience yelled-out, “You should get Spider Robinson to write it!” With the agents for Heinlein’s estate, and so many key Heinlein people directly connected, all present in the same room at that moment, the idea didn’t just bring a round of applause from the crowd, it ultimately won him the project!
The crazy thing about the result is that it really does feel like classic Heinlein – even down to a few of the touches that always make you roll your eyes about him – but it is informed by much that’s happened since, (yes, including 9/11) – and also shows considerable imprint from Robinson’s own mischievous and artful humour. He even, from 2005 – rather brilliantly anticipates this moment…
“Over and over again, like a recurring flu, they developed the imbecile idea that they understood nearly everything, in all but the finest details. They had no slightest idea what lightning was, how it worked. They had absolutely no idea how moisture got further than about ten meters up a tree – the furthest that capillary action can push it. Fifty years after the splitting of the atom they accidentally noticed for the first time that hurricanes emit gamma rays…
…They somehow managed to persuade themselves that computer-models constitute data. That very complicated guesses become facts. They made themselves believe that they had the power to model not just something as inconceivably complex as say, a single zygote – but a national economy, a weather system, a planetary ecosphere – even a universe. They made solemn pronouncements about conditions a trillionth of a second after the big-bang, on the basis of computer models, which they had produced with computers not even bright enough to talk, let alone understand speech. They were unlike all the generations before theirs in several ways, but chiefly in that they had no faintest idea how ignorant they were. Previous ages had usually had a pretty good handle on that.”
Robinson has much fun with Enrico Fermi’s famous question regarding the seeming mathematical inevitability of other intelligent life in the universe. “Where are they?”
He also looks at the question of space travel with the eyes of a guy who has lived on a commune – a great tin-can social-simulation in many ways – and one that gives his insights on finite community rare clarity and bite.
But I’m most pleased by the way he manages to both make use of – but also subtly recontextualize Heinlein’s characteristic sexism, and also his particular take on capitalism and it’s excessive beneficiaries. Not only does he set Heinlein (his friend) in a different light, he also slyly recontextualizes his critics.
And just for the record – however silly he sometimes gets – it’s worth noting that Heinlein was one of those pop writers who put strong female characters in practically everything he wrote (Clarke gets far more critical acclaim, but his female character are lifeless, no genuine zeal!). That Heinlein’s had wit and agency, and were active sexual beings, was more than just boyhood fantasy (though that was his target audience for his earlier stuff – and a rather rich one it was at the time) – that they were inscrutable to his male protagonists was always judged a perception-limitation of the men (realistic) – and finally, they were frequently in-charge. Senior roles, skills, authority of all sorts. Which really pointed-out an important distinction. Like with a lot of dispossession-assaults – objectification in the context of robbed-power, is not the same thing as a randy teen’s perspective on an inherently pluralist, respectful and fully talent-engaged world.
I have no idea if Science fiction today can still have the invaluable protective effect that reading so much of it early, once had on me – preparing me for incredibly harsh modern realities in a way that had me perceiving them clearly, in advance of many, mostly because I could not only stand-to, but had useful metaphors in-place, with which to metabolize the madness. Perhaps try Neal Stephenson, if nothing else, he gives a truly extraordinary history of capitalism, modern-science, and social development with his insanely brilliant and audacious Quicksilver cycle. Couldn’t hurt – (and pirates, too!)
As for Variable Star – I am certain Heinlein himself would have loved it – to have someone speak sincerely in your voice, twenty years after you’re gone, is as sweet a loving tribute as I’ve come across for any wordy genius. Spider did the man proud.
* “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” – one of Heinlein’s favourite phrases (also much-beloved by the hard-science crew at NASA, to denote the inescapability of thermodynamic limits).