Saturday, 25 April 2009

Martian adventure

A bit of a light read this time, Red Thunder by John Varley, one of my favourite science fiction authors.

In near-future Florida, a group of teenagers watch the launch of Ares Seven, America's hasty and high-speed riposte to a Chinese mission already well on its way to the red planet. On the way home from the night launch, Mannie and Dak, and their girlfriends Kelly and Alicia, take in an illegal drive over the Florida sands, only to run-over (almost) a drunken, and disgraced, former astronaut. After taking him home to his strange cousin, they release a collective sigh of relief that nothing more serious happened. Returning later to check on the astronaut, a Colonel Travis Broussard, they become intrigued by his NASA past and take an interest in his return to sobriety. Mannie also becomes intrigued by a strange silver "bubble" that he finds in Broussard's back-lot, something which seems to defy the physics he gobbled up in highschool. It transpires that the "bubble" is something created by Broussard's quasi-autistic cousin, Jubal, and it really does defy physics, at least as it is currently understood. As well as creating force fields beyond the ken of modern physics, Jubal also realises that the American mission to Mars is doomed by its risky adoption of a high-speed drive. With these pieces falling in place, Mannie et al. embark on the unthinkable: an independent mission to Mars using the "bubbles" as an even higher-speed drive, both to beat the Chinese and to rescue Ares Seven along the way. But there are a lot of hurdles in the way of these bright but unqualified teenagers. Just as well they've an ex-NASA astronaut, a scientific prodigy and an excess of enthusiasm to draw on.

The novel follows in the tradition of Robert A. Heinlein's "juvenile" series of novels for teenagers. That's not to say that Red Thunder is an easy read for adolescents, but it does mean that things are kept slightly simpler (no complex, meandering storyline here) and that there's a distinct lack of "sex and violence" (although, the characters being teenagers, the former is certainly alluded to). To an adult, it just seems a little tame at times.

Anyway, while not, in science fiction terms, quite up with his Eight Worlds novels (which certainly contain non-juvenile elements), this is a solid and enjoyable read. Perhaps a little too much of a slow burner (it doesn't reach space until the final quarter), but it does invest a lot of time putting its characters and their lives into place. For instance, Mannie and Dak, while clever and enthused by the space race, come from unprivileged backgrounds and broken homes. Mannie's family runs a small motel on just the right side of solvency, and his poor Hispanic background causes a number of difficulties, not least with Kelly's rich, but racist, family. Varley fleshes all of these details out gradually, not forcing them, and makes the disparate crew of the Red Thunder one that the reader can really get behind.

Varley also does a great job on some of the fringe details that would surround such an ad hoc mission to Mars. How can you get hold of space suits without making the authorities suspicious? What will said authorities do to you when you land back on Earth? And, most amusingly, what about merchandising? He handles all these playfully, and much as with his last novel, Mammoth, he puts in a dose of political commentary that's very appetising to someone with my persuasions.

Overall very enjoyable, though I'm still looking forwards to Varley's return to his Eight Worlds - that said, poking around on the web, I find that Red Thunder's sequels already hint at a connection with this series!

As a sidenote, having recently been to Florida and seen a launch myself, I appreciated his commentary on the state much more than I otherwise would. I even recognised several of the places he describes, including Everglades City (which really is no city). We even stayed in a Cape Canaveral motel not so dissimilar to the one that Mannie's family toils in.

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