Thursday, 21 May 2009

"Mars sucks"

Back to Mars with John Varley again, this time in Red Lightning, the sequel to his earlier novel, Red Thunder.

Set one generation after the events of Red Thunder, the novel is narrated by Ray Garcia-Strickland, son of the central character and narrator of the earlier novel, Mannie Garcia. While Mars represented the High Frontier in Red Thunder for Mannie and his friends, now it's an over-rated tourist trap: great for a few weeks holiday, but unbearable if you're wedded to it by virtue of your father being among the first to set foot on it. Much like his grandmother does on Earth, Ray's father now runs a hotel on Mars, and Ray and his sister serve as its unpaid staff. But it's a disorganised destination for the tourists who have over-run it, and there's only one place worse as far as Ray is concerned: Earth. But life isn't all bad, where else can you surf down from a moon to the surface of a planet? However, a relativistic impact into the Atlantic Ocean causes disaster for the eastern seaboard of the US, and contact is lost with Ray's grandmother, forcing Ray and his family into a rescue mission from Mars. Not as difficult as it sounds given the squeezer drives created from the force field "bubbles" developed by Ray's "uncle" Jubal, but post-impact Florida is a lawless wasteland while the authorities struggle to restore order. But the known difficulties of the anarchy in Florida pale compared to those when the family returns to Mars. Unnerved by the impact, and by the disappearance of Jubal from his Falkland Island laboratory/prison, a shadowy military force descends on Mars to pressure Ray and his family for information. In the ensuing civil unrest on Mars, its citizens discover, for the first time, a new unity and patriotism. While once the children of Earth, they are now Martians.

Again, much like Red Thunder, this is very much a "juvenile" novel in the tradition of Robert Heinlein. As well as easing up on the more mature elements of sex and violence, the novel has a very straightforward narrative. Also like the earlier novel, it's skilfully written from the perspective of a late teenager and, along with the interplanetary travel, deals with many of the issues that affect young adults the world over. So I'm guessing that it's much more appealing to a younger demographic - not that my reading of it is any way indicative of this.

If there's a downside to the novel it's that, like its predecessor, it's much lighter on science fiction content that Varley's trademark Eight Worlds novels and stories. There are no aliens, no AIs and none of the biotechnology that characterises these "further-future" stories of Varley. The most (only?) science-fictional part is the "squeezer" technology that underlies the societal backdrop of Red Lightning, but this, and the "stopper" technology that appears late on, is described in only vague terms. That said, this is almost certainly a conscious and wise choice by Varley - all too many authors come unstuck when they over-dissect the (typically shoddy) science.

Nonetheless, Varley instead makes the novel rather relevant to some very contemporary themes. The consequences of the impact on Earth have a resonance with both the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, and the flooding of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Meanwhile, the subsequent security crackdown on Mars has uncomfortable echoes of the hasty and illegal measures implemented by the West in the so-called "war on terror". Through these and other contemporary parallels, Varley makes this novel highly relevant to life in the early 21st century. But, to his credit, he doesn't do it with a sledgehammer, he more or less just lays things out for the reader to tease out.

On top of all of the above, Varley's writing is a lot of fun. As with Mannie in Red Thunder, Ray in Red Lightning is a credible and enjoyable guide to take in the future with. Varley's good on language with his protagonists, and you really feel with the books that the narrating characters are both young, and are doing a lot of growing up at the same time. He's also pretty funny at times. One of my favourite lines comes early when Ray, commenting on his father's writing style in Red Thunder, remarks that he won't be copying Mannie's "condescending" way of transcribing Jubal's Cajun speech in Red Lightning (OK, so you had to be there).

Another minor hit for Varley I reckon. While I prefer his more conventional science fiction (and Varley's hardly really conventional), there's a lot to like about this novel, and it's plenty to be getting on with till he returns to the Eight Worlds.

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