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Red Thunder
John Varley
Ace Books, 411 pages

Bob Warner
Red Thunder
John Varley
John Varley grew up in Texas but now lives lives in Eugene, Oregon with his wife and family. He won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for his novella "The Persistence of Vision," and the Hugo for "The Pusher." He has more Hugo and Nebula nominations than anyone but Robert Silverberg.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Red Thunder
SF Site Review: The Golden Globe
SF Site Review: The Golden Globe
John Varley Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Peter D. Tillman

The first SF book John Varley ever read was Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet. Red Thunder is his tribute to that book, Rocket Ship Galileo, Have Spacesuit -- Will Travel, and all the other wonderful Heinlein juveniles that SF readers of a certain age cut their teeth on.

Anyway, as you've probably figured out, a bunch of likeable Florida teens get together and build a homemade spaceship, a couple decades from now, with the help of a cashiered NASA astronaut and his idiot-savant cousin, Jubal, who has discovered a simple vacuum-energy shunt. With free, unlimited energy, just about anything can fly, even a spaceship made of used railroad tank-cars...

OK, the framing plot doesn't bear close inspection, and the air kinda leaks out of the tale once Red Thunder lifts off, but for 3/4 of the book Red Thunder is GREAT, the Pure Quill, a delight to read. The kid's spaceship would work, given the One Impossible Thing that makes this SF. The other problems of spaceflight were solved long ago, and if you could fly to Mars and back in a week, you wouldn't need sophisticated life support. Watching the crew solve the practical problems of building a spaceship in their garage -- actually a large, vacant warehouse -- and on a tight budget (dollars & time -- see 1) makes for classic golden-age SF.

Once they get to Mars, the story turns perfunctory, as if Varley lost interest. The Chinese and American astronauts are pure cardboard. There's the obligatory Space Rescue, for high drama. There's an oddly-anachronistic bit of Red-baiting, which I found distasteful. Then the return home, to fame and riches. Eh.

Varley's too good a writer to leave the downside of Free Energy! unexamined, and he tosses in a neat bit from Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, but his solution to keeping the dirt-cheap megatons (PyrE) away from the bad guys, while it might work, reads like a United Nations press release. Better to have left that to our imagination, I think. In fact, if I'd been Varley's stern editor, I'd have ended the novel when Red Thunder lands on Mars, and summarized everything that happened later in the Epilogue.

Still, there's more than enough Right Stuff here to make Red Thunder worth reading, though long-time Varley fans may find the book a bit of a letdown. Better, perhaps, to ignore the famous name, and enjoy the tale for what it is, a fine, flawed, nostalgic remake of a childhood classic.

1 Varley uses time pressure for dramatic purposes, but here's what he (and all the space pros) really think about the Space Race:
"Say Columbus took the Apollo route to the New World. He starts off with three ships. Along about the Canary Islands he sinks the first ship, just throws it away, deliberately. And it's his biggest ship. Come to the Bahamas, he throws away the second ship. He reaches the New World.... but his third ship can't land there. He lowers a lifeboat, sinks the third ship, and rows ashore. He picks up a few rocks on the beach, and rows right back out to sea, across the Atlantic.... and at the Strait of Gibraltar he sinks the lifeboat and swims back to Spain with an inner tube around his shoulders."

Copyright © 2003 Peter D. Tillman

Pete Tillman has been reading SF for better than 40 years now. He reviews SF -- and other books -- for Usenet, "Under the Covers", Infinity-Plus, Dark Planet, and SF Site. He's a mineral exploration geologist based in Arizona. More of his reviews are posted at .

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