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Red Lightning
John Varley
Ace Books, 330 pages

Red Lightning
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: Red Thunder
SF Site Review: The Golden Globe
SF Site Review: The Golden Globe

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Ernest Lilley

Ray Garcia-Strickland is a pretty typical teenager. Which is to say he's bored, bitching about it, and going no place in particular. The fact that he lives on Mars and his folks pioneered interplanetary travel when they were about his age in the previous book (Red Thunder by John Varley) only makes things worse. From where he stands, they don't look much like heroes; just a middle aged couple that's gradually growing apart. But when something hits the Earth moving at a considerable fraction of the speed of light, stirring up a tsunami that wipes out the entire East coast, he finds out what heroes really look like... maybe even by looking in the mirror.

The sudden colonization of Mars was made possible by the invention of a space drive in the first book by Ray's Uncle Jubal, a swamp savant who thinks in more dimensions that pretty much anyone else living. As a result Jubal is now under 24/7 guard as scientists try to reverse engineer the power source he invented, which made space travel a practical reality.

When the big strike hits Earth, Ray's folks pack him and his sister Elizabeth up, pull in a bunch of favors and spend some cash and hop on the next liner back to Earth to see what happened to their families on the Florida coast. Boosting at a rate that makes this a hop of days, they arrive in Orlando to hook up with an old friend of his parents', ex-astronaut Travis Broussard, who happens to have money, connections, and a surplus WWII amphibious Duck, just the sort of vehicle you need to trek across Florida after a tsunami. Across the debris they go, and if all this sounds familiar from watching the news, it was downright eerie for the author, who had written this stuff before Katrina and before the Indonesian tsunami. In his afterword he says it spooked him enough to almost make him stop writing. As it was, he moved the impact point away from his original location... almost exactly where the real tsunami quake hit... and into the Atlantic, which made for a better story.

After their tropical adventure on Earth, the Garcia-Stricklands head back to the Red Planet, where things are still about normal, though the tourist trade has slacked off dramatically. Normal that is, until black spaceships start unloading mercenary troops and call the place home. Then the notion of a nation starts to creep into the minds of the inhabitants of the Red Planet and the hospitality industry rolls out a different sort of welcome for the invaders from Earth.

John Varley blends past fiction, current events and future tech to create a story all his own, but with classic roots in at least a half dozen of Heinlein's juveniles: Starship Troopers, Red Planet, Podkayne of Mars, Between Planets, The Rolling Stones... and even a bit of Waldo... maybe even more than a bit, come to think of it. Varley takes these classics starting points and lays them out against what we know now to see how they hold up.

Interestingly, they hold up pretty well. The future looks more like expected than you might have imagined, though there's a certain amount of chicken and egg going on. If a spaceship can look like anything you want, why not make it look like the ship from Destination Moon? We've already seen precedence for SF's shaping the future, rather than predicting it. William Gibson's Neuromancer was widely adopted by the people who went out and created cyberspace. Who is to say space travel won't someday be full of rakish rockets landing on their tails or docking at circular space stations?

What we don't get is aliens, either extra-solar or Martian. I hope that's not too much of a spoiler, but the truth is that we don't seem to need them to make trouble for ourselves. If you go back and read the beginning of Heinlein's Between Planets you'll find a repressive government casually kicking civil liberties aside on Earth... and it doesn't seem far fetched at all for Varley's near future to have Homeland Security running amok. And of course, just because they're paranoid doesn't mean there's nobody out there to fear. But you can read that part of the story yourself.

I thoroughly enjoyed Red Lightning, and only hope that Varley is planning a third volume where he can continue to test the limits of classic tropes in the asteroid belt and between the stars.

Copyright © 2006 Ernest Lilley

Bio: Ernest Lilley is the editor of SFRevu ( and TechRevu ( and is a freelance editor and photojournalist who regularly writes for science and technology publications. His monthly column, Unleashed Computing, appears in He likes station wagons, roadtrips, and digital photography and currently lives in the Gernsback Continuum with that classic trope of SF, a red headed heroine. He's also the editor of Future Washington, and anthology that came out in 2005 from WSFA press, which features contributions by a number of top ranked authors, including Kim Stanley Robinson and Cory Doctorow.

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