Variable Stinks

Two word review: It Stinks.

VARIABLE STAR  was written by Spider Robinson based on notes and an outline discovered in Robert Heinlein’s estate after his death. This is good and bad news.

The good news is, that Spider Robinson does a fine job, an expert job, of evoking in mood and detail the world of Robert Heinlein’s future history. Fans of Heinlein will recognize numberless little references to other RAH tales, including the farmers of Ganymede (FARMER IN THE SKY), the Covenant (METHUSELAH’S CHILDREN), Nehemiah Schudder (IF THIS GOES ON), telepathy between paired twins (TIME FOR THE STARS), line and group marriages (MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS) and even the fashions of garb and address of the ultra-rich are reminiscent of CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY.

The other good news is that the book has a satisfactory ending. Not all plot points are resolved—it is clear from the outset that not all will be—but the basic idea that humanity on Earth must no longer put all its eggs in one basket, an idea very near and dear to the hearts of all Scientifictioneers, becomes the crucial point for the end.

The bad news is twofold: first, the basic plot idea does not lend itself to any plot movement, character development, mystery, intrigue or action, and consequently there is not much to be seen, until about Chapter Nineteen. There is no theme, no deep issues of the human condition are addressed. Instead there is sentimentality, of the shallowest and most narcissistic kind.



The plot idea consists of a young musician in love, discovering his fiancée is fabulously wealthy, and, rather than face the highly-structured and disciplined life a wealthy man would have to bear, he joins a one-way trip to a distant star as a colonist, destined to arrive twenty years later ship time, which, due to Lorenz transformation, will be eighty years or more Earth time. 

This beginning is nicely done, and even has some of the wit and pacing, economy of description and thought-provoking ideas to match some of Heinlein’s better works.

Once our hero leaves Earth, he spends his life aboard a ship, a man in a can, with no drama to see except the internal emotional lives of the shallowest people imaginable. Nothing interesting happens until about Chapter Eighteen. A genius could have made an interesting novel out of this material, but, sorry, Spider Robinson is not the equal of Ted Chiang.

The second problem is that Heinlein writes like a man, an irascible and curmudgeonly man, sometimes an outrageous one, but a man. Robinson writes like a highly-emotional schoolgirl.

Let me make the contrast clear with two scenes selected at random. I picked up my copy of STAR BEAST, and read a scene where the police officer, ordered by the mayor, needs to get the giant extraterrestrial pet and his young teen owner to the courthouse for a hearing. The cop wants the monster moved in the pre-dawn hours, before crowds make the job impossible, but the boy is cranky at being rousted out of bed before the sun, argues with the cop, demands to see a warrant, gets all legalistic on his ass. If you have read any Heinlein you have seen twin brothers of this scene in every Heinlein book: the cranky and smart-mouthed little guy knows his rights and sticks it to the overbearing and impatient official. Some Heinlein characters (Jubal Hershaw) have no other personality aside from this selfsame one-line description: little guy gets his dander up when pushed around by a big guy. In fact, most of Heinlein’s libertarian sexual-liberation propaganda is just a variation of this theme: real men don’t like other people telling them what to do, either in marriage or in business or anywhere else. Like it or hate it, it is a noble and masculine trait.

Let us contrast a scene from VARIABLE STAR, again, taken at random. One of the ship’s Zen-Relativistic engineers has survived a nondescript accident that claimed the lives of two characters whose names I cannot bring to mind. The engineer’s therapist, who here is called by the LeGuinesque New Age term ‘Healer’, is also the therapist of the main character, the deadbeat musician. The engineer stiffly prevents any attempts to talk to him about his pain; he will not ‘open up’ with his feelings. In order to break through this wall, the musician writes a special saxophone solo just for him, and, with the help of the engineer’s loving and concerned friends, buttonholes him in his quarters, and forces him to listen to the heart-felt music. The engineer, in order to resist this love-bombing, makes rude faces at his friends.

I am not making that last part up. The character makes rude faces, sticking out his tongue, and so on, as the means of expressing discontent with this assault upon his dignity. 

Ah, but the sax music sooths the savage breast. “If what I played had had lyrics,” writes our musician about himself, “they would have to be ‘Fuck Death,’ repeated in every human tongue ever spoken.”

Okaaaaay, so it is not exactly poetry.

Finally, our hero with his music penetrates the indifference of the broken, shaken, but ever so sensitive engineer character, who then gets in touch with his true feelings. It all ends with tears of gratitude and a homosexual kiss.

I feel physically ill just typing those words. The tears, oh, the tears of gratitude!

Everyone in this book, when they are not laughing like donkeys, are crying their eyes out. The only time characters show any reserve or self-command is when it is a sign to the reader of mental instability or, in the case of the rich guy, pure evil.

The whole book runs along these lines: it is like reading the journal of a not very deep person in alcoholics anonymous, listening to him talk about himself and his therapy.

It is said that an ancient Chinese sage noticed water, if patiently applied, could wear a hole in a rock, and realized the same technique could bore a hole in a man’s head and kill him. Hence, the legend goes, the Chinese water torture commenced. Now, this book is like that: drip, drip, drip of drippy sentimentalism, half-baked New Age spirituality, and feel-goody hippy dipshit ideas. No one of them by itself is particularly annoying, but the steady drip, drip, drip drives you mad.

Oh, what else can I mention? The main character visits his ‘Healer’ who tells him to exercise and meditate on a serious of paintings which show a skinless man gathering energy in his chakras, becoming one with the energy fields of the universe, until he is one with God and he is God. This is one of the religious ideas regarded as non-threatening in the post-Christian future, and so is allowed. Every few pages, the musician makes some additional wisecrack showing how much he hates Western religions, and how superior New Age Hippy Dippiness is.

Oh, what else? Along those same lines, the quantum ramjet technology used to accelerate the vessel to near-lightspeed requires, as a part of its engine process, a Zen Buddhist monk to meditate while watching the engine core. The mechanism for this is not only not explained, the author goes on for page after page telling us why it cannot be explained. Two objections here: first, any science fiction writer worth his salt can cobble together a workable technobabble explanation to make his imaginary gizmos work. To lend verisimilitude to fiction by means of speculation sounding plausibly scientific is the very definition of the science fiction storeyteller’s craft. So it is merely laziness, or perhaps an insult to the readers, to say, “No one can understand this.” Second, since the author spends an absurd amount of time slamming religion, one wonders why Zen Buddhism, in this universe, just so happens to be the one faith tradition required to make starships go. This is because Zen is a religion acceptable to Spider Robinson, and Christianity is not. One can just imagine what the reaction would be from Spider Robinson if he read a story where the only thing that could make a starship go was a Roman Catholic mass, complete with smells and bells. He would object that such an author was no longer telling a SF story, merely uttering approval for a religious point of view, not engaging in speculative fiction. So is Spider doing here, but the mysticism is a gaseous New-Age type.

Oh what else? How about the scene where the main character, drunk, gets into a fight with two drug-heads, and is so incompetent and foolish handling himself in an emergency, that he, not they, end up in front of the judge. Except judges are too judgmental here: the legal system used aboard ship is a meeting of councilors and coordinators, and the hero gets out of deeper trouble by not saying a word. Then it is off to the therapist for three more chapters of therapy, which might be interesting if the therapist gave good and sound advice, instead of a Baby Boomer idea of advice. Compare this to, I dunno, Mr. Rico in STARSHIP TROOPERS, or Mike the Martian in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, or even Kip in HAVE SPACESUIT. All these heroes get involved in fights, and win or lose, they don’t act like fart-joke comedians.

Oh what else? Let me pull out a quote at random: “Sol Short once told me mankind is divided into two basic sorts: those who find the unknown future threatening—and those who find it thrilling. He says the rupture between those two sides has been responsible for most of the bloodshed in history. If change threatens you, you become conservative in self-defense. If it thrills you, you become a liberal in self-liberation. He says the Threateneds are frequently more successful in the short run, because they always fight dirty. But in the long run, they always lose, because the Thrilled people learn and thus accomplish more.”

I love it when the children tell the grown ups how to run things, don’t you?

This, by the way, is the same character who later is suffering such emotional pain, boo hoo, that he throws a hissy fit when his friends try to comfort his loss, and makes faces at them.

Oh, let us compare this to a quote from G.K. Chesterton: ” My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.”

I should mention that the irony here is that, when the ship is later threatened by…(well, I won’t give that surprise away) … and the people actually ARE threatened, the talk turns to thoughts of how to fight the threat, and our dink main character, for once, starts talking like a Heinlein man, about how to fight, instead of like a schoolgirl, talking about how to heal. Of course this does not last long: the whole point of the “Thrilled” point of view, of course, is that it does not change when new data are available. Think I am kidding? Read on.

Oh, how about another quote? Here is our Zen Buddhist monk, calming the ship after a disaster of unimaginable proportions, cautioning them against wrath and vengeance. The Thrilled people never react to sneak attacks with anything but talk of therapy and healing.

Zen boy uses for an example a period in history when “… fanatical extremist Muslims from a tiny nation committed a great atrocity against a Christian superpower. Suicide terrorists managed to horribly murder thousands of innocent civilians. The grief and rage of their surviving compatriots must have been at least comparable to what we all feel now.

“Intelligently applied, that much national will and economic force could have easily eliminated every such fanatic from the globe. At that time, there were probably less than a hundred that rabid, and by definition they were so profoundly stupid or deranged as to be barely functional. It was always clear their primitive atrocity had succeeded so spectacularly only by the most evil luck.

“We all know what the superpower chose to do instead. It crushed two tiny bystander nations, killing some dozens of actual terrorists, and hundreds of thousands of civilians as innocent as their own dead loved ones had been. The first time it was suggested that the nation’s leaders had perhaps known about the terror plot and failed to give warning. The second invasion didn’t even bother with an excuse, even though that nation had been famously hostile to terrorists. Both nations were Muslim, as the nineteen killers had been: that was enough. The nation nearly all of them had actually come from remained, inexplicably, almost the only Muslim ally the superpower had in that region.

“The generation of a large planetary web of enraged Muslim extremists was so inevitable it is difficult for us now to conceive of the minds that did it. They were some of the most intelligent and humane people on the planet. What could they have been thinking?

“Of course they were not. They were feeling.

“They were a superpower, and monotheist…”

It goes on in like vein for another page.

Now, I suppose one could argue that this is merely Spider Robinson impersonating Heinlein’s writing trick of showing how much time had passed by having the common men misremember famous historical events, such as the scene in CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY where Lincoln is conflated with Washington.

Or, one could argue that Spider Robinson is a far-left Chomsky-style lunatic, so far out of touch with reality that his contempt for a formidable foe (“by definition deranged”…? ) is matched only by his woeful ignorance of current events. (So the 9/11 attacks, the bombings in Bali, Spain, London, were achieved only by bad luck, was it? Here is a delerium of invulnerability.)

But notice how he manages to get in a little dig against Christianity. (“They were a superpower, and monotheist…”). Yes, yes, if we were all happy agnostic hippies, 9/11 never would have happened, Spidey. You go on believing that.

And notice how he manages, like all good little Lefty smugbots, to pat himself on the back on how smart he is. If the War on Terror had been intelligently run, it would have been easily over by now? This, from the mouth of a character who cannot draw a distinction between the terrorist bombers and the nation states who were supporting and encouraging them?

As if someone were to criticize World War II like so: “We all know what the superpower chose to do after the attack on Pearl Harbor by oriental aircraft pilots. It crushed three tiny bystander nations, killing some dozens of actual aircraft pilots, and hundreds of thousands of civilians as innocent as their own dead loved ones had been. The first time it was suggested that the Japanese nation’s leaders had perhaps known about the attack and failed to give proper declaration of war. The second invasion, this one in Europe, didn’t even bother with an excuse, even though that nation had been famously hostile to the Japanese, and to all non-Aryan races. The third nation was Italy, not involved in any way. The superpower allied with China, inexplicably, almost the only ally the superpower had in that region that also employed oriental aircraft pilots.”

Oh, and what else? Did I mention the unrelenting hatred of Christianity that crops up, over and over again, in the middle of conversation having nothing to do with it? Here is a quote. This is in the middle of a conversation about solar anomalies:

Herb said, “He’s saying it’s a religious question.”

Pat looked scandalized.

“Everyone is going to end up with a firm opinion, based on intuition, but nobody is going to be able to defend his. The first scraps of hard data [are not available].”

“I just hate to use the word religion in this context. It makes my skin crawl.”

The conversation turns to whether the anomalies could be the by-product of a highly-advanced alien species, using some unknown technology:

“Oh, Herb, no!”

He nodded. “Intelligent design.”

Pat tried to speak, but could only sputter.

“That’s exactly why, too,” Herb said, “For some reason, we let the god-botherers appropriate that term as a euphemism for their stupid deities, and let our revulsion for the latter cloud our understanding for the former.”

One must assume all thoughtful men of faith reading this book are in the same position as an African American reading a book that went, “Nigger, nigger, nigger, I hate the niggers: Their thick lips, their funny smells…” over and over again. It is not a writing style conducive to books sales beyond one’s fellow travelers and ideological mates.

I actually admire the unselfconscious perfection of the self-congratulation in the phrase “we let the god-botherers appropriate that term”. It implies that “we”, the invulnerable Leftist intellectual juggernaut, had the right, the capacity, and the willingness to control the vocabulary and dialog of other men, to permit and to forbid the use of certain words, but that a blameworthy negligence on their part allowed the wicked Christians to get away with a malfeasance–for using such words as they, the hoi polloi, not we, the self-annoited elite, were pleased to use. (When I say, ‘admire’, of course I mean ‘stare aghast’, as if at some malformed Quasimodo at a freak show, if Quasimodo had himself twisted his limbs out of proportion, and placed the hunch with pride upon his own back, thinking it a crown.)

Oh, what else? Heinlein could write a lecture to leave a reader on the edge of his seat. When it is Robinson’s turn to do this, he has Wise Old Character talking to Screwed Up Young Drunk Musician about the planet they’re heading toward, and instead of presenting the information in any interesting way, he has Musician stop once and twice and three times to tell the reader that this is a lecture and therefore boring.

Oh, what else? There is the little girl on the hoverboard I thought something would later be made something of, perhaps she would grow into the fine young bride intended for our hero while Lorenz compresses his years? Or I thought the world of Bravo described in such loving detail, a realistic-souding place, an interesting spot to hold a story, would come on stage? I was interested to see how the colonists would cope. Nope. Two scenes were wasting setting up these plot threads, which were dropped and not taken up again.

Oh, what else? Another drip-drop of the Chinese water torture is hearing about the main character’s love life. Since he ran away from his true love and vowed never to look at another woman, I kind of thought, you know, he would keep his oath and be a hero, or something. No, no, no: he is just is baby-boomer me-generation asshole who does not mean it when he takes an oath. So he is chasing skirt for a chapter or two, but the writer decides to make these scenes as boring as possible, by having Screwed Up Young Drunk Musician stop once and twice and three times to tell the reader that hearing about someone else’s love life is boring. Gee, I wonder how the romance book industry manages it. The trick cannot be that hard to learn, Mr. Robinson.

Oh, and main character fellow is so shallow, so very shallow. He fornicates with one wench (outside of wedlock, of course, since we are all hip and cool drug-taking sexually liberated dipshits here, aint we?) has the normal human reaction of feeling some companionship and sympathy for the woman (since only an animal, or James Bond, can make love to a woman without feeling some form of love, howsoever debased), and then she says she is sleeping with everyone else on the ship, and can pencil him in for more cheap meaningless sex two months from now. Are we supposed to feel, what, sympathy for this?

Oh, and the writing is shallow, so very shallow. Another woman invites our hero, the Screwed Up Young Drunk Musician, out on a date, but she is not really dating him, she was just leading him on so that she could tell him she was getting married. To a group of people.

The handling of the romantic interest in the book leave me wondering if the author knows any women or has talked to any women. They don’t act this way. Maybe the sexually liberated nymphs of the future simply bounce without thought from partner to partner, hetero or homo or both… in your dreams, fanboy.

Oh, and what else?

The whole idea is wrong, wrong. The proposition of a group of baby boomers in therapy as the crew of a new colony is enough to make one laugh, if the conceit were not so sad. Real colonists, like the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, or the pioneers out West, were folk of iron character, men and women both, self-reliant, highly religious, honorable, stern, productive. The idea of this shipload of self-pitying, self-indulgent shallow little dinks carving a new world out of harsh and indifferent nature is beyond absurd. 

Never underestimate the power of hate as a motivator. The only reason why I was able to force myself, against immense natural inclination, to reach the last weary page of this dismal book, was hate. I hate this book. I wanted to finish it so that I could express a justified and warranted opinion about the whole composition.

But I am glad I did. The author—almost—managed to save my good opinion.

Much of my annoyance with the author evaporated in the last three or four chapters, because the plot threads laid down in the beginning chapters were taken up again. The big surprise at the end is an idea I have seen before in A.E. van Vogt’s FAR CENTAURUS, but I still liked it. The solution to Fermi’s paradox was also interesting, but, again, I had seen it before in Greg Bear’s ANVIL OF STARS, but, again, I still liked it. Both of these points were good science fiction writing, as was the plot tension over what is to be done with the rich man’s space yacht, which might contain the secret for the survival of the whole doomed starship.

The main bad guy turns out to the be rich guy, but Mr. Rich Uncle Pennybags from the Monopoly game is always the bad guy in any book written according to strictly orthodox Leftist talking points, so I expected that.

Let me tell you why I liked the ending, despite how much I hated the boring, preachy, childish, sentimental middle. The books ends on an Heinlein note: mankind is not to be wiped out by disaster; we are not to give up. Our inventiveness, our will to survive, comes to the fore. Beyond all hope and expectation, the two young lovers are reunited, and they spend their lives helping to maintain the fragile links binding Earth’s widely-scattered colonies against a hostile universe.


Ah, what a good ending. This is a beautiful note on which to end any science fiction book: in the end the stars will be ours.

Despite a good beginning, despite a satisfactory ending, despite a skillful evocation of the Future History background of Bob Heinlein, the book stinks. The middle sections are just too boring, too preachy, too sentimental, too girlish.

There is an afterward by Spider Robinson in which he explains how the book came to be written. I must confess his evident love and respect for Robert Heinlein shines through on these pages, and I feel a great human sympathy to any author attempting to follow in the footsteps of a giant.

I cannot hate this author, but by Klono’s brazen claws I dearly hate this book. Indeed, I salute Robinson for the boldness of his attempt, the greatness of what he tried to do, even though, in my eyes, he failed pathetically.

But don’t take my word for it! Despite the 3000 words I have just spent venting my opinion, none of the flaws in the book were structural. All my complaints are stylistic. By this I mean, a person who was simply not bothered by the drip of the Chinese Water Torture, or who, better yet, share Mr. Robinson’s quaint and soon-to-be-forgotten Baby-boomer world view, to them it will be as drops of wine.

Despite everything I disliked about this book, it was joyful, yes, joyful to visit Robert Heinlein’s old universe once again.

Numfar! Do the Dance of Joy!