Robinson-Heinlein mix natural in ‘Variable Star’

The idea of one writer picking up the pre-planned novel of an author who has passed doesn’t sit easy with me, and, I would imagine, with most readers. It’s just not going to be the same as it would have been had the original writer run with the concept, and sometimes those gaps or failings are going to be glaring. Plus, it feels disrespectful to the work of the dead artist.

Unless, apparently, you are Spider Robinson taking over a Robert Heinlein project. In which case everything comes up roses.

Heinlein wrote the notes and outline for the book Variable Star in 1955, got distracted by other work and never came back to it. After the death of Heinlein’s wife, the notes were found by Heinlein’s children, Robinson was offered the chance to complete the project, and Variable Star hit bookshelves in 2006.

It’s really a terrific mix of the two authors. Orphaned teen Joel is ready to set out and become a musician, gets his world rocked by his love interest that jump starts a massive identity crisis, and instead jumps on the first spaceship he can find to travel light years away to be a colonist on a previously unsettled planet. If you’ve ever read any Heinlein, you know it isn’t that straightforward. The requisite Heinlein oddities and twists are all there. There were even moments where Robinson truly captured Heinlein’s voice, and those times usually left me laughing.

What’s great about it is that Robinson, while staying very much true to Heinlein’s story and style, is also able to add his own touches that really round out the work. One example that strikes me is when Joel starts to have a mental breakdown and is forced to seek counseling. Heinlein had a more brusque style, I think in part generational and in part the natural outcome of a writer who was trying to crank out product to feed his family. Plus, I think Heinlein tended to get excited about the concept and was less into creating nuanced characters of great depth, because that wasn’t what he was about. Robinson adds a sensitivity that Heinlein probably wouldn’t have, creating sympathy for Joel as he tries to find his way after having his world rocked. In other chapters, where there is less action and more of Joel figuring out who he is and what he is or should be doing, Robinson’s hand is felt similarly, keeping the story interesting as well as letting it move at the leisurely pace someone on a long spacecraft voyage would be operating at.

If you’re a Heinlein fan and you have any doubts, don’t. Yes, it’s not a Heinlein novel in the purest sense. It’s a collaboration, and because of that, it’s a beast all its own. But what a beautiful beast it is.

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