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Literature: Variable Star

What do you do when the Grand Master of science fiction leaves behind incomplete notes on a book never written? Give them to the man recognized as his disciple and tell him to get cracking. The result is recognizably the product of two minds, begun before one was born and finished after the other died. It received mixed reviews. The basic structure of the story is very much that of Heinlein's juveniles, which is what Heinlein intended it to be when he plotted it; a young man goes to the stars, and there he finds himself. Much of the story is very much not that of a Heinlein juvenile; there's sex and drugs and the main character is a musician, not an engineer-slash-soldier of fortune. As Heinlein was plotting it during his time as a writer for teen sci-fi magazines, it's likely the other elements were added by Spider Robinson.

Joel Johnston knows what he wants: to be a musician, composer, and conductor; to study music on scholarship at a fantastic school; to marry his darling girlfriend Jinny. Unfortunately, things take a serious left turn and he finds himself fleeing the solar system on a Generation Ship leaving for the star Peekaboo. He loafs a bit, he drinks a bit, he sluts a bit; then things go seriously wrong.


This novel provides examples of:

  • Alien Sky: Anticipated, discussed, never seen.
  • All Monks Know Kung-Fu: Somewhat justified. He's not quite a monk, but he is Buddhist, and rather than Kung Fu, he practices a Japanese martial art. Because he's Japanese.
  • All Planets Are Earth-Like: Somewhat justified, as we're talking about colonization efforts. Also, somewhat averted as the planet the Sheffield is going to is actually quite different. Its gravity is much lower, and therefor it can only be habitable with a much higher oxygen percentage (thinner atmosphere, more of it has to be O2), and therefor it can only be habitable if it has a much higher humidity (to keep everything from catching on fire), etc.
  • Artificial Intelligence: A more realistic treatment than usual; the computers are computers, albeit remarkably sophisticated. They're treated as marvelous machines, but never alive.
  • Asteroid Miners: It's a Heinlein story.
  • Big Fancy House: The Conrad estate.
  • Binary Suns: Peekaboo is a binary star system, but the second sun is far enough from the colony planet that it won't be a problem; but it will be brighter than the moon is on Earth.
  • Black Box: How the Relativistic Drive works. It's treated as a Black Box in the text, and Robinson explicitly calls that in a note after the text.
  • Boarding Party: Conrad's final appearance.
  • The Bridge: Where the climax of the novel occurs, but never seen beforehand.
  • Burial in Space: Surprisingly averted. The dead are instead buried. In dirt. On the farm.
  • But Not Too Bi/No Bisexuals: There are many heterosexual encounters and some important and positive homosexuals. Joel at one point mentions a gay relationship on his own part and describes himself as het-bi, but apart from that one relationship, is almost exclusively hetero.
  • Cabin Fever: when the simulator goes down, people go a little stir crazy; then they start making their own entertainment and are fine.
  • Cant Get Away With Nothing: Every time Joel does something stupid in the book, it comes back to bite him in the ass, usually in a pretty major way. Granted, this is in large part because the mistakes he's making are due to the fact that he's got some serious emotional issues, and keeps trying to run away from his problems. His screw-ups also tend to be fairly spectacular, again because of his emotional troubles.
  • Cassandra Truth / You Wouldn't Believe Me If I Told You: Averted. When Joel gets around to explaining how he ended up on the Sheffield, his friends more or less accept what he says at face value. This is mostly because they all figured that he had to be running away from something fairly huge to be as messed up as he is.
  • Coming of Age Story: For Joel.
  • Compound Interest Time Travel Gambit: Of a sort. The banker on board the Sheffield helps everyone on board (with the necessary funds) to take advantage of Time Dilation.
  • Cosy Catastrophe: Straight and averted. The complete destruction of the solar system leaves the denizens of the Sheffield alive, but they're very much not unaffected by it.
  • Dark Action Girl: Conrad's bodyguard.
  • Death by Transceiver: Telepaths are aware of the sudden, tragic deaths of their twins.
  • Despair Event Horizon: After the Earth-Shattering Kaboom, things are bad. Then they lose their third relativist, meaning they can never land and will all be dead in a few generations. That's when the suicides start.
    • It turns out that the astronomer was driven to this almost immediately after the Sheffield left Earth and never told anyone. He realized that the measurements he took as they left meant the solar system was going to be destroyed. He quietly got addicted to the simulator and when that failed he became a hardcore alcoholic before committing suicide.
  • Driven to Suicide: The unstable astronomer, after the destruction of the solar system.
    • Also one of the Relativists, dooming the ship to travel through space at near-light speed for all eternity. The exact reason for his suicide is never given, as his suicide note is deleted sight-unseen, but he had never been very stable at the best of times.
  • Duet Bonding: How Joel's musical talent is introduced to the ship; an unexpected duet with an unseen partner.
  • Epic Rocking: Joel's Master Piece. Fifteen minutes of sustained saxophone.
  • Exact Words: See Oh Crap.
  • Failure-to-Save Murder: Mr Jackson laments that he didn't invent his FTL drive sooner.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: A marvelous breakthrough, just in time.
  • Fiction500: Conrad, of course. Joel as well, eventually.
  • First Girl Wins: Somewhat. The first girl introduced in the book does not. But the first girl Joel meets in the course of the narrative does.
  • Generation Ship: The starship Sheffield on which Joel flees the solar system.
    • Though thanks to time dilation, even though the ship is slated to take 80+ years to get to Brazil Novo, to the ship's passenger's it would seem like only 20 years had passed. Some of them do decide to have children in transit, however, partly so they'll be old enough to work as farmhands when the colonists land.
  • Heavyworlder: Inverted. Joel grew up on Ganymede, with gravity 1/3rd Earth's, which made him ideal for the Sheffield.
  • Gold Digger: Conrad implies that Joel is this, just a bit, without condemning him for it. Joel can't tell if that was an insult to him or to Jinny, not least because he was completely unaware of the money.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Telepathy only happens between identical twins. Herb's twin is his sister... Given the sensibilities of the author, this could be half identical twins or a trans woman. Or a genetic disorder.
  • Heel Realization: Almost everyone on Conrad's ship once they understood his plan.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Herb, in order to help save everyone aboard the Sheffield.
  • High Heel-Face Turn: Of a sort. Once Ms. Robb understands just what Conrad of Conrad's real plan is, she turns on him and kills to make sure he fails.
  • High Times Future: Marijuana is openly grown on the farming deck. Though opium is apparently still illegal as Joel gets mad when some guys ask him to grow poppy flowers, he may have misheard them as the security recording indicated a genetically engineered plant called "happy hour", which is legal.
  • Hollywood Economics: The time travel gambit, Joel's sudden wealth... what does any of it matter when they're traveling 80 light years and everyone's going to be a dirt farmer at the other end? And how do the backers expect to profit?
    • However, this reflects the same thing that happened with the colonization of the Americas, particularly the English colonies. Companies were founded and funded with the hopes of making big profits... somehow. Most didn't pan out.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Ms. Robb. Her boss isn't incompetent, far from it, but she has to be very, very good at many things to be his Enabler.
  • Hyperspeed Escape: Why Conrad shows up.
  • Improv: Joel's a jazz saxophonist; this is part and parcel.
  • Incredibly Long Note: Joel's Master Piece is an improvised piece involving circular breathing, thus no phrase ever ends, but segues into the next.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Joel attempts to cope with discovering the truth about Jinny by going on an epic bender. He goes on another one during his first week on the Sheffield. Neither one lasts long, because he's flat broke after the first binge, and the second one lasts only as long as his alcohol ration.
  • Interplanetary Voyage: The vast majority of the story takes place aboard the Sheffield.
  • Invisible Aliens: Mentioned early on, then becomes more significant without ever answering the questions involved.
  • King Incognito: In a story, how Jinny reveals her background.
  • Lightspeed Leapfrog: Their relativistic ship gets rescued by the first FTL ship.
  • Lost Colony: A variant, rather than losing a colonized planet, a Generation Ship falls off the radar (having lost its telepaths and its Relativists).
  • Lonely Rich Kid: Evelyn.
  • Lower-Class Lout: Played with with the two transportees who approach Joel about growing illegal drugs (sort of like space weed). They're lower class, underachieving, on the wrong side of the law, but they're not inveterate criminals.
  • Money to Throw Away: Joel doesn't go crazy, but he does fix up the cubic he shares with his roommates, making all of them more comfortable.
  • Naming Your Colony World: And its moons. Actually a discussion in-universe. The colony was technically and formally named "Brasil Novo" (New Brazil), but this was rapidly shortened to "Bravo". The moons were originally Phobos and Deimos, but were changed to those of famous musicians.
  • No Seat Belts: Justified. If you need them at 0.97c, you don't need them. And when things go wrong on the Sheffield, gravity turns off and people float, they don't fly into walls.
  • Non-Idle Rich: The Conrads. They're richer than Croesus, but they put themselves through hellishly difficult educations and work for the money. For all of their medically extended lives. However, see Rich Idiot with No Day Job.
  • Not With Them For The Money: Joel's completely unaware of it. And when he is, he has to flee.
  • Oh Crap: There are a few such moments. It's a surprisingly dark book.
    • When Joel finally twigs to the fact that Jinny is the scion of the wealthiest family ever to live, Conrad. Part of this realization is that their car ride back to her apartment is taking such a very long time because her Exact Words were to instruct the car to take her home.
    • Most of the way through the book, with the catastrophic destruction of the solar system, and all but a few thousand human beings.
    • A short time later when the Sheffield's relativistic drive fails, dooming everyone on board.
  • Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: Religion for the most part is dead and buried in the novel's setting. See Religion of Evil below for more details.
  • Organization with Unlimited Funding: The Conrads.
  • Polyamory: Mentioned in passing as one of the marriage options available on the Sheffield.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!. "The time. For fear. Is past now."
  • Religion of Evil: The historical perspective is that the restrictive theocracy of Nehemiah Scudder was particularly vile, and the society of Earth is presented as having moved beyond religion and viewing monotheism and religion as being a backwards and rather unpleasant thing. Buddhism is still alive and well, thanks to the author not realizing that theism and religion aren't exactly synonymous.
  • Rich Idiot with No Day Job: If you marry a Conrad and end up not being useful to the family, they'll pension you off.
  • Secretly Wealthy: Jinny.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Joel's response to being offered a position in a family that owns, roughly, one quarter of all human wealth is, "No thank you, I want to make my own way."
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Conrad's way of life.
  • She Is All Grown Up: When Evelyn shows back up.
  • Songs of Solace: After some good friends die, you might need cheering up.
  • Standard Time Units: The fact that Brasil Novo has a slightly different length day, differing seasons, etc comes up, but never really becomes important to the story.
  • Starship Luxurious: Averted. Nowhere on the ship is there space enough for even the paltry 500 citizens aboard.
  • Telepathy: Limited to identical twins, and used to overcome the speed of light limitation for communication.
  • Time Dilation: They end up traveling roughly 0.97c.
  • Twin Telepathy: Telepathy is only available to identical twins.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: Of a sort; Joel's stock turns out to be not worthless. Instead, it suddenly makes him very wealthy.
  • Yes-Man: Rennick.
  • You Did Everything You Could: The general response to Mr Jackson's feelings of guilt.

Tunnel in the SkyCreator/Robert A. HeinleinWaldo
The Vampire EarthScience Fiction LiteratureVenus
Vanishing ActsLiterature of the 2000sVarjak Paw

alternative title(s): Variable Star
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