I first encountered the work of John Varley in the science fiction magazines of the 1970s, which I then had time to read. He was one of a new generation of science fiction writers, like Roger Zelazny and Alexei Panshin for two, who brought a fresh perspective, brilliant ideas, and great storytelling to the field, while at the same time giving nods to and building on the work of the big three SF writers of the previous generation: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Varley always seemed most in tune with Heinlein to me, and as he was one of my favorite writers, I liked that a lot. I’ve continued to follow his work, and his novels and stories never disappoint, they’re all well worth reading.
Of Heinlein’s books, the twelve novels published by Scribners, and intended for young readers, are some of my favorites. Known as the Heinlein Juveniles, they are, in the opinion of many, the best SF books ever written for kids, and among the best written for anyone. A few years ago Varley began a series of novels obviously intended to be an homage to the Heinlein Juveniles, but of course taking advantage of Varley’s own talent and creativity. I bought, read, and loved RED LIGHTNING and RED THUNDER, and ROLLING THUNDER is the third in the series.
Each book follows the adventures of teenage whiz kids who, with the help of a rich friend and his strange but brilliant inventor brother, find a way to build their own spaceship, fly it to Mars, establish a colony there, return to Earth to help out in a great disaster, and in this book, explore the expanding world of the Mars colony through more adventures and disasters, culminating in the launch of a huge starship bound for a new home somewhere beyond our solar system. One interesting thing Varley has done is to feature a new generation of teenagers in each novel. So, the kids from the first book are the parents in the second, and now the grandparents in the third. This allows the social and science fictional elements to advance in leaps while still tying it all together in one family over a period of about 60 years.
The heroine of this book is named Podkayne, unabashedly after a Heinlein heroine of the same name, also from Mars. Heinlein’s book, PODKAYNE OF MARS, is sometimes considered the last of the Heinlein juveniles, though not actually part of the series. Heinlein’s book covers more adult topics than his juveniles, and so does this one, including frank talk about sex, for instance. Varley’s Podkayne is every bit as entertaining as his model, but with a modern sensibility and her own unique attributes. For one thing, she’s a fine singer. For another, she’s in the Martian Navy — we first meet her on Earth at a Martian recruiting station. Like all good Heinlein heroes, she has many fine traits, but patience with idiots is not one of them. Later, Podkayne is sent to the moon of Jupiter called Europa, where the story moves into high gear. Massive alien things of a sort are encountered, disaster erupts, and Podkayne proves her heroism, but is lost deep in the Europan ice.
The third part of the book begins ten years later, and is the most surprising of all, as it ties up some loose plot threads from the first two books, and sets everyone off in a new direction. I won’t say any more, except that I liked everything about this story, and had a wonderful time reading it.
If you’re a Heinlein fan, you’ll want to read these three fine books. If you’re a Varley fan you probably already have. If you like good science fiction, or just good stories, you won’t be disappointed in these. I wouldn’t put them above my favorite Heinlein works, but they certainly belong on the same shelf!