Variable Star is, as described in the preface, “a posthumous collaboration, begun when one of its collaborators was seven and completed when the other was seventeen-years-dead.” Happily, it is not the disaster that one might fear would result from such a situation. Most of the reason for that is the sheer level of talent of the two collaborators: the grandmaster Robert A. Heinlein and the man many believe to be his successor, Spider Robinson.
The story opens with Joel Johnston having what he considers to be a very bad day. After a magical night at the prom his fiancée and the love of his life wants to marry him. Jinny wants to marry him so badly, in fact, that she reveals a secret to him: she is not who he thinks she is. Not the poor orphan he fell in love with, with whom marriage would be a financial uphill struggle, but rather the heiress of the largest financial empire in the history of humanity. She whisks him away to the family’s luxurious hidden compound, introduces him to her family (who find him quite acceptable), and can hardly wait to begin their life together. Joel takes the only rational course available to him – he hops on the next colony ship out of the solar system.
It will be twenty years (from Joel’s perspective, Lorentz demands ninety from everybody Joel left behind) before the ship arrives at its destination, a star which was obscured from human sight before civilization expanded beyond the fixed perspective of Sol. During that time Joel has to not only recover from his Bad Day but also adjust to the life of an interstellar traveller and space colonist. Though he is to be a simple farmer and part-time musician he is surrounded by people with remarkable talents. His roommate is a telepath, capable of the only method of communication back to Sol that can bypass that annoying speed limit of c. He is friends with the Relativists, the humans who actually power the ship’s propulsion through meditation. And he works for the Zog, the master botanist who is probably the only person who can keep a small colony fed on a world that is alien to all the crops they bring with them and thus the key to their survival after landing. Assuming, that is, they live to the end of their trip.
Judged as a Spider Robinson book, however, it is outstanding. I have never read Robinson’s novels for story or plot as, despite a long list of truly excellent short stories, he never really seemed to nail down the best way to pace and structure a full-length novel. I don’t know if it was the influence of Heinlein’s notes or just due to the love and respect Robinson had for his friend that is obvious on every page, but he manages to mostly solve that problem in Variable Star. There are a couple of places where the story starts to get bogged down by Robinson lingering over his favorite themes, but they are usually resolved quickly enough to not damage the overall impact of the book.
But as with most of his books, the real reason you read Variable Star is Spider Robinson’s prose. And as with the other aspects of this book, the extra love and craftsmanship Robinson put into his writing is wonderfully obvious. This book reads like an alternate-universe-Pratchett book, one where he was born in the Bronx and decided to spend his life writing sci-fi about musicians and Buddhism. Robinson (thankfully) manages to repress his love of overly-complex puns and stick to straight up wit and beautiful, expressive language. Even in the places where the plot wanders a bit or the characters stretch credulity you simply do not care because the words themselves are such a joy to read.
I highly recommend Variable Star not just for fans of Heinlein or Robinson, large as those groups may be, but for anybody who loves reading.