- For the astronomical object, see Variable star.
|Author||Robert A. Heinlein & Spider Robinson|
|Cover artist||Stephan Martinière|
|September 19, 2006|
|Media type||Print (hardcover)|
|LC Class||PS3515.E288 V37 2006|
Variable Star is a 2006 science fiction novel by American author Spider Robinson, based on the surviving seven pages of an eight-page 1955 novel outline by the late Robert A. Heinlein († 1988). The book is set in a divergent offshoot of Heinlein's Future History and contains many references to works by Heinlein and other authors. It describes the coming of age of a young musician who signs on to the crew of a starship as a way of escaping from a failed romance. Robinson posted a note on his website in 2009 noting that his agent had sold a trilogy of sequels based on the novel and its characters.
From Heinlein to Robinson
Robinson states in an appendix to the book that he was working from an outline that lacked an ending. He was told by his publisher that they wanted him to write in his own style, not Heinlein's, and the abundance of profanity and puns makes it clear that this is not a Heinlein novel. The outline is almost exactly contemporaneous with Heinlein's juvenile novel Time for the Stars, and shares many of its details, such as the use of faster-than-light telepathic communication between twins. Although Heinlein apparently wrote the outline for Variable Star to be used, like Time for the Stars, as part of his Scribner's juvenile series, Robinson's realization deals with a variety of topics, including drugs and sexuality, that would have been completely unacceptable for a juvenile novel in 1955. Heinlein's original title for Variable Star was The Stars are a Clock.
Eighteen-year-old aspiring musician and composer Joel Johnston, a Ganymedean on Earth for his education, falls in love with fellow college student Jinny Hamilton. Both are orphans, and virtually penniless. When Jinny decides their relationship is ready for marriage, she reveals that she is actually Jinnia Conrad, a granddaughter of humanity's richest man, Richard Conrad. Joel learns that Conrad has already mapped out his future; he is to be groomed for a role in the family business and to produce children to continue the dynasty. Preferring to pursue his own destiny, he flees the Conrad estate with the help of Jinny's cousin, seven-year-old Evelyn.
To escape the Conrads and their vast reach, Joel joins the crew of the RSS Charles Sheffield. The ship is headed to a distant star on a 20-year voyage to establish a colony, one of several scattered dozens of light-years from Earth. With experience from his family farm, Joel works as a farmer for the ship's crew of 500 and as a part-time musician. He regularly corresponds with Evelyn through the twins on board who maintain contact with Earth via telepathy with their siblings.
Six "relativists" are essential to the voyage, controlling the ship's quantum ramjet drive with their minds. The drive has to run continuously; at relativistic speeds, it is nearly impossible to restart it, and then only for a short period after it has stopped. Each relativist can only stand the strain reliably for six hours a day. Five years into the voyage, one is killed and another mentally incapacitated, leaving only four and no margin for error.
The next year, the Sheffield learns through its telepaths that the Sun has gone nova, killing everyone in the solar system. A wavefront of deadly gamma radiation is expanding at lightspeed, threatening the colonies that are all that is left of humanity. The crew is only able to warn one colony in time; the rest are doomed. The Sun going nova is contrary to all astrophysical theories, and because over 90% of the sun's mass was converted into energy, it is speculated that an alien species caused the disaster. Unable to bear the catastrophe, one of the relativists commits suicide. Despite the other three's efforts, the quantum ramjet drive soon shuts down. The Sheffield will not be able to stop; it will coast by its intended destination at 97.6% of the speed of light.
A vessel overtakes the ship, however; Jinny married a genius scientist who has developed a revolutionary faster-than-light drive. Only one experimental ship exists, capable of carrying ten people; aboard are several Conrads, including the domineering Richard, Jinny, her husband, and Evelyn, who has aged faster than Joel because of time dilation. She is now 19, and explains that she persuaded her grandfather into coming to get him. Conrad proposes an evacuation plan, shuttling people to their destination planet nine at a time. Joel realizes that Conrad is lying; he only contacted the Sheffield to obtain needed supplies and has no intention of returning. The businessman needs to establish control of the colonies and cannot spare the time. Conrad is defeated and the faster-than-light engine is transferred to the Sheffield.
Joel and Evelyn marry, then join the mission to warn the other colonies of the coming radiation wave. Joel decides to stay in space with his wife and child, rather than becoming planet-bound.
The book received mixed reviews. SFF World felt it was written as though Heinlein himself were alive today, as it includes modern cultural references such as The Simpsons, but also noted some missteps, such as a section which reads,
Loving Zog’s Farms was another profound connection, one that went back in time almost as far as music. Plunging hands into soil together is very close to thrusting them into one another. And of course both of us were simultaneously fertile and ripe, a paradox whose metaphorical impossibility accurately reflects the turmoil of that condition.
Sci-Fi Dimensions was more enthusiastic, saying, "Variable Star is both a worthy continuation of the Heinlein legacy and a darn fine Spider Robinson novel to boot."  Nicholas Whyte of Strange Horizons says, "This is, frankly, not a great book." He criticizes the opening chapters, a sentiment expressed by other reviewers such as SFF World, calling them atrocious.
To Heinlein's works
- The period of the story appears to have a culture and technology consistent with Heinlein's Future History after the Interregnum of the Prophets, including many references to the Interregnum and to Nehemiah Scudder, the First Prophet, most notably appearing in the Heinlein novelette "If This Goes On". The history appears to have been altered slightly, in that "If This Goes On" states that the Prophets only took over the United States, whereas Variable Star suggests that it was a global dominion. The main exception (other than that noted in the plot summary) is inconsistencies between Variable Star, particularly where it mentions the New Frontiers, and Methuselah's Children, Heinlein's Future History novel about that starship. For instance, in Variable Star the Howard Families are absent (or remain in hiding). Also, in Methuselah's Children, the New Frontiers leaves Earth in 2136 and returns in 2210, while in Variable Star, the ship is presumed lost when the story opens in 2286.
- Mars and Venus are both settled by humans and have intelligent natives: Venerian dragons (Between Planets) and three-legged Martians (Red Planet, Stranger in a Strange Land), there are cities "in Luna" (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress) and on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn (Farmer in the Sky). The Moon was first reached by Leslie LeCroix, backed by D. D. Harriman (The Man Who Sold the Moon). The asteroids are also settled (The Rolling Stones).
- Starships communicate instantaneously using telepaths, usually twins, as in Time for the Stars.
- The character is from the farm colony of Ganymede, and his home—Lermer City—is a reference to Bill Lermer in Farmer in the Sky.
- Relativist Solomon Short (a character conceived by David Gerrold for interstitial aphorisms in his Chtorr novels) is a play on Lazarus Long, a character in several of Heinlein's novels. Sheffield, the name of the ship in Variable Star, is an alias used by Lazarus Long in Methuselah's Children and Time Enough for Love, although as noted below, the ship was named after noted science fiction novelist Charles Sheffield, a friend of Heinlein's.
- Jinny's husband, Andrew Jackson Conrad, may be Andrew Jackson Libby (taking on the Conrad surname, as Joel was told he would if he married Jinny); Libby is the inventor of an "inertialess" drive in Methuselah's Children. This drive, an "irrelevancy drive", is mentioned again in Time Enough for Love as the propulsion system for the Dora, the star yacht of Lazarus Long; the same term is applied to the drive of the Mercury, the ship built by Andrew Jackson Conrad.
- A passenger on the Sheffield - Balvovatz - has a Russian name, comes from Luna, is called a "Loonie", and speaks in the clipped manner of Loonies from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
- At one point, Joel has a (drug-induced) vision of Jinny, in which her description matches the red-haired Hazel Stone, who appears in The Rolling Stones, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and other novels; in the same passage, Joel states that Jinny's eyes were "hazel, stoned, rolling".
- Early in the novel, Jinny says that "after a dance like that, a couple ought to get married". This is nearly the wording and exactly the spirit of Zebediah Carter's proposal to Dejah Thoris Burroughs in The Number of the Beast.
- Hideo Itokawa, one of the ship's Relativists, says during a speech, "Beaten and robbed of your banana by a bigger ape or a more clever chimp...you find some smaller, stupider primate, beat him, and steal his banana." This line is very similar to the scene from Stranger in a Strange Land during which the protagonist, Valentine Michael Smith, comes to understand humans and laughter.
- The name "Conrad of Conrad" parallels "Rudbek of Rudbek" in Citizen of the Galaxy; both are the male heads of almost inconceivably wealthy families. It is also a style used in Alfred Bester's 1956 novel, The Stars My Destination.
- Joel meets Evelyn when she is a little girl, but time passes more slowly for him and he marries her as an adult. This is similar to Dan and Ricky in The Door into Summer, and Tom Bartlett and his great-grandniece Vicky Bartlett in Time for the Stars.
- Like Dan, Joel is given medicine to sober him up and turned away the first time he tries to make a drastic, life-changing decision.
To other works
- The relativists who power the Sheffield's engine appear in an earlier Robinson story, though not under that title. The main character of the story is a relativist, who also invents time travel.
- Joel meets his first date on board when he is playing music and she accompanies him without him seeing her. This is similar to how Jake meets his wife in Robinson's Callahan stories.
- The characters Richie and Jules are references to the TV series Trailer Park Boys, which has as its main characters Ricky and Julian. Jules, like Julian, carries a drink at all times, and when the two are apprehended they give their names as "Corey Trevor and Jay Rock", other Trailer Park Boys characters. Finally their legal counsel is "Lahey", yet another Trailer Park Boys character.
- Conrad of Conrad's major domo, Alex Rennick, is called "Smithers" by Jinny, a reference to Waylon Smithers of The Simpsons.
- Survivor Gerald Knave is mentioned during the first town hall. Knave is the main character in a series of books by Laurence Janifer. The last Knave novel Janifer wrote has a plotline where Knave is hired to verify the authenticity of a just-found, never published Heinlein novel, "Stone Pillow", that Heinlein listed in his Future History timeline but never wrote. It would have been the novel that introduced the Prophet, Nehemiah Scudder.
- One of the last lines of the book is a quote from Tennyson's Ulysses:
- ... my purpose holds
- To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
- Of all the western stars, until I die.
The last Heinlein novel published in his life was To Sail Beyond the Sunset, which included and drew its title from this quote.
To real people
- Several characters appear to be Tuckerizations of science fiction and fantasy authors, including George R.R. Martin. The colony's Governor-General, Lawrence Cott, is clearly a reference to Larry Niven (whose full name is Laurence van Cott Niven), and Cott's lifemate, Perry Jarnell, is equally clearly a play on Niven's frequent collaborator, Jerry Pournelle.
- The quotes that begin chapters seventeen and eighteen are attributed to "Anson McDonald", on the occasion of "Anson McDonald Day". Anson McDonald is one of Heinlein's pseudonyms, and the afterword states that these quotes are actually Robert Heinlein's, delivered on Robert Heinlein Day.
- The ship-board astronomer "Matty Jaymes" shares a suspicious number of traits with UBC astronomer Jaymie Matthews, who is credited in the Afterword as one of Spider's principal consultants on the book.
- The works of the artist Alex Grey and various jazz musicians, notably the saxophonists Stan Getz and Colin MacDonald, are discussed in the novel.
- The ship is named after the late science fiction author Charles Sheffield.
- "Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein - Official sffworld.com review". Archived from the original on January 1, 2007. Retrieved November 20, 2006.
- Variable Star by Spider Robinson and Robert A. Heinlein
- "Strange Horizons Reviews: Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson, reviewed by Nicholas Whyte". Archived from the original on January 3, 2011. Retrieved August 5, 2010.