Red Thunder, John Varley

<em class="BookTitle">Red Thunder</em>, John Varley

Ace, 2003 (2004 reprint), 441 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-01162-4

Genre fiction is often defined as an ongoing conversation within which a set of common attitudes are shared and forged. When genre works well, it allows writers to depend on an audience that is already sympathetic to their goals and methods. Free from re-inventing the wheel, genre writers can explore more intricate issues. But when genre goes bad, it lock both writers and readers in a set of outdated assumptions that have less and less to do with the world outside.

This meta-conversation about genre has been ongoing in the Science Fiction community for, oh, decades, but it’s always revealing to illuminate the discussion with specific examples. Alas, John Varley’s career looks like it’s sliding into a specific case study of what can happen to a genre writer as he slides into obsolescence. The early phase of Varley’s career, with works like The Ophiuchi Hotline, was characterized by strong genre awareness and capable writing skills: Free to play around in structures built by Heinlein and his predecessors, Varley explored new issues of gender and body modification in ways that were friendly to the SF genre audience.

But recent works like Red Thunder may be showing a writer increasingly reluctant to extend genre premises, and far more comfortable providing comfort reads to a penned-in audience. Red Thunder is fun if you’re already a Science Fiction fan, but it may not withstand a moment’s scrutiny from more demanding readers.

Oh, it starts well enough: For all of his other faults, Varley can still write compelling narration, and Red Thunder quickly establishes not only its dynamic teenage narrator Manny (whose family is barely hanging onto a strip motel), but the rest of the Floridian characters who will come along for the ride: A rich rebellious girlfriend, a good buddy skilled in engineering matters and his no-nonsense girlfriend.

But things take a turn for good-old pulp SF when Manny befriends a washed-up colonel and his idiot-savant brother. Thanks to a very convenient discovery and two just-as-conveniently rich characters, they’re able to slap together a few pieces (using “all-American guts”, specifies the back-cover blurb) and go to Mars in time to beat the Chinese to the landing and save a NASA mission doomed by committee-driven engineering flaws. Try as you might, I’m not sure you could come up with a pluckier story to please long-time Analog SF fans.

It’s bad enough that the revolutionary “bubble” technology has been invented by a mentally-challenged genius speaking with a Louisiana accent. It’s the by-the-number plotting in which our teenage heroes and their redeemed captain build the ship, race to Mars, giggle at the Chinese and rescue their NASA friends that really makes the entire novel redundant. It’s a greatest-hits of common SF daydreams with nary a hint of plausible deniability. Try to tell the story to a non-SF reader: they’ll roll their eyes and mutter something like “you’re still reading this stuff?” despite your attempts at saying that this is aimed at young adults: Let’s face it, the novel was marketed at adults and makes most sense only to those who overdosed on Heinlein during their long-past teenage years.

The only reason why Red Thunder holds together is Varley’s ability to write compelling prose. Even those who want to dismiss the novel as nothing more than reheated space-age fantasies will be hard-pressed not to enjoy the procedural elements of how a small group of teenagers are able to weld together a spaceship bound for Mars. No matter how ludicrous it is, how wobbly its foundations are and how obvious its plotting remains, Red Thunder is a fun read. Don’t blame Manny and his friends for being stuck in the dusty daydreams of a dying genre: just hop along for the ride and nod your head at the expected plot points. Varley hasn’t written nearly enough in the past decade, and once stuff like Red Thunder is out of his system, maybe we’ll be back to top form sometime soon.

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