Red Lightning, John Varley

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

Ace, 2006, 330 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01364-3

Every decade has its own John Varley, who went from a ground-breaking newcomer in the seventies to a Hollywood exile in the eighties to a mysterious absent in the nineties to, now, a mid-list entertainer perfectly content to tell familiar stories in aw-shucks narration.

Nominally a sequel to Red Thunder, this novel picks up a generation later. Mars has been colonized thanks to the bubble drive, and our narrator Ray is the son of the first volume’s Manny Garcia. As the novel begins, the Earth is struck by something, and the resulting tidal wave is enough to wipe out Florida where Ray’s grandmother still maintains the family hotel. Within hours the entire Garcia clan is on the move, headed for Earth, and then into dark devastated Florida in search of their relatives.

But it’s one of Red Lightning‘s problems is that even though the Florida expedition takes up nearly half the book, it’s not really the story that Varley wants to tell. No, the real reason for this novel is an umpteenth tale of how extra-terrestrials stage another American Revolution in Spaaace. Never mind the disaster special in the novel’s first half: Soon, we’re back on Mars, fighting against mysterious Earth forces, and using bubbles to terrorize Earth so thoroughly that no one will even think of taking over the plucky Martian colonists.

Yes, it’s all terribly familiar. Except that instead of political sophistication, Varley has magical bubble technology on his side. The solution to pretty much every problem in the book is “more bubbles!” It gets old fast, even when Varley gets all aw-shucks-y with us.

Fortunately, it’s the same narration that keeps the novel from being just another forgettable mid-list SF novel. Even when he’s seriously misguided, Varley’s narration is compelling on a sentence-by-sentence basis. It’s a combination of engaging storytelling, an accumulation of clever detail and a voice that doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s hard to dislike someone like that, even when they’re telling hackneyed stories that appeal to few others than libertarians looking for another hit of that extraterrestrial revolution. (They’re probably the same people who won’t mind the convenient appearance of mysterious extra-governmental forces terrorizing Mars.)

Given the colonial rebellion that takes up most of the book’s last half, it’s ironic that it’s the low-tech dirty trip through Floridian devastation that ends up being Red Lightning‘s set-piece. But even then, the quality of the segment can be difficult to reconcile with the science-fictional setting. What would have been perfectly mesmerizing in a contemporary setting becomes impossible to justify a few decades from now. Take, for instance, the way Florida is left to fend for itself under media blackout after a tidal wave. Yes, Varley has been informed by the events following the Katrina hurricane, but there’s something too pat about the lack of foreign sources of information and ad-hoc communication networks. (Also: not every future government will be as willfully incompetent as the Bush administration.)

The result feels disjointed, a double feature of stories that don’t go well together, jammed into a structure that can’t accommodate both a destroyed Florida and a rebellious Mars. The easy prose may make Red Lightning a fast and pleasant read, but it does nothing to patch the broken shape of the book, or the more problematic elements of its conception. Varley, of course, has been a genre Science Fiction writer all of his life. But this is one instance where stepping back from the future and writing a contemporary thriller would have been a better choice. In trying to stick to genre formulas, Varley is well on his way to diluting his own brand.

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