Rolling Thunder, John Varley

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

Ace, 2008, 344 pages, C$24.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-01563-4

Varley fans who complained about Red Thunder and Red Lightning aren’t likely to feel much better after reading Rolling Thunder, the newest installment in a series that seems intent on showing how ordinary the author has become. It’s not a terrible novel, but it’s intensely familiar, leads to a conclusion that seems pasted from Varley’s previous work, and it survives only thanks to Varley’s usual gift for compelling narration.

A generation removed from Red Lightning, Rolling Thunder‘s narrator is one Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Podkayne Strickland-Garcia-Redmond, daughter of the previous book’s Ray. As the novel begins, she’s stuck on Earth, serving her time in the Martian Navy by acting as an immigration officer. It’s been a few years since the Martian Revolution of the previous volume, and Earth hasn’t quite adjusted to the change. The situation around the world is worse than ever, in part thanks to the disaster descriped in the previous novel, but Mars isn’t ready to let everyone immigrate en masse.

When Podkayne’s great-grandmother is suddenly scheduled for bubble stasis for medical reasons, it’s a mandatory ride home and family reunion for her, then a reassignment to the entertainment division of the Mars Navy where she becomes a jazz singer. (Don’t worry: she justifies why the music she sings is all made out of classic numbers. As usual with writers of Varley’s generation, the future doesn’t belong to pop music —or anything made after the sixties.) A tour to Jupiter’s Moons doesn’t go as planned, though, and the consequences are dire both for Podkayne and for the human race.

Like its predecessors, Rolling Thunder is grossly chopped into two relatively independent sections, separated by time. A disaster leaves Podkayne unchanged, but affects everyone else’s perception of her, with dangerous results for the young woman. It all leads to a conclusion that seems to borrow equally from The Ophiuchi Hotline and Steel Beach.

Also like its predecessors, the saving grace of Rolling Thunder isn’t to be found in its overarching plot, but in its moments or line-by-line narration. The homages to Heinlein are just as blatant as in the previous books, but the clear-voiced narration holds up things better than you’d expect, with lengthy yet appealing digressions on how things are done at that time. This being said, I wonder if Heinlein could have pulled off the dark ending of this novel, in which the characters basically run far far away in order to avoid the apocalypse threatening the rest of humanity.

As a science-fiction novel, it’s a minor work. It’s even more disappointing coming from Varley, although none of the three books in its series have been particularly impressive. With a bit of effort, this could have been a novella: the plot density is laughable, especially when the bulk of the novel seems to be Podkayne telling us about her day-to-day life.

If readers have made it thus far in the series, they might as well keep going: It’s an amiable entry in the series and the fact that it’s slight and negligible doesn’t make it less than entertaining. What’s more, it’s a stepping stone to what Varley says is the fourth and final tome in the series, Dark Lightning, to be written and published in a few more years. Not that we’re in any hurry.

It’s a sign of the novel’s minor impact that it’s not particularly interesting to dissect or even comment: If Varley’s your thing, this will do while you await for his next novel. But there’s no denying that Varley’s best works seem more and more distant.

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