The "New" Robert Heinlein
Shortly before the old Robert Heinlein was dead, the New York Times’s Gerald Jonas anointed Spider Robinson “the new Robert Heinlein.” For almost 20 years now -- Jonas’s review of Robinson’s Mindkiller was printed in 1988 -- you cannot pick up one of Robinson’s books without seeing this pull-quote splashed across its cover. Problem is, of course, is that it’s not true.
Which isn’t to speak ill of either Heinlein or Robinson’s vast bodies of work. But to compare one to the other is to lessen both. Oddly enough -- Heinlein, despite his death in 1988, still is himself and not in need of replacing. Nothing has happened to all of the books that he has written. Robinson, too, is still himself and isn’t in need of borrowing a voice from a man 30 years his senior. They are both very good but very different writers.
I haven’t known a universe without both of them. While my first foray into the genre was Heinlein’s Friday, it wasn’t overly long before I’d also added Robinson’s Night of Power to my shelf. I have never thought of one as a replacement for the other -- and it would take fire, flood and famine to pry their books out of my hands.
There are two things that they have in common, however. One is a translucent voice that is also always genuine. Heinlein and Robinson are insanely easy to read but still manage to pack an emotional wallop into deceptively clear language. On that basis only, Robinson was the best choice to flesh out an outline that Heinlein had abandoned in 1955. The result is Variable Star.
It’s unclear why this set of notecards and typed pages never made it into print before now. The story itself is a fine one and full of all of the bits that one would expect from one of Heinlein’s juveniles. A young, smart man -- who is still, perhaps, a bit too full of testosterone to think clearly -- falls for a young, smart woman. There are obstacles; in this case, said woman, Jinny, neglected to tell said man, Joel, about her status as an heiress, which causes all sorts of unpleasantness to unspool. The upshot is that Joel, in a fit of angst only a young man with a broken heart and a bottle of bourbon can know, decides to ship out to space. Let the adventure commence.
For the first third of Variable Star, it feels like Heinlein firmly has the con. Witness this explanation from Jinny about her future:
“‘I’m a female human animal; my number one job is to get married and make babies. And Because I’m who I am, a member of a powerful dynasty, it makes all the difference in the world what baby I have -- and who its father is.’ She let go of my hands and sat up straight. ‘You’re it. This is not a snap decision.’”
Even Heinlein apologists will agree that that sounds exactly like the old man’s voice, no matter whether or not you agree with its sentiments.
Twenty pages on, Robinson’s voice starts to leak in. Puns start to crop up, as do anecdotes like this:
I head a story once about a PreCollapse songwriter named Russell who’d written a song called "I’m Lost in the Woods," and because its melody sounded African, he decided he wanted a background chorus to sing the title in Zulu. But all of the translators he found told him the same frustrating thing: there was no way to say "I’m lost in the woods" in Zulu. They didn’t have that concept. Zulu did get lost in the woods. He had to settle for a chorus singing the Zulu for, "I am in the woods and I have gone crazy."
As the book progresses, these moments when you know who wrote which bit fades. Mostly, this is due less to these two voices merging in an ear-pleasing way and more to the book simply becoming Robinson’s. Which is fine, really. A new book by Spider is always welcomed -- and you can subconsciously feel Heinlein’s bones beneath the flesh Robinson has laid on them.
The real problem with Variable Star has more to do with the other thing that both writers have in common. As Heinlein aged, his books all started to become the same book. Yes, yes, the characters all had different names and the plots all had unique hallmarks but there was a sameness to them. You know that the Ur-Heinlein male would woo an Ur-Heinlein female against a galactic background armed with only wit, smarts and good genes. There’s nothing wrong with that formula, mind you. Even the books that feel the same are still fun reads to be treasured. But rather than explore what he could do with the form, this Grand Master was content to stay in his safe zone.
The same is also true of Robinson. His last few books are all the same book, more or less. An Ur-Robinson male, who is usually a skinny musician, will find himself up against impossible odds with an Ur-Robinson female, who is strong and competent, as backup. You know there will be puns. You know there will be an appreciation of human frailty and our common joys or pains. How if you shared them the will be increased and lessened, respectively. Again, his books are great reads despite the fact that you know exactly what you’re going to get.
The same is true of Variable Star. What you get will be good and comfortable. As long as you know that going in, your expectations will be adequately met.
Variable Star by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson