Variable Star

Variable Star

by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is Variable Star, a brand new novel by Robert Heinlein. Yes, Heinlein died in 1988; this was apparently one of his earlier efforts — in fact, he started working on it in 1955 — partially completed and left in a drawer, only found three years ago. The task of completing it went to Spider Robinson, a science fiction novelist who clearly has nothing but respect for his source material.

Many of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s — science fiction readers or not — added the word grok to their vocabulary through the counter-culture classic Stranger In A Strange Land. I knew that this was very grown up stuff and it made me feel very sophisticated to be reading about sexual freedom, individualism and revolution. These themes were favorites of Heinlein’s and he revisited them through much of his so called ‘mature’ period — my favorite being Time Enough For Love — that’s the one where the nearly immortal Lazarus Long recounts his life — but I have a fondness for lists, stories within stories, and very long books. As he got older, Heinlein was beset by health problems, and although many will disagree, I found his later work suffered as he did. Friday, The Cat Who Walked Through Walls, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, all featuring his favorite female characters: super-genius sex kittens who couldn’t wait to get pregnant. And finally, his books became an endlessly recycled love letter to the inescapable and seemingly unkillable Maureen Long, Lazarus’ own mother. It all became a little too queasy for me.

Heinlein introduced me to critical thinking regarding the books I chose to pick up. I began to realize that just because the author was famous, and the book was in print, it’s possible that one wasn’t exactly as good as the next. I also realized that the characters could act as mouthpieces for the author. As a teenage reader, these things had never occurred to me. I also figured out that Heinlein’s endless experimentation with gender roles and sexuality finally boiled down to woman: hot and man: in charge. Was it possible that he was both a free-thinking radical and a guy who liked to see boobies?  I just never realized there was a person behind the words on the page before. In Heinlein’s case, you couldn’t miss it.

I haven’t picked up one of Heinlein’s books in years, and I was quite curious to read Variable Star. I wasn’t sure until the end — and I won’t say now — how much he had finished, and how much came from Spider Robinson, but for the purposes of the reader, it’s classic Heinlein. Early stuff, too, and that’s really the chief pleasure. It’s unironic and enthusiastic, like looking into through a window and seeing the early days of the Space Race on the other side. It has everything you’d expect — a competent young hero, a super-genius sex kitten who wants to get pregnant right away, lots of quirky and interesting minor characters, and lots of (skippable) hard science. (A character named Maureen is mentioned, and I wanted to shout No! and throw the book down, but she never makes an appearance, thank God.) What’s it about? Competent young hero must part from his sex kitten and find his destiny among the stars, setting off on an adventure that may end in tragedy, or forge a new start for the human race. It even has an exciting enough end that I might want to find out what happens next. But the plot is ultimately less important than the feel, which is exactly right — a young book from an old master.

If you grew up in the science fiction section of the library, or you want to read a beautifully crafted reminder of another, less post-modern age, I can highly recommend Variable Star. Variable Star by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson. I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is Variable Star begun in 1955 by Robert Heinlein and finished this year by Spider Robinson.

You can take a book like this as a bit of a curiosity — it’s classic early science fiction, although it doesn’t feel like a dusted off relic. It’s a well done job by Robinson who manages to disappear into Heinlein’s style. The plot revolves around the young hero parted from his girlfriend and setting out on a very dangerous mission to the stars. If you’ve read Heinlein you will recognize these themes as among his favorites. Variable Star works better as a nostalgic exercise than contemporary science fiction, which is not meant as a slight — its unironic and enthusiastic tone is refreshing, and it was a fine thing to revisit one of my favorite authors from my own past and find that he at least hasn’t changed a bit. Variable Star by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson. I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is Variable Star begun in 1955 by Robert Heinlein and just completed by Spider Robinson.

Imagine your favorite writer from when you were a teenager. You haven’t looked at his or her work in over 15 years. Now there’s a brand new, old novel — just released. Variable Star is like a trip back in time. It’s a new work with some modern references, but the important stuff is all the same — the classic young hero, the beautiful and competent women, the absolute belief that science will save us if we can only figure out how to not kill each other with it. Science fiction has changed beyond dramatically in the last few decades — some of it isn’t fiction any more, after all. Back then, Heinlein was one of the greats and this is a loving tribute and even a pretty good book. Variable Star by Robert Heinlein and Spider Robinson. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


I’m Kim Alexander and this is a Fiction Nation minute. The book is Variable Star, begun by the science fiction grand master Robert Heinlein in 1955, finished by Spider Robinson this year.

The story is classic Heinlein — a young man must leave his girlfriend and try and find his destiny on a planetary colony 85 light years from earth. There’s some hard science and lots of social commentary, and it works well even without the baggage of how it came it be written. But the most important thing about this book is the baggage — if you read Heinlein growing up, this book just feels so wonderfully nostalgic, striking the tone of optimism and innocence, while still taking some time out for exploration of gender and sexuality. Variable Star works as well as it does because Robinson disappears into the rhythm and style of Robert Heinlein, and his lack of ego certainly pays off here. Variable Star by Heinlein and Robinson. I’m Kim Alexander on Fiction Nation on Book Radio, SiriusXM Channel 80.


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