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Volume 25, Number 3, Spring 2007

Red Lightning

By John Varley

Ace Books, 2006
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

Red Lightning is John Varley’s sequel to Red Thunder, and like it—like many of Varley’s recent books, actually—it’s clearly inspired by one of Robert Heinlein’s novels. For Red Thunder, the launch point was Rocket Ship Galileo. For Red Lightning, it’s Red Planet, a substantially better book, with less of the traditional “boys’ book” formula and more sureness of literary method. It seems to have inspired Varley to a richer story as well. Other Heinleinian stimuli can be made out for some of the story elements, from Podkayne of Mars for the opening Mars-Earth voyage to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress for the Martian independence movement. In fact, Varley hasn’t just retold, or even deconstructed, any one Heinlein story: He’s blended themes and events from several with new topics of his own.

Basically, Red Lightning falls into two plot arcs. In the first, the protagonist—son of the protagonist of Red Thunder—travels to Earth with his family after a major, and unforeseen, natural disaster. In the second, back on Mars, he becomes involved in the resistance to Earth’s attempt to seize power. This seems like a foredoomed effort, given the relative population sizes and economic strength of the two planets. But Varley has some surprises for the reader. The central protagonists from Red Thunder are back in this book, in significant roles, though not central to it.

In some ways, that’s a relatively weak element of this book. Its central technology, like that of Red Thunder, is magic, plain and simple. That’s a big difference from Heinlein, who made his technology as realistic as possible. But it’s not as critically a weak element as it was in Red Thunder. The real story here is the contrast of cultures: The decadent culture of Earth, ridden with bureaucracy, and the independent-spirited frontier culture of Mars. This element of the novel is purely Heinleinian in spirit, without being a slavish imitation of any specific cultures from Heinlein’s fiction.

There are some interesting minor speculative proposals for political systems; it would be curious to see how an open source constitution might work. But that’s not what makes this book interesting for libertarians. It’s more the combined presentation of two classic libertarian themes, the founding of a free society on the frontier and the critical portrayal of an overregimented Earth. And, to counterbalance that, it’s the story of the protagonist’s grandmother, still living on Earth, coping with an unprecedented natural disaster with the spirit of the Martian frontier. Finally, it’s the portrayal of personal ties of love and mutual trust as the real glue that holds a free society together. These are the best elements in this book, and make it worth reading.

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