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Volume 25, Number 3, Spring 2007

Variable Star

By Robert A. Heinein and Spider Robinson

Tor, 2006
Reviewed by Rick Triplett

For those of you who may not know this yet, the Robert A. Heinlein estate discovered extensive notes on a novel that the master never got around to finishing, and in 2004 it selected Spider Robinson to complete this novel. Even if you have not read Robinson’s fiction, you have probably known him through his 1980 homage “Rah, Rah, R. A. H!” (Go to, click on “Robert Heinlein,” then look down the list of articles). [here's the article.]

I did not discover Heinlein until the early sixties, and it almost ruined my college career. For several weeks, I read Heinlein and occasionally slept—and that was about it; reacting like this is not uncommon among his fans. So it was with much trepidation that I began reading a novel that could have been written quite badly.

But it was well-written! For one thing, Robinson is an accomplished author; his many books and awards testify to his ability to tell an enjoyable story. More importantly, he imitates a great deal of Heinlein’s style—not perfectly of course, but within just a few pages of Variable Star I was transported to those days almost a half century ago when I was young, fascinated, and inspired by a fiction unlike any I had previously experienced. I decided that no matter how the book turned out, it was worth it to experience once again the delight of a story in the Heinlein tradition, one with picturesque people, exciting ideas, adventures of broad scope, and heroic individualism—a cherished experience that had come sadly to an end with Heinlein’s death in 1988.

Variable Star tells the story of Joel Johnston, a bright young man who could have been a physicist or mathematician, but prefers to play and compose jazz for the saxophone. As in many of Heinlein’s books, this young man becomes embroiled in a succession of gripping challenges, learns painfully from experience, encounters some very singular women, faces awful decisions, works hard for what he loves, and ends up in an unpredictable plot twist that stretches the reader’s imagination. Robinson was not commissioned to imitate Heinlein, and he would be the first to deny any such hubris; but readers will expect it anyway. Fortunately we are not disappointed.

That said, I do have a minor quibble. The middle third of the book seemed a little slow to me. It was interesting, but not exciting. It isn’t unusual for a Heinlein story to feature a youth who learns from experience and matures throughout the story, but I suspect Heinlein himself would have tossed in a little more action to keep interest stirred up. On the other hand, the ending of the book, with surprise plot turns, big themes, rapid development, and heroic, quick thinking is pure Heinlein and does indeed grow out of and contrast nicely with the middle part of the story.

So, is the book libertarian? One could ask this of any of Heinlein’s books. He is never explicitly libertarian (well, I’d have to back down a little over The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), but he always portrays a passion for the values that, I think, are an essential foundation for libertarian life—values that drive one to love and to pursue liberty. Variable Star—like the core of Heinlein—honors individualism, sexual equality, open-mindedness, personal responsibility, optimism, imagination, rationality, courage, independent thinking, love of truth, a can-do attitude, anti-authoritarianism, and contempt for government excess. A reader may assent to libertarian principles after reading a dry essay; but by the end of Variable Star, one longs achingly for the joys and the promises of a life in freedom

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