Friday, June 1, 2007

_Variable Star_ varies...

I finally completed reading _Variable Star_, written by Spider Robinson based on an unfinished outline by Robert Heinlein. As usual, if you want to stay spoiler-free, do not read on.

Science fiction can often be divided into several different categories. Most readers will be familiar with the old stand-bys: Hard, Soft, and Space Opera SF. One of my favorite writers, David Brin, suggests a few more categories. While I am paraphrasing from content he presented on the "Star Trek: The Motion Picture Director's Edition," he further divides Science Fiction into "Progressive" (i.e. this is what we may be capable of and is optimistic), and "Cautionary" (i.e. warns us what can go wrong if we are not mindful, and is pessimistic). _Variable Star_ definitely falls into the latter category.

But what did I think of the book? Well, it certainly held my attention! The quality of writing was very good, what one would expect from Robinson. However, I'm not sure the book could decide whether it was Hard SF or something different. I think where the book "jumped the shark" was when it was detailed how interstellar communications is handled, and how the ship achieves its high sub-C performance.

Interstellar communications are handled by psychics that, when paired with a twin on Earth, are capable of instantaneous FTL communications. The ship of the story, furthermore, uses a "Quantum Ramjet" of some sort, collecting the quantum fluctuations and turning it into thrust (of approx .5G). I think this is where the story "jumped the shark" a bit for me. It mixes elements of Hard SF (i.e. relativistic travel through acceleration/deceleration), but throws in psychics in the mix. It may just be my bias showing here (I don't particularly care of psychics as an element in Hard SF), and while I don't think it ruined the story, it did drop the book down a few notches in my mind.

The ending also was not as satisfying for me either. The main point of the book is that a colonist ship is targeting a planet some 80+ LY from Earth. During the trip, the Sun explodes, wiping out the seat of humanity. Now, except for a few scattered colonies, this ship is the remnant of human civilization, and must face the impending doom of a Gamma Ray burst following them at C (so therefore they can never outrun it). The ending...didn't really end the book. It certainly provided closure for the main character, but what happens to human civilization now? Why did the Sun blow up? Etc. I would have liked a bit more here (or perhaps I need to only wait for the sequel).

As I mentioned above, the book is a cautionary one: don't put all your eggs in one basket. In order to survive, humanity must expand into space. I was also surprised by the rationalism of the book as well; in the last 3rd of the book, after knowledge of the Sun's demise is disseminated amongst the crew, one of the characters has a fairly long monologue that, in my opinion, very strongly hinted at the current War on Terror. I'll let the individual reader's make up their minds on this point, but I think it definitely indicates rather much where Robinson's politics lie (and, I think, Heinlein's libertarian leanings).

Overall not a bad book. Next up, a bit of history: _On the Canal: the Marines of L-3-5 on Guadalcanal, 1942_. Here's what the back has to say:

"Eight months to the day after Pearl Harbor, US Marines landed on the Pacific
island of Guadalcanal. Their mission: to seize the airfield the enemy
was building and stem the southward tide of the Imperial Japanese Army. Initially
unopposed and ultimately triumphant, for four months these young soldiers
engaged in ferocious combat and endured debilitating heat, hunger, and
disease. Sometimes with humor, always with brutal honesty, U.S. Marine Ore Marion takes readers into the jungle hell that was the Canal.

"Ore J. Marion served with marine company L-3-5 on Guadalcanal and later on Iwo Jima. Promoted to sergeant during the Guadalcanal campaign, he served in the US Marine Corps until 1970. Marion died in 2003."

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