Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Red Lightning

I seem to be caught in a mass of books where authors are either explicitly or unintentionally channeling the spirit of Robert Heinlein. I'm not sure if I am seeking them out or if they are coming to me. In the case of Gaiman and Reaves's Interworld, some reviews I had read mentioned the similarities, and that combined with my general enjoyment of Gaiman led me to find the book. But for John Varley's Red Lightning, I have been a fan of his writing for some time, and it seems to me that only recently—and perhaps only in this arc of novels—has he tended towards Heinlein's style and plotting. A big signpost for me is the use of juvenile characters who become integral to world-changing (even universe-changing) events. I suspect that Heinlein's juveniles, with their approach to adolescents and the patterns set up by their plotting, were so well-done and so widely read that they have become the foundation from which all later novels of that type must spring from or work against (much like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings for epic fantasy). Or maybe that foundation exists only in my head as a critical framework from which to discuss the novels. But I am not the only person who sees these similarities.

Red Lightning is a sequel to Varley's Red Thunder, in that the same characters are present and the events follow from what happened in the first book. But thematically, even tonally, they are very dissimilar books: Red Thunder (using the Heinlein analogy a bit more) reminds me of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel which is just a huge adventure yarn. Red Lightning, on the other hand, is more like Podkayne of Mars where politics becomes an issue. But those political issues are really what the second half of the novel is about, while the first half sets up the scenario in which those politics become important.

The book begins by introducing Ray Garcia-Strickland, son of the heroes of Red Thunder, and allows him to describe his home, the newly colonized planet Mars. For a few chapters, the book provides thoughtful descriptions of how such a colony might be set up according to extrapolations of current technology alongside the breakthrough that allows such transportation. Mars is a libertarian dream with no government at all beyond the market forces that drive the settlement's expansion. There are a few downsides to the colony—hotels that are built on the cheap that aren't very attractive and somewhat insulting to most "Martians", but this is what happens when the market is the primary driver. Through his descriptions of his surroundings, Ray appears to be an average teenager, not really concerned with issues beyond his immediate needs, and maybe a little smarter than average given his parentage.

The idyllic peace changes when news of a collision between an object moving near light-speed colliding with the Earth reaches Mars. A tsunami one hundred feet tall slams into the Atlantic coastline of North and Central America, wiping out island countries and doing massive damage to the American coastline all the way up to Massachusetts. The infrastructure for the United States (and thus most of the world) collapses; New York, the center of the financial world is destroyed while Washington is severely damaged. Ray's family decides they must return to Florida in order to rescue his grandmother, still a hotelier in Daytona. What follows throughout the first half is an agonizing portrayal of not only life after a catastrophe, but the nearly unthinkable damage and effects such an event would bring to the United States. Ray, his family, and friends, are enormously wealthy after the events of Red Thunder and their discovered technology allows them to travel to Earth fairly quickly, then make their way into the remains of the Florida coast. There they are able to purchase the best equipment and make the best contacts to allow them to find and rescue Ray's grandmother. But given the damage, the work is not easy, and the sheer cussedness of human beings makes the work that much harder. However, this is no post-apocalyptic novel, so Varley does not fall into explicit descriptions of hopelessness. He uses scenes of the aftermath of the devastation to drive home his points, and the encounters the characters have with others are more indicative of how bad things could be than explicit descriptions of the worst case.

But halfway through this section, I began to wonder how the tragedy of such a disaster had any relationship with the character of Ray and his life on Mars. The story I was reading was compelling on its own, but had little relationship to the idyllic Martian descriptions. I suppose if this were some wildly experimental writer, such a diversion would make sense, but Varley has always been fairly straightforward in his writing, relying more on the ideas behind his plots than on craft and style in writing. So it is little surprise that the characters returned to Mars with the rescued matriarch, leading to the thoughtful and political second half of the novel, wherein Earth invades Mars.

The most powerful country on Earth is fractured—there are two presidents. Corporations fill in the power vacuum and assert control multinationally. And then a single event happens behind the scenes, driving those corporations to panic and invade Mars with a single explicit purpose. What follows is still relatively action-filled but is also a meditation on what happens when citizens lose interest or the ability to monitor their own governance. The parallels with the post-9/11 America are clear and sometimes more heavy-handed than Varley intended (more on that in a bit), but their power and their ability to provoke consideration of political issues is intense. Of course, as in most Heinlein novels, things turn out well due to the plucky nature and ridiculous luck of the main characters.

As for the heavy-handedness, Varley includes a fascinating afterword, describing the progress of his writing. I'm comfortable recommending even reading the afterword first, describing as it does his original plans for this novel and then the real world events that mirror the plot he intended. In it, he mentions that the real events show how much he underestimated the power and effect of the events he imagined. So, if anything, Varley didn't intend the heavy-handedness; it's just that the real world events throw those moments into a stark light with unrepentantly angry characters.

Varley's style and characterization make this an easy book to read, but its content, especially in the second half, is challenging. The politics are described without shades of gray, which is far easier than the dealing with the world we live in. But while those comparisons may be facile, they are thoughtful, and yet really never get in the way of a rollicking story. The politics and the actions the characters take go hand in hand and make for a story that is difficult to put down.

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