Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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Off The Shelf

by Larissa March

Variable Star
by Robert A. Heinlein and Spider Robinson
Tor Books

I’ve been a fan of Robert Heinlein since I first found out about him by sneaking a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land off of a bookshelf while babysitting for someone. I’ve been a fan of Spider’s since I randomly stumbled on a copy of Time Travelers Strictly Cash while working at a used bookstore.  A book started by Heinlein in outline years before his death, then fleshed out and finished by Spider, who is himself a huge Heinlein fan? Could be really good, could be really awful.

Fortunately, it’s really good. It reads a lot like Spider Robinson characters in a Heinlein juvenile, but I was glad to find that my initial urge to say “Yeah, that’s pure Heinlein” or “That’s just like Spider” went away quickly. It’s an excellent collaboration, and more notable for the fact that as a collaboration it really couldn’t have give and take short of an Ouija board. As Spider tells the story in the afterword, it was mentioned at a Worldcon panel in 2003 that there were Heinlein stories that had never been published, never even been finished. One in particular had been started, then stuck in a drawer and forgotten. All that was left were the first 7 pages of an outline of unknown length, and fourteen index cards. When the cry went up “You should get Spider Robinson to finish that novel!” it just so happened that Heinlein’s literary agent (coincidentally also Spider’s agent) and the trustee for Heinlein’s estate were at the panel. Significant glances were traded, leading to what Spider calls “the challenge of my life.”

Heinlein’s partial outline included the main characters, their backstories, their world, and the basic starting premise of the story – then cut off midsentence. Spider sweated blood to make the rest of it fall into place, and fortunately it does, quite well. Not wanting to spoil it, I will simply say that the basic premise is a bright young man joins a colony ship to escape a romance gone extraordinarily badly wrong on Earth, which won’t seem at all novel, but it builds from there to present you with entertaining characters, well thought out detail, and a solid emotional story that kept me sucked in to the end. There are certainly bits, turns of phrase, and characters who will instantly recall this story or that story by either author, and there is some rather pointed parallel creating with our own current world towards the end, but as a story it is well done and grabbing enough that I absolutely had to finish it before going to bed.

The Android's Dream
by John Scalzi
Tor Books

John Scalzi is better known for the excellent Old Man's War universe,  but this book is an entertaining right turn into complete bizarreness.

Harry Creek, diplomatic announcer of bad news to aliens, has been  saddled with the strangest job of his career. A human diplomat with a  grudge has assassinated his alien counterpart by inciting him into an  apoplectic stroke with strategically farted insults. As a result,  representatives of the alien race have threatened war against the technologically inferior Earth unless demands can be met. Specifically, they want a sheep. A sheep of the very rare breed known as Android's  Dream, to be used in their own internal power struggles. (Does it go without saying that the sheep is electric blue?)

The story gets stranger and funnier from there, as Creek finds the last  remaining genetic example of the Android's Dream and they go on the run  after a disasterous date, hiding from any number of factions who want to  kill, keep or manipulate the key to power among the Nidu clans. Along  the way they find erratic help from a unique Church, a tour group of  bitter veterans from the last war against the Nidu, a teenaged AI, and  some truly unusual aliens. Overall, the surreal flavor of the insanity reminds me a lot of Douglas Adams, with a very satisfying twist at the  end. I doubt that this will turn into an ongoing series the way Old Man's War has, but it's a great standalone in yet another well imagined  universe, which Scalzi does so well.

© 2008 Larissa March

Larissa March is a New Englander who has been sucessfully transplanted to Georgia, where she has put down roots with her husband, two cats, and an improbable number of books.

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