Variable Star
by Robert A. Heinlein
& Spider Robinson

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Tor: New York, 2006

320 pages March 2007


For the fans of many writers, especially dead writers, it's a compelling dream to find new, previously undiscovered works. Ideally, these would be complete books that were locked away somewhere, never brought to market, or never sold; failing that, a rough draft, an outline, or a throwaway line in a speech or a book foreword is strong enough to hang a reader's literary hopes on. The implied promise is that this is the book the author intended to write, now completed according to his or her literary vision.

If any of these projects ought to be successful, Variable Star is the one. According to its Afterword, it was actually based on a book outline drafted by Robert A. Heinlein in 1955. And the author selected to finish it, Spider Robinson, is one of Heinlein's greatest fans, as well as having published many original works of his own.

So is this a new Heinlein novel?

Anyone who has read much Heinlein will find the flavor familiar. Robinson carries off the breezy, mildly sarcastic tone of Heinlein's fiction remarkably well. And a lot of the novel's incidents and themes are Heinleinian as well.

In fact, that's where the problem comes in. The opening pages have the hero dancing with his fiancee. At the end of the dance, she says to him that after a dance like that, a couple ought to get married. Anyone who has read The Number of the Beast will recognize the exchange. A few chapters on, he meets her grandfather, a very wealthy man named Conrad, who goes by "Conrad of Conrad" and insists on always being addressed simply as "Conrad." This linguistic form will be familiar to Heinlein fans who have read Citizen of the Galaxy, in the title of "Rudbek of Rudbek." Rather further on, the hero finds himself on a slower-than-light starship whose crew members include Relativists and telepathic communications specialists. Anyone who has read Time for the Stars will recognize this. Examples of this sort of thing could be multiplied.

Short of actually reading the outline Robinson worked from, it's hard to judge the literary cause and effect. Did Heinlein put all these elements into his outline, and then salvage them for a series of later books? Or did Robinson, in his effort to make the final manuscript read like Heinlein, import a series of his favorite Heinlein elements? Either way, the impression is much like that of fan fiction, if by a fan writer much more skilled than usual. It falls short of being a new Heinlein novel precisely in that Heinlein did not write imitations of Heinlein, or pastiches, or fan fiction; he wrote what he wanted to write, and what he could find a market for.

In his early juvenile Space Cadet, one of his space patrolmen tells a civilian, "To follow a tradition means to do things in the same grand style as your predecessors; it does not mean to do the same things." It's good advice, and this would have been a more interesting book had Robinson followed it.

But Variable Star's lack of originality goes further than that, though I didn't spot it during the first reading. Consider the following plot summary: Hero leaves Earth on a relativistic starship, but remains in communication with Earth, and specifically with a young girl on Earth, thanks to telepathic communication that is not limited by lightspeed; eventually a true faster-than-light stardrive is invented, which enables them to meet face to face and to marry. That's the story of Variable Star. But it's also the story of Heinlein's classic juvenile Time for the Stars. This isn't just an incident or a trope; it's the entire plot.

So did Heinlein publish one book with this plot, and then work out a complete outline for a second book with an almost identical plot? It seems unlikely that he would have spent the time on a project so unlikely to sell. And a check of the dates suggests a different history. The outline of Variable Star was drafted in 1955. Time for the Stars came out in 1956. This would make perfect sense if Variable Star — or The Stars Are a Clock, Heinlein's original title for it — was in fact Heinlein's first outline for Time for the Stars, which he reworked into its current form after deciding that making one of the telepathic special communicators the viewpoint character would bring the novel's relativistic theme into sharper focus. I suspect that this is what happened. Now, decades later, we have a book that reads remarkably like a Heinlein juvenile (barring some explicit sexual content that Scribner editor Alice Dalgliesh would never have accepted from Heinlein) — because it is a Heinlein juvenile, one that we've already read.

If this is actually what happened, then Robinson and Tor have achieved a kind of apotheosis of fan fiction: A retelling of one of Heinlein's stories in an inadvertent "alternate universe" version.

Fictional resurrections of dead authors are dubious projects at best. Each author has only so much lifespan to spend on writing; it has to be assumed that authors write, and publish, the books that in their opinion make the best use of their talents. Incomplete manuscripts such as Tolkien's notebooks, or lost outlines such as The Stars Are a Clock, represent projects that the author never decided it was worthwhile to carry out — whether they were discarded, or reworked into some other form. Having some other author step in and give us the book that the original author might have written in some conjectural other timeline doesn't really add to the original author's creative accomplishment. At most, it accomplishes a convincing pastiche, or gives evidence of the author's creative thought processes. Variable Star has some of this kind of antiquarian interest, but readers who want the kind of original science fiction that Robert Heinlein gave them would do better to read novels whose authors are telling their own stories.


© 2007 William H. Stoddard

Robert A. Heinlein at Troynovant

W.H. Stoddard's review of
For Us, the Living
by Robert A. Heinlein

More by William H. Stoddard

ReFuture at Troynovant
history of science fiction
& progress of fantasy


Troynovant, or Renewing Troy:    New | Contents
  recurrent inspiration    200 Recent Updates
emergent layers of
untimely Reviews
& prismatic Essays


Books by Author:  A-B   C-F   G-L   M-R   S-Z
   Books by Title:  A-B   C-F   G-L   M-R   S-Z
Pamphlets by Title   Stories by Author   Stories by Title

Strata | Regions | Personae

Share this item —

Bookmark & Share

© 2001-2022 Franson Publications