- For the astronomical object, see Variable star.
Variable Star is a 2006 novel written by Spider Robinson based on the surviving seven pages of an eight-page 1955 novel outline by the late Robert A. Heinlein. The book is set in a divergent offshoot of Heinlein's Future History and contains many references to works by Heinlein and other authors. It describes the coming of age of a young musician who signs on to the crew of a starship as a way of escaping from a failed romance.
From Heinlein to Robinson
Robinson states in an appendix to the book that he was working from an outline that lacked an ending. He was told by his publisher that they wanted him to write in his own style, not Heinlein's, and the abundance of profanity and puns makes it clear that this is not a Heinlein novel. The outline is almost exactly contemporaneous with Heinlein's juvenile novel Time for the Stars
, and shares many of its details, such as the use of faster-than-light telepathic communication between twins. Although Heinlein apparently wrote the outline for Variable Star
to be used, like Time for the Stars
, as part of his Scribner's juvenile series, Robinson's realization deals with a variety of topics, including drugs and sexuality, that would have been completely unacceptable for a juvenile novel in 1955.
The eighteen-year-old aspiring musician and composer Joel Johnston, a colonial from Ganymede
on Earth for his education, has fallen in love with Jinny Hamilton, another student about his age. Both are orphans, and virtually penniless — though he is the son of a Nobel Prize
When Jinny decides their relationship is ready for marriage, Joel learns his beloved is actually the granddaughter of humanity's richest man, Richard Conrad, who controls a sizable fraction of the solar system's commerce. In a face-to-face meeting with the patriarch at a well-hidden Conrad estate, Joel learns that that Conrad has already mapped out his future; he is to be groomed for a role in the family business and to produce children to continue the dynasty. Preferring to pursue his own destiny, he leaves with the help of a chance acquaintance, Jinny's cousin, seven-year-old Evelyn Conrad.
He promptly goes on a massive bender, during which he tries to join the crew of the RSS Charles Sheffield (presumably named in honor of the mathematician, physicist and science fiction author Charles Sheffield), a starship headed to a distant star on a twenty-year (subjective time) voyage to establish a colony. He is rejected for being too drunk to know what he is doing. When he sobers up and learns that the scholarship he had been counting on to finance his further education has suspiciously fallen through, he decides that becoming a colonist is a good idea. This time, he is accepted, in part because he has actual dirt-farm experience, something exceedingly rare on Earth. Jinny makes a last-ditch effort to change his mind, but fails.
After the voyage begins, like many other crew members, Joel has to make major emotional adjustments. He ends up seeing a professional healer, who helps him gain some insight into his psyche. Joel works on two agricultural decks with Zog, a Marsman, and Kathy. Joel is still getting over Jinny, but eventually goes on a date with Kathy, whom everyone seems to regard as the ideal compatible match for him. She, however, has recently gotten engaged to be in a plural marriage. (As in other Heinlein books, various forms of marriage exist.) He proceeds to date a number of women, but with the exception of a brief, non-mutual infatuation with the woman to whom he loses his virginity, none of them are particularly serious.
He plays his music, mainly on the saxophone, and proves good enough that he is well paid. He eventually records an album, which becomes a best-seller on Earth. Later, he is advised that a seemingly worthless inheritance, shares in a starship given up for lost, has suddenly made him quite wealthy after the ship turns up.
Five years into the voyage, one of the ship's six relativists, who are essential to the running of the ship's quantum ramjet drive, is killed and another mentally incapacitated, leaving only four. Since a relativist can control the engine for at most six hours per day, this loss places a tremendous strain on the ones who remain, since the drive cannot be shut down without risking not being able to restart it.
The next year, disaster strikes. The sun goes nova, contrary to all astrophysical theories, killing everyone in the solar system. (This makes it clear the book does not take place in any of Heinlein's other universes, with the possible exception of the short story "The Year of the Jackpot".) The scattered starships and few colonies are all that is left of humanity. Worse, a wavefront of deadly gamma radiation is following at lightspeed, threatening all of the colonies. The crew is only able to warn one in time; the rest are doomed.
Unable to bear the catastrophe, one of the relativists commits suicide. The three remaining relativists try valiantly, but the ramjet drive goes out in less than two weeks. The ship will not be able to stop; it will coast on by its destination at 97.6% of the speed of light.
However, the ship is overtaken by a faster-than-light vessel. It seems that Jinny married a genius scientist who has developed a revolutionary drive. Unfortunately, there was only the one experimental starship, capable of carrying ten people; aboard are several Conrads, including the domineering Conrad of Conrad, Jinny, her husband, and Evelyn, who has aged faster than Joel because of time dilation. She is now nineteen, and explains that she bullied her grandfather into coming to get him. Conrad proposes an evacuation plan, shuttling people to the new colony planet nine people at a time. However, Joel realizes that Conrad is lying; he only contacted them in order to get badly needed supplies and has no intention of returning. He needs to establish control of the colonies and cannot spare the time. In the confrontation with those loyal to Conrad, several people are killed, but the plutocrat is overthrown and imprisoned. The faster-than-light engine is transferred to the Sheffield, allowing the ship to complete its journey.
Joel and Evelyn marry, then proceed to warn each of the other colonies of the coming radiation wave. Joel decides to stay in space with his wife and child, rather than becoming planet-bound.
To Heinlein's works
- The period of the story appears to have a culture and technology consistent with Heinlein's Future History after the Interregnum of the Prophets, including many references to the Interregnum and to Nehemiah Scudder, the First Prophet, most notably appearing in the Heinlein novel If This Goes On. The main exception (other than that noted in the plot summary) is inconsistencies between Variable Star, particularly where it mentions the New Frontiers, and Methuselah's Children, Heinlein's Future History novel about that starship. For instance, in Variable Star the Howard Families are absent (or remain in hiding). Also, in Methuselah's Children, the New Frontiers leaves Earth in 2136 and returns in 2210, while in Variable Star, the ship is presumed lost when the story opens in 2286.
- Mars and Venus are both settled by men and have intelligent natives: Venerian dragons (Between Planets) and three-legged Martians (Red Planet, Stranger in a Strange Land), there are cities "in Luna" (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress) and on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn (Farmer in the Sky). The Moon was first reached by Leslie LaCroix, backed by D. D. Harriman (The Man Who Sold the Moon). The asteroids are also settled (The Rolling Stones).
- Starships communicate instantaneously using telepaths, usually twins, as in Time for the Stars.
- The character is from the farm colony of Ganymede, and his home—Lermer City—is a reference to Bill Lermer in Farmer in the Sky.
- Relativist Solomon Short (a character conceived by David Gerrold for interstitial aphorisms in his Chtorr novels) is a play on Lazarus Long, a character in several of Heinlein's novels. Sheffield, the name of the ship in Variable Star, is an alias used by Lazarus Long in Methuselah's Children and Time Enough For Love.
- Jinny's husband, Andrew Jackson Conrad, may be Andrew Jackson Libby (taking on the Conrad surname, as Joel was told he would if he married Jinny); Libby is the inventor of an "inertialess" drive in Methuselah's Children.
- A passenger on the Sheffield has a Russian name, comes from Luna, is called a "Loonie", and speaks in the clipped manner of Loonies from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.
- At one point, Joel has a (drug-induced) vision of Jinny and says "Her eyes were hazel, stoned, rolling," which refers to Hazel Stone, who appears in The Rolling Stones, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and other novels.
- Early in the novel, Jinny says that "after a dance like that, a couple ought to get married". This is nearly the wording and exactly the spirit of Zebediah Carter's proposal to Dejah Thoris Burroughs in The Number of the Beast.
- The name "Conrad of Conrad" parallels "Rudbek of Rudbek" in Citizen of the Galaxy; both are the male heads of almost inconceivably wealthy families. It is also a style used in Alfred Bester's 1956 novel, The Stars My Destination.
- Joel meets Evelyn when she is a little girl, but time passes more slowly for him and he marries her as an adult. This is similar to Dan and Ricky in The Door Into Summer, and Tom Bartlett and his great-grandniece Vicky Bartlett in Time for the Stars.
- Like Dan, Joel is given medicine to sober him up and turned away the first time he tries to make a drastic, life-changing decision.
To other works
- The relativists who power the Sheffield's engine appear in an earlier Robinson story, though not under that title. The main character of the story is a relativist, who also invents time travel.
- Joel meets his first date on board when he is playing music and she accompanies him without him seeing her. This is similar to how Jake meets his wife in Robinson's Callahan stories.
- The characters Richie and Jules are references to the TV series Trailer Park Boys, which has as its main characters Ricky and Julian. Jules, like Julian, carries a drink at all times, and when the two are apprehended they give their names as "Corey Trevor and Jay Rock", other Trailer Park Boys characters. Finally their legal counsel is "Lahey", yet another Trailer Park Boys character.
- One of the last lines of the book is a quote from Tennyson's Ulysses:
- ... my purpose holds
- To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
- Of all the western stars, until I die.
- The last Heinlein novel published in his life was To Sail Beyond the Sunset, which included and drew its title from this quote.
To real people
- Several characters appear to be Tuckerizations of science fiction and fantasy authors, including George R.R. Martin. Also, the captain of the Sheffield, James Bean, may be a reference to publisher and editor Jim Baen, and Perry Jarnell is clearly a play on Jerry Pournelle.
- Heinlein's wife was named Virginia (Ginny), so "Jinny" could be another link. Robinson's wife is named Jeanne (Jeannie).
- The quotes that begin chapters seventeen and eighteen are attributed to "Anson McDonald", on the occasion of "Anson McDonald Day". Anson McDonald is one of Heinlein's pseudonyms, and the afterword states that these quotes are actually Robert Heinlein's, delivered on Robert Heinlein Day.
- The works of the artist Alex Grey and various jazz musicians, notably the saxophonists Stan Getz and Colin MacDonald, are discussed in the novel.