Multiple Hugo and Nebula award winner John Varley's first novel of the new century harks back to an earlier era. Red Thunder is an homage to Heinlein's juveniles, but it also borrows the "can do" attitude of young folks from such classics as the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the Andy Hardy movies. But instead of "let's put on a show in the barn," it's "let's build a spaceship in the warehouse." What's to stop them? Men-in-black government types? A sleazy PI? Lack of written permission from their parents?
The story is deceptively simple. In the near future, two young couples run across (literally) ex-astronaut Travis Broussard while joy riding at night on the Florida beach. They befriend the reclusive alcoholic and his eccentric inventor cousin Jubal. In the meantime, a Chinese mission to Mars will land ahead of the American Ares Seven, whose crew just happens to include Broussard's ex-wife, the mother of his two children. Add a fatal flaw in the Ares Seven engine and Jubal's new-found energy source and the kids rocket off on the adventure of their lives.
Some fans might be put off by Red Thunder because it is such a familiar plot, especially since Varley's early work was lauded for its originality and inventiveness. He exploded onto the seventies science fiction scene with short stories and a novel exploring a universe in which Earth has been destroyed by invaders and the remnants of humankind have scattered to the other "Eight Worlds" in the solar system. He followed that with his fantastical Gaea Trilogy (Titan, 1979; Wizard, 1980; Demon, 1984) and Millennium (1983), a novel of mysterious time travelers who rescue the victims of natural and man-made disasters. It was a long dry spell until Steel Beach (1992) and The Golden Globe (1998) returned Varley fans to the Eight Worlds universe.
Though Red Thunder is a simple tale, the characters are fully fleshed and intriguing. The all-American superteens of yesteryear are replaced with likable but flawed youngsters. Old enough to vote but not to drink, they are products of physically and emotionally missing parents and frustrated ambitions. There are many opportunities for both the kids and the adults to give up and take the easy route -- but they don't, and so there follows a tale of personal and technological triumph.
The tale is told by Manny Garcia. His Cuban father died under suspicious circumstances, leaving Manny and his Italian mother to run an increasingly decrepit motel. The Blast-Off Motel, profitable in the early days of Cape Canaveral, now barely pays the taxes, much less tuition for college. Dak, Manny's best friend, is an African-American who shares Manny's obsession with going into space and his frustration with calculus. He is also the proud owner of Blue Thunder, a kick-ass customized truck that figures prominently in the story. Kelly, Manny's white girlfriend, is in a battle of wits with her rich, philandering, underhanded father. Manny wonders, is Kelly dating him to spite her dad? Alicia rounds out the foursome. A former foster child and current health food freak, she gets the boys to eat salad and helps Broussard dry out. Travis Broussard is a typical Varley character -- quirky, independent, with just a touch of larceny. He was too much of a cowboy for NASA, so after landing a crippled shuttlecraft in an African jungle, saving the crew and passengers, but killing a water buffalo, NASA gave him a medal and a retirement dinner.
These characters draw you into their problems and make you hope for the best. Everyone who's ever yearned for space but known they didn't have the "right stuff," can sympathize with Manny and Dak and cheer their efforts to make their dream come alive. In fact, most of the conflict and drama of the story comes from trying to build a working space ship out of tanker trailers, Sears appliances, and components from Radio Shack -- in sixty days. Varley leads us up and down an emotional rollercoaster as one problem after another is met and solved. Phony physics aside, you can almost believe that anyone can go into space with enough guts and lots of relatives who are good with power tools.
Red Thunder shows another Varley hallmark -- a sense of humor, sometimes ironic, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Manny's mom packs a long barreled target pistol, from her competitive shooting days, to run off the drug dealers because the Blast-Off Motel "didn't even attract a very good grade of narcotics trafficker." The ship sports a graffiti artist's vision of Creation -- God rides a Harley. The President of the US meets the Red Thunder crew in the Goofy parking lot of Disney World. Varley's characters don't take themselves (or the government or the news media or advertising and marketing practices) too seriously, but they make the best of their opportunities.
Red Thunder isn't a deep book. Its message is one of upbeat optimism and the "let's roll" attitude of everyday Americans with a goal. The writing and dialog are straightforward, though mild sex, cursing, and drug references make the book unsuitable for young children. Those who enjoyed Heinlein's juveniles, Nancy Drew, or Andy Hardy will love this book. Those who want more complicated fiction should look up Varley's earlier works (unfortunately, many are now out of print, but they are well worth trying to find). Other readers just looking for a fun romp or beach read will be drawn along by the trials and tribulations of four good kids building a spaceship in the warehouse.
Copyright © 2003 Joe Sutliff Sanders
Faith L. Justice is a freelance writer and Features Editor for Space & Time Magazine. She lives in New York City with her husband, daughter, and cat. Her previous contributions to Strange Horizons are available in our archive.