May 06, 2008
Book Review: Rolling Thunder by John Varley
# Genre: Science Fiction
# ISBN: 0441015638
# ISBN-13: 9780441015634
# Format: Hardcover, 352pp
# Publisher: Penguin Group (ACE)
# Pub. Date: March 2008
Rolling Thunder the new novel by John Varley, tells the story of Podkayne, a Martian Naval Officer and singer extraordinaire. Varley, three time winner of the Hugo award and two time winner of the Nebula award, continues to tell stories full of strong female characters, and twisting, curving plots.
Podkayne is the daughter and granddaughter of some of his characters from previous novels, and her story continues the tale of the exploration of our solar system in the not too distant future. Podkayne is just trying to get through her required service in the Martian Navy. What she really wants to be is a singer. When an opportunity to perform her music for the Navy on Europa ((one of Jupiter’s moons) is offered, she snatches up the chance. Her story seems simple, prosaic even (at least, as much as it can be for a good-looking nineteen year old), until she encounters Europa’s “freckles”. After that, her life takes a drastic turn, culminating the revelation of just what the “Rolling Thunder” really is, and what it means for her family.
Varley is continuing a story he has told in other novels, but Rolling Thunder is so well-written, and the past so deftly inserted into the narrative, that the reader has no need to read the previous novels to enjoy this one. Podkayne’s story is her own, and while it meshes with the previous novels (and fans of John Varley will be surprised at some of the occurrences), it is not reliant on it. Varley has Podkayne tell the story memoir style, reliving her past by writing events from her perspective. So it’s a historical account of fictional events from one person’s perspective. It’s a unique way to tell a fiction story.
Varley uses a great deal of hard science in his story. A great deal of the tale takes place on planets, and various facts about the planets and planetoids of the solar system come to light throughout the course of the story. Varley also introduces alien life (they think) but doesn’t fall into the SF trope of making it easily comprehensible to humanity. Rather, he makes it alien and strange. That incomprehensibility makes the story have a different flavor from the average SF tale.
The story, told from Podkayne’s perspective only, and relies a lot on character The reason is this; although the story has plenty of action, lots of science, and a good narrative, the truth is that even though earth (and space) shattering events occur, there is little a singer can do about it. Podkayne is not a heroine who suddenly finds herself able to save the world just because of dire circumstances. She is just a girl attempting to live her life in a solar system gone mad. The reader will come to love Podkayne’s story, as she is both enviable and pitiable at the same time, and the ebb and flow of the two emotions in the narrative will keep you reading Rolling Thunder.
Varley’s story mirrors much of Heinlein’s works in style and content. Like Heinlein, he uses free societies and free love (with some rather explicit sex) in his stories, so this work is solely for adult reading. Varley goes a bit over the top with the amount of sex he has in the novel, even if it is logical for the culture he has set up, and people who would be offended by it should skip this work altogether. Some readers might think that Varley’s politics are coming through in the early pages of the book, but it makes more sense that given the assumptions and cultures the Varley is presenting, that the thoughts really are Podkayne’s, not an author with an agenda.
Rolling Thunder is a fast reading novel that packs a great deal into a few pages. Varley can get as much into his three hundred pages as other authors do in five hundred. It is a novel that takes many unexpected twists and turns, and its ending is both surprising and an excellent set up for more John Varley novels to come. I recommend this novel to adults who enjoy Heinlein, near space SF, or character driven plots.