Saturday, August 26, 2006

John Varley: Red Lightning

John Varley's Red Lightning is a pretty lightweight example of the genre of revolution on the martian colony. Actually, the revolution is almost an afterthought, and the rest is a simple juvenile adventure. Our hero is Ray Garcia-Strickland, a teenager growing up on Mars, the son of two of the pioneers, and close confidant of Jubal Broussard, the eccentric inventor who came up with the device that makes space travel affordable. The first half of the story is an adventure through tsunami-torn Florida after an unidentified, near-light-speed object tears through the Gulf of Mexico. In the second half, Mars is repeatedly invaded and subdued by unidentified mercenaries who are hoping to capture Jubal and gain control of his inventions. In the end, Ray, Jubal, and friends stand off the mercenaries, and declare independence for Mars based on their control of Jubal's inventions, which no one else has been able to replicate.

I found the story to be weak, contrived, and derivative. The technology is magic, and the fact that it's all-powerful (provides cheap, plentiful energy, and it can make Vingean bobbles, too!) and requires Jubal's personal touch to manufacture renders it an unbeatable tool. The bad guys are one-dimensional: faceless, incompetent in low-gee combat, ruthless torturers, and ordered around by unseen forces.

Red Lightning has already been nominated for next year's Prometheus award. Varley's a good writer: his The Golden Globe won a Prometheus award, and the story "The Persistence of Vision" won Hugo and Nebula Awards. The story has enough anti-authoritarian elements to qualify as (weakly) libertarian: the government does a lousy job managing after the tsunami (Varley swears in an afterword that that part was conceived before the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the Katrina devastation), and the mercenaries are either backed or tolerated by governments on Earth. The story is a fun read; there's just no depth to it. The two halves of the book are unrelated stories; the trip to Florida gives us a chance to see the devastation, but we see mere snippets of heroism and villainy; the same is true of Mars under occupation. The declaration of Martian independence at the end is managed without the awareness or help of the residents of Mars, even though they have plenty of grievance after their occupation by the anonymous mercenaries.

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