Earth has suffered a massive climate disaster that submerges most of Florida, rips the United States into several mini-nations, and sends a band of freethinking scientists and entrepreneurs to found a colony (and a really great restaurant) on Mars. Many years later, two of these early colonists have a grandchild whose aspirations are a little more pedestrian than "save the world" or "found a new planetary outpost." She's the star of John Varley's latest novel Rolling Thunder, and she just wants to be an MP3 pop star, the most downloaded girl on the net. The third novel in Varley's latest series, the book focuses on a a girl named Podkayne, who at the age of eighteen joins the Martian Navy's Music, Arts and Drama Division. But just as her music is hitting big, her career is interrupted by several giant mountains on Galilean moon Europa coming to life and zooming into the central solar system.
For those who love the Heinleiny side of Varley's writing, Rolling Thunder will be a real treat. Loosely modeled on Heinlein's space adventure Podkayne of Mars (but with a decidedly happy ending), it's a sweet space romance, a kind of comic idyll following on Red Thunder and Red Lightning, the hard SF actioners that preceded it. Sure, there's action, and there are amazing, mysterious, musical aliens that only Varley could create. But mostly it's the Freaks and Geeks-style story of a late teenager discovering herself, getting laid, and starting a band.
Podkayne does grow up a little, but her adventures in maturity have little to do with space adventures — instead, she has to come to terms with her unexpected mega-fame after she composes a song using samples from the Europan aliens' songs. After writing the song, she has a close encounter with the aliens which leaves her in suspended animation for over a decade. She awakens to find herself the founder of "Pod music," a genre she can't understand and isn't even sure she likes. Meanwhile, the aliens have flown to Earth and started a mysterious project to change the weather — a project that may make the planet totally uninhabitable for humans.
It's interesting, and weirdly fun, to see these space operatic events through the eyes of somebody who is much more concerned about who to invite to her latest party, or which shoes look best on her. It's also intriguing to see Varley trying his hand at writing an airheaded girly-girl, since he's best-known for writing strong women characters who would be more likely to wrassle a dinosaur or become President of Mars than worry about how Earth gravity will force them to wear bras. And of course, Varley can't quite resist a few scenes where Podkayne gets to be a double-fisted, ultra-competent hero.
But if there is a weakness to Rolling Thunder, Podkayne is it. She feels less like a fully-human character and more of a postmodern homage to Heinlein. And sometimes her slangy patter — a mashup of 1970s hippie talk and references to Google — falls flat. But there are so many cool things happening in this novel that you won't be able to dwell on its flaws for very long. The Europan aliens, and glimpses of Earth mired in a climate change so horrible it's nearly impossible to contemplate, are breathtaking and unforgettable.
Varley's perverse sense of humor is ultimately what buoys Rolling Thunder along. But he also remains his libertarian curmudgeon self, infecting an otherwise light story with a difficult, grudging hope for human life. Despite how much homo sapiens sort of sucks, he seems to be saying, there are some unexpectedly good eggs left. And hopefully, they'll be the ones who survive.
Rolling Thunder's official release date is tomorrow, but we hear it's already in stores.