Red Thunder
by John Varley

Review by Sarah-Wade Smith

For some odd Heinleinian reason, I don't think it is a coincidence that the protagonist of this novel is named Manuel "Manny" Garcia and dates a girl named Kelly. It just recalls Manny O'Kelly-Davis from The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress too much. Then again, this book revolves around a very Heinleinian trope; the group of young people who cobble together their own homebrew private enterprise spaceship and beat the bureaucrats into space.

The cover blurb calls it a "realistic" novel. Me, I am not so sure because the whole thing revolves around a mcguffin called the Squeezer. This is a multi-dimensional force field that compresses ordinary matter down into neutronium and releases it in a controlled jet. Cheap and easy to build once you make the quantum leap in physics that tells you how the Squeezer is the thing that makes the whole homebrew ship a possibility.

If you can swallow an eccentric genius inventing this device in a home lab in a barn while trying to build a better Christmas ornament, then most of the characterizations will work for you.

The narrative voice, as I said before, belongs to Manny Garcia, a Daytona, Florida native and wanna-be spacer who has just had a "Night falls on the Cumberlands" moment: the shocking discovery that placing in the top five percent at his local lower-income high school has in no way prepared him to pass the SATS. Angry but undaunted, Manny and his fellow wanna-be, Daktari "Dak" Sinclair, have turned into study Ronin, determined to make it into space somehow. Meanwhile, they pass the time by working in their family businesses. For Dak, that means Sinclair Racing, his dad's race car building and customizing shop. For Manny, it means the Blast-Off, a seedy motel near Cape Canaveral that has seen far better days and where his duties not only extend to vacuuming and making beds, but to helping his mother evict drug-pushers from their rooms at gunpoint.

Despite these tactics, the Blast-Off doesn't make money, even with its owners (Manny, his mom Betty Garcia and Tia Maria) taking only sub-poverty level wages. It is slowly sinking to the point where they will have to sell out. Unfortunately the best offer they have will only pay off the mortgage and leave them broke and looking for work in someone else's business.

So, one night Manny, Dak and their girlfriends Kelley Strickland and Alicia Rodgers go out to watch the launch of Ares 7, America's last desperate attempt to beat the Red Chinese to Mars in Dak's incredibly customized pick-up Blue Thunder. And they run over a drunk.

Not just any drunk, mind you. Col. Travis Broussard is a formerly decorated astronaut who has been turfed out of program under such unspecified circumstances that nobody in NASA will remember he worked there. Something about saving a disabled shuttle with an emergency dead stick landing in an African cornfield that happened to involve shooting out the shuttle's window with a totally verboten .45 cal. that Travis just happened to be carrying illegally because he felt naked without it.

I admit to a prejudice here. I cannot read Col. Broussard's dialog without hearing it spoken by Tommy Lee Jones. The voice is too just utterly perfect for Tommy Lee and the character of the Cajun astronaut with a drinking problem, a ton of regrets and that marvelous combination of thoughtfulness and dignity that only a country gentleman (and few of them) can manage.

Travis is also the guardian of his cousin Jubilation "Jubal" Broussard, a once precocious genius who taught himself to read at age three by looking over his daddy's shoulder during Bible study. At thirteen, Daddy notice that Jubal was using his gifts to read Travis's textbooks with things like "evil-oution" in them and decided to teach them a permanent lesson. Travis still has the scars. Jubal still has the brain damage.

But the thing is, Jubal's damage is to the parts of his brain that handle speech and human interaction. The parts that handle math and spatial relationships are just fine, thank you. Jubal still understands calculus and things like General and Special Relativity as well as Einstein ever did. It's just that if you don't follow mathematical symbology, he has to talk to you about this stuff with the vocabulary of a grade schooler and a thick Cajun accent.

So, most folks just assume Jubal is mentally retarded. In fact, since his expulsion from the astronaut corps, Travis has been living on marketing Jubal's inventions for him. Jubal doesn't really understand money and business that well. Travis does and he makes sure to put everything but his ten percent commission in trust for Jubal. That ten percent is enough for him to live rather decently.

Except Jubal is convinced that there is something wrong with the Ares 7's engines. They rushed them too much trying to beat the Chinese. Jubal hasn't the words to say exactly what is wrong with the Ares 7, but he is sure the ship will never live to land on Mars.

That's a problem for Travis. Among the 7 people on that ship is his ex-wife Holly Oakley, the mother and custodial parent of his two adored daughters. Travis doesn't remotely love Holly anymore, but he can't stand to see her die while doing nothing. But who in NASA is going to listen to a self-taught Cajun with a third grade vocabulary and not even a high school diploma? Even if he is backed up by a redneck loose cannon who was turfed out of the astronaut corps for drinking and flying and four blue collar kids just out of high school? Yeah, right.

Fortunately, Jubal has been trying to make a prettier Christmas tree decoration. He's come up with this lovely shiny spherical force field that compresses the matter in it down to neutronium... right, the squeezer. Cheap, easy to build and capable of accelerating a ship at 1G all the way to Mars. Can we say "Fast"? Can we say "Window of Opportunity?"

So before you know, a very reluctant Travis is convincing Betty Garcia and Dak's father to let the kids help build a ship and fly it to Mars. Travis, Jubal and Kelly (whose Dad is a successful luxury car dealer) are putting up the money. Travis is buying the black market space suits from the Russians. Kelly is handling the purchasing and accounting, Alicia is stocking the sick bay and training as a paramedic and Dak and Manny assisted by Jubal's brothers Caleb and Salty, are working 20 hour shifts to wield a workable spacecraft out of old railroad tank cars in time.

And they are all trying to keep a low profile. Seems that first test run of the Squeezer as a rocket out in the Everglades lit up red lights on radar screens all over Florida. Now agents Dallas and Lubbock are sniffing around looking for possible terrorist rocket launchers and getting close.

It is a good read. I have a caveat about Manny, who comes across as a typical Anglo middle American despite the fact that he is repeatedly identified as a blue-collar Cuban-American. Not that I don't know people of Hispanic ancestry who are like that, but I find it unusual that someone from a poor background in a heavily Hispanic area wouldn't use at least some Hispanic slang.

Other than that, though, the characters come across as pretty believable. Varley does a good job of looking at all the details that go into building a ship like this, even one with a magical propulsion system. I highly recommend it.

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