Review: Rolling Thunder by John Varley

Rolling ThunderRolling Thunder

John Varley

Ace Books, 2008

A first-person narrative and somewhat sequel to some of Varley’s earlier works Rolling Thunder follows Podkayne (whose full name is so ridiculously long I won’t type it out here), the granddaughter of Mars’ first president, through her various careers (Naval and Entertainment) during a turbulent time in the, not so distant, galactic future.  The first thing I noticed about this book is the exuberance of the writing style.  Podkayne’s frank tone, clipped speech, and quick paced narrative indicate an author who seems to have had a lot of fun writing the book.  A fact that comes across when reading; carrying the action across at a breakneck pace and barelling though even the slower scenes.  A lot happens in this book, and Varley (and Podkayne) are up front about sharing with you everything that’s going on but aren’t so hip about explaining anything.

Hard sci-fi this is not. It walks a middle ground between the adventure sci-fi and classic space opera; never leaning to hard on the science aspect of anything.  That isn’t to say it isn’t there but, by putting us into the head of character admitedly mediocre at math and science, Varley neatly glosses over the technical aspects of the science allowing for metaphor and imagination to fill in the gaps.  More than science this is a book about the ideas behind science and, to some extent certainly, the intersection of science and art.  That intersection is embodied in the relationship between Podkayne and Jubal Broussard; as Podkayne states “We fit each other like yan and yang.”

On the one hand you have Podkayne, our singer who recognizes the slow singing of the strange alien crystal mountains of Jupiter’s Europa, with a strong verbal acuity but a weakness in math and science.  On the other hand there is Jubal Broussard, scientific genius (cited alongside Newton and Einstein), inventor of the “bubble technology” (a stasis field used for energy, as a weapon, as well as other more mundane things) and verbally and emotionally stunted do to severe childhood trauma both physical and psychological.  Somehow (again unexplained in the novel) the two become linked in the stasis spheres drawing them together.  In that inexplicable and unexplainable link between these two essentially contrasting characters Varley seems to be speaking about a greater link between both science and art that tends to get overlooked.  Not only that, but by not explaining either the greater cosmic mysteries (the songs of the crsystal mountains, the bubble technology) or the relationship between those characters, Varley creates another link between the idea of man’s mystery to himself to the greater infinite strangeness of the universe at large.

Or maybe he just wants to write another book.  Take your pick.

Packed full of adventures, mysteries, wonders and excitement Rolling Thunder was a past paced read with a straight forward manner the belies greater depth than at first glance.  There are some troublesome elements, there is a constant reference to ‘googling’ that takes me out of the action, and some elements of the absurd that occaisonally threaten to overwhelm the narration (“Patricia Kelly Elizabeth Podkayne Strickland-Garcia-Redmond-Broussard”, see my first paragraph), but the good far outweighs the bad.  Hard sci-fi fans might find the lack of explanation hard to swallow but I find the sense of mystery and wonder about the more fantastic science-fiction facets of the novels an integral aspect of the type of novel Varley set out to write; facets that hearken back to the classic science fiction stories of yore.  A B+ title bordering on an A, recommended for sci-fi fans of every stripe looking to be reminded about why they started reading sci-fi in the first place.

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