Ace Books, 411 pp.
Varley is back with a fun-filled tribute to the classic Robert Heinlein juveniles. Red Thunder is a modern re-telling of Rocketship Galileo that combines the classic Heinlein sense of wide-eyed wonder with thoroughly modern, believable characters. With the United States’ Mars program falling behind the Chinese, Americans have accepted that they won’t be the first to reach the red planet. Disappointed by this situation, our young heroes—Manny, Dak, Kelly, and Alicia—team up with down-and-out ex-astronaut Travis Broussard and his Rainman/genius cousin, Jubal, to build “a spaceship on pocket change.” Using a new engine that Jubal has invented, the team sets out to reach Mars before the Chinese and also to rescue the trailing American ship from a fatal design flaw. Varley does a great job of using Heinlein’s basic Andy Hardy plot and infusing it with humor and depth to create a reasonably believable “kids building a spaceship” story. He gives the story considerable credibility by not shying away from a believably less-than-happy ending when the four kids must deal with the fame of their accomplishments. Along the way, Varley also throws in a touch of homage to Florida mystery writers John D. MacDonald and Carl Hiassen. Good stuff.