THE BACK PAGES

Spider and his long dead co-author

PAUL WELLS October 16 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Spider and his long dead co-author

PAUL WELLS October 16 2006

Spider and his long dead co-author

sci-fi

Robert Heinlein inspired the book. It turned out he had some ideas for the ending, too.

PAUL WELLS

“The first thing I ever read in my entire life with no pictures in it— the first actual book—was Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein,” Spider Robinson recalls. “I was six years old. My mother drove me to an old building and said, ‘Go in there and ask the nice lady to give you a book.’” The old building was a branch of the New York City library. The librarian was about to show little Spider the path of his life. He dutifully tucked the book she gave him under his arm. “And I went home and I just...got ...fried,” he says. “It was about these three kids who build a rocket ship in their backyard with the help of their uncle. And they go to the moon. And they find Nazis hiding out there, trying to set up a fourth Reich. It was just cooler than hell.”

Little Spider ended up reading nine more Heinlein novels before he read anything else. Years later, when Robinson became a writer himself, he met Heinlein and was amazed to learn his idol was a fan of his own work. They became unlikely friends. One, a clean-cut old man, ramrod straight and courtly in his manner, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who could reasonably have expected to become an admiral. The other, a gangly bearded hippie from the Bronx, a sometime folksinger 41 years Heinlein’s junior. All they had in common, at first, was a boundless faith in human ingenuity. But the love of the younger man for the older helps explain why, 18 years after Heinlein died, a new novel has appeared with both their names on the cover.

Variable Star is Robinson’s book, based on an outline Heinlein wrote in 1955Well, part of an outline. “Seven pages that ended in the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a story, in mid-air,” Robinson, 58, said in an

interview at his home on Bowen Island, just north ofVancover. He and his wife, Jeanne, an author and former dancer, have lived in Canada for 30 years. He became a Canadian citizen in 2002.

At a science fiction convention in Toronto in 2003, Robinson was on a panel discussing recently discovered Heinlein marginalia when Heinlein’s executor mentioned the outline for Variable Star. A woman in the audience immediately suggested Robinson finish the book. The rest is future history.

Robinson was a natural choice. An exuberant writer whose prose brims with optimism, improbably articulate characters and countless puns, Robinson has long been one of the most prominent and beloved authors in science fiction.

The story he wrote is a typically strapping Heinlein tale. A young man named Joel, broke and in love with his girl Jinny in Vancouver 300 years from today, discovers that she’s not another ordinary kid. She’s the granddaughter of the richest man in the solar system. He can have her hand and unimaginable riches—if only he’ll abandon his dream of being a musician. He’ll be needed to run the family business, you see. Joel escapes his dilemma, goes on a bender, and signs up for duty on a colony ship leaving on a 20-year journey to a distant star. Goodbye everything

he knew. Hello, universe. Big adventure. Big emotion. More than any writer of his generation, Heinlein never let the space gadgets get in the way of his big-hearted human tales.

Robinson had just settled into telling this tale when he ran past the end of Heinlein’s outline, like Wile E. Coyote running past the cliff edge. “Two weeks later I was banging my head against the desk and saying, ‘What the hell am I going to do for an ending?’ ” he says. Fortunately he had his iPod on. The music player finished its last Ray Charles tune and defaulted to the next artist in its alphabetical directory: Robert Anson Heinlein. Robinson heard a recording of a 1987 Heinlein radio interview, including three sentences that inspired the ending of Variable Star.

So Heinlein started this project and helped to end it. Robinson filled in the rest. The novel peddles one of their most cherished arguments: “We’ve got to get out of this place or it’ll be the last thing we’ll never do,” Robinson says. “This place” is our earth, our solar system. For reasons of prudence (humanity’s eggs should not stay in this one basket), a desire to exploit the universe’s endless resources, and simple romance, Robinson believes, as Heinlein did, that it’s time to get out and look around the universe. Chapter one of Variable Star features a song that singer David Crosby, another Heinlein fan, has already set to music: It’s the reason we came from the mud, don’t you know / ’Cause we wanted to climb to the stars. M