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Dark Lightning: A Thunder and Lightning Novel
by John Varley
Ace Books; $26.95; 344pp
Publication Date: August 5, 2014
I haven’t read any of the others in this series---but I sure will check them out because this book was so much fun! It reminded me strongly of a Heinlein juvenile, in flavor. Heck, the mother of the two central characters name is Podkayne.  There is also a “Jubal” and a variation on “Castor and Pollux.” The ship is called Rolling Thunder (i.e. Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones…) This is quite a paean to Heinlein juveniles!

I loved it.

This story is narrated in tandem by Pollyanna and Cassandra (Polly and Cassie) in wonderful true-to-life teenaged voices. Granted these are high school teenagers living way into the future—but the way they deal with things, their actions and their conversations are spot on. They are snarky when needed, but they are not foul-mouthed; are rarely bitchy and they are intelligent and clever. Varley does a great job with them.

Cassie and Polly live inside a six-mile long asteroid that has been turned into a ship that has left Old Earth and is on its way to New Earth. If Varley said just how far New Earth is from Old Earth, I couldn’t find the comment. But it is a damn long way.

The ship is propelled by black bubbles that Polly and Cassie’s Cajun father Jubal Broussard developed. These bubbles take the sting of hundreds of years of travel away and shorten it considerably. Jubal and his brother Travis made loads of money and left a disaster-ravaged earth with a ton of people and everything they could think of that they wanted to take: frivolous things  like the Hope Diamond, nostalgic things like merry-go-rounds from Central Park and Balboa Park in San Diego, pianos, cable cars, elephants, most plants, even name-brand sodas. Everything not being used is stored in a black bubble which contains a kind of stasis. What you put in there comes out exactly the same age and condition as it went in. So this ship holds a LOT of things. And a version of these black bubbles is what propels them along to their rendezvous with their new world.

Travis is a paranoid planner with a great eye for detail and realistic views of what people are like and what they might do. His paranoia about being prepared for ANY contingency will save the ship. And Jubal is a wonderful warm Cajun man with an astronomical IQ who still speaks as if he lives in the bayou. They are terrific characters unique and flavorful.

Jubal is a mathematical genius with many phobias and because he was severely injured as a child has a simplistic approach to things. He is sweet and gentle, pretty befuddled and amazingly intelligent and creative---way beyond the Einstein/Hawking range. Few people understand his grasp of physics etc.

But it’s his genius that’s moving this ship the “Rolling Thunder” forward in space.

Polly and Cassie lead straightforward normal lives; they go to school and indulge in extracurricular activities, their favorite being a game played on skycycles—very light- weight gliders propelled by foot power and some propulsion---and the game they play sounds a bit like hockey/soccer except in mid-air.  They even occasionally go fishing with Papa. They are surrounded by a huge loving family.

But then, one day, Jubal comes out of his bubble (where he goes when he either has to clear his mind for a big problem, or things around him become too much to handle) and shouts “Stop the ship!”

Okay—well, you know, not an easy thing to accomplish. But with this pronouncement, everything becomes unsettled and folks on the Rolling Thunder are disturbed by a plethora of rumors—the worst being that they are all heading to some kind of unknown situation that can kill everyone aboard the ship, if it doesn’t stop. It has to do with black lightning which is associated with the dark matter between the stars, string theory, and the speed of light---and well, it’s pretty esoteric and kind of hard for me to grasp. But Jubal needs time to figure out a solution.

Nevertheless, things grow very tense and eventually explode into a mutiny. And it is the intrepid actions of Polly and Cassie that save the situation, with a little help from the really cute boy both girls like, named Patrick. The story just zips along. Polly and Cassie’s pacific lives turn into a nightmare where they literally are the only ones to halt the mutiny and save their family members who have been locked up. They have to sneak across the ship while avoiding any electronic or visual surveillance… and everyone is looking for them. Jubal is hunkered down in hiding coming up with a solution to the problem the ship is headed towards.

Really. If you love Heinlein juveniles—this is just wonderful. I couldn’t put it down. And of course, the story ends with a hook for another book. And, just so you know---just for added spice--Travis, who labeled all the townships on the Rolling Thunder utilized names like “Frostbite Falls,” “Dogpatch,” and Freedonia.”  ~~ Sue Martin

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