Afterword: Variable Star

This is an optional bonus: a sort of DVD Special Feature, "The Making Of Variable Star," in which I explain how I ended up being the one to tell you the story.

Feel free to save it for later, or skip it altogether.

Its principal purpose is to save me from having to spend the next few years answering the same questions over and over, and I already suspect it's probably not going to work.

I type this in November of 2005 in my office on an island west of British Columbia... but for me, the whole thing began way over at the other end of the continent, in a New York suburb rightly called Plainview, fifty-one years ago in November of 1954, when I turned six years old.

My mother wanted to raise a literate son. But Mom also had a lot of resting she wanted to get done, so she came up with a diabolically efficient scheme for teaching me to read. She would start reading me a Lone Ranger comic book, and just as it got to the really exciting part, where the masked man was hanging by his fingertips from the cliff... Mom would suddenly remember she had to go wind the cat or fry the dishes.

By age six I had taught myself to read out of sheer frustration. On my birthday, she graduated me to the hard stuff. She drove me to a building called a "lie bury," and told me to go inside and ask the nice lady behind the desk for a book.

I followed instructions. "Mom says gimme a book, lady." And the nice lady behind the desk sized me up thoughtfully, and handed me the very first book with no pictures in it that I ever read in my life: Rocketship Galileo, by Robert A. Heinlein.

I've tried hard to learn her name, without success. She changed my life completely.

It was the first of Robert's famous juvenile novels - and it was at least a hundred times better than the Lone Ranger! It was about teenage boys who were so smart they went to the Moon, and fought Nazis there, and there was nothing dopey about it, it all could have been true, practically! I finished it that night, and the next day I walked two miles to that lie bury and demanded to swap it for another one by the same guy.

The same nice lady accomodated me, and the first ten books I ever read in my life were by Robert Heinlein, and they were all great. When I tried other books, by other writers, it immediately became clear that some were good, and some were rotten. But it was just as clear that the ones in the same stack with the Heinleins - the ones that all had a sticker on their spine depicting a hydrogen atom inexplicably impaled by a V2 - were always excellent, nearly as good as Heinlein himself.

In 1954, science fiction was such a scorned genre that any sci fi actually published in hardcover - and then ordered by a public library - had to be terrific. I became a hardcore sci fi reader simply because that was where all the best stuff was... and so the whole course of my life was twisted.

Now the story jumps ahead nearly a year - and yanks us halfway back across the country again. On November 14, 1955, ten days before my seventh birthday, Robert Anson Heinlein sat down at his desk in Colorado Springs and wrote an outline for a novel he first called The Stars Are A Clock. He later wrote in half a dozen possible alternate titles by hand, including Doctor Einstein's Clock, but never settled on one he liked. This was not unusual for him. A Martian Named Smith, for instance, was also The Heretic for a while before it was finally published as Stranger in a Strange Land.

His outline filled at least eight extremely dense pages: singlespaced ten pica type with absolutely minimal margins on all four sides and very few strikeovers. He also filled fourteen 3X5 index cards with extensive handwritten notes relating to the book. And then, for reasons only he could tell us, he closed the file and put it in a drawer, and never got around to writing that particular book.

Now the biggest jump of all: less mileage this time, but nearly forty-eight years - to Toronto on September 1, 2003, where the World Science Fiction Convention, Torcon 3, was held that year. I was Toastmaster for that Worldcon, the second time I have endured that honour, and it went infinitely better than the first time had, the Saturday night Hugo Awards ceremony this time fiasco-free.

So I was pleasantly relaxed on Sunday morning when I showed up for my last obligation of the weekend, an appearance on a panel discussion about rare and obscure works by Robert A. Heinlein. Some remarkable discoveries of previously unknown Heinleiniana had been made in recent years, including an entire first book few had known existed called For Us, The Living, which Scribner's had just published for the first time. I was on the panel because I had contributed an Introduction to it - but what I wanted to hear about was the exciting new stuff I'd heard rumours about. Teleplays - screenplays, even! I was quite unprepared for what I got.

The star panelist was Dr. Robert James, one of the researchers busily combing through the country's libraries for RAH references, standing in for official biographer Bill Patterson who had been unable to attend. Robert is the man personally responsible for rescuing For Us, The Living from oblivion, and Bill had given him some terrific ammunition from the Heinlein Collection at the University of California at Santa Cruz to wow us all with.

Those teleplays, for instance: most were based on known short stories... but not all of them. There were Robert Heinlein stories we didn't know. That room was packed to bursting with some of the world's most hardcore Heinlein fans, and we were electrified by the news that the Canon was not yet quite complete, after all. And that wasn't all...

There was, Robert said, an outline for an entire novel that no one knew about, that Heinlein had never gotten around to writing. What it read like, he said, was a classic Heinlein Juvenile, and indeed it had been dreamed up around the time he was writing them, and...

... and from the back of the room, a woman I could not see called, in a loud, clear, melodious voice: "You should get Spider Robinson to finish that novel."

And there was applause.

One of the other people on that panel was Eleanor Wood, literary agent for the estate of Robert A. Heinlein - and also, as it happens, for me. Another was Art Dula, trustee for the estate and its half-million-dollar Heinlein Prize Trust (See for details)... and Robert's literary executor.

Glances were exchanged. Immediately after the panel ended, words were exchanged. I was, please understand, profoundly terrified that this cup might actually come to me. It was quite literally the most difficult and intimidating challenge that could possibly be handed a science fiction writer, a red flag to critics. It was like a musician being asked to write, score, produce, perform and record an entire album based on a couple of John Lennon demo cassettes

In boxing it's called leading with your chin.

But I was fifty-five years old, just in the mood for the challenge of my life. Most of all, I wanted to read a new Heinlein novel so badly, I didn't care if I had to finish it myself, didn't care what kind of grief it cost me to do so.

Once again an anonymous woman had changed my life. I'm delighted to report that this time she did not remain anonymous. I sent this Afterword around to some of those mentioned in it for corrections, and one of them was David M. Silver, President of the Heinlein Society, who was also on that panel. He was able to identify my benefactress as a member of his esteemed society.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Kate Gladstone!

Shortly after I returned home from Torcon 3, I received Robert's outline, and permission to write two sample chapters and a proposal for Art Dula; if he liked them, the gig was mine. Wild with exultation, I fell upon that outline and read it three times with extreme care. And then I began banging my head on my desk.

Gently, at first.

You may recall I stated earlier that Robert's outline ran at least eight pages. It may have run fifty, for all anybody knows. What we do know is, seven of them survive. They establish the ficton - Robert's term for the time-and-place in which a story is set. They create vivid characters and their back-stories, especially Joel, Jinny and her grandfather. They describe the basic antinomy that impels Joel to emigrate, discuss the economics of interstellar colonization, and sketch in some of his early adventures after he leaves.

And then they chop off in mid-sentence, and mid-story.

My God, I said to myself, the first time I finished reading the outline, there's no furshlugginer ending! It could go anywhere from here... God, this is great! I said to myself the second time I finished it, I not only get to write a book with Robert, I get to pick the ending.

Dear God, I moaned to myself after the third reading, what the hell am I going to do for an ending?

I holed up in my office for a week, and stared at those seven pages and fourteen quasilegible index cards and asked myself that question until beads of blood began to form on my forehead. Barring another miracle of forensic scholarship, this was going to be the very last Robert Heinlein novel ever. No ending I thought of seemed adequate. Twice a day my wife poked food in with a stick and retired to safety. I played my entire iTunes music library in search of inspiration, staring at its hypnotic visual display on my Powerbook screen, thinking like mad.

And one afternoon, iTunes finished playing the last Ray Charles album on my hard drive, and defaulted to the next artist in alphabetical order. Robert Anson Heinlein. Half a dozen short mp3 audio clips, of him being interviewed on radio in his hometown, Butler, Missouri, on its first-ever Robert A. Heinlein Day back in 1987, a year before his death. I'd listened to all those clips often. But the first one in line made me sit bolt upright in my chair now.