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Red Thunder

(Thunder and Lightning #1)

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  2,008 ratings  ·  168 reviews
Seven suburban misfits are constructing a spaceship out of old tanker cars. The plan is to beat the Chinese to Mars--in under four days at three million miles an hour. It would be history in the making if it didn't sound so insane.
Paperback, 411 pages
Published April 27th 2004 by Ace (first published 2003)
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Average rating 3.82  · 
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 ·  2,008 ratings  ·  168 reviews

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This homage to Heinlein revived a lot of nostalgia in me for the hopefulness about space exploration in old-fashioned science fiction. Here a group of youth in their early 20’s in Florida hook up with a washed-up, alcoholic astronaut and his autistic inventor cousin to build a rocket to Mars. I had a lot of fun with the story despite its apparent leaning toward a young adult audience.

Manny, who tells the story, helps his mother run the “Blast-Off Motel” at Cape Canaveral while he saves for coll
Aug 28, 2016 rated it it was ok
Very much a 'guys' read. Specifically, an homage to the pulps' appeal to teen boys' fantasies of building a rocket in the backyard, back in the early days of scientifiction. But over 3 times longer than it needed to be, because of jabber-jabber backstories and jabber-jabber sex...

Interesting, but questionable (discuss-able? is this a candidate for a book club that's not limited to wine and estrogen?), explorations or patriotism, the 'mad scientist' trope, the roles of women, definitions of fami
Jul 11, 2008 rated it it was ok
People have been saying for years that Varley is the new Heinlein. Apparently he's started to take this seriously, since all his books after "Golden Globe" are written in a kind of Junior Heinlein style. Heinlein's okay, I guess, but you know who I like better? John Varley. Wonder what ever happened to him...
Peter Tillman
Jan 03, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: fantasy
The first SF book John Varley ever read was Robert A. Heinlein's Red Planet. Red Thunder is his tribute to that book, and all the other wonderful Heinlein juveniles that SF readers of a certain age cut their teeth on.

Anyway, as you've probably figured out, a bunch of likeable Florida teens get together and build a homemade spaceship, a couple decades from now, with the help of a cashiered NASA astronaut and his idiot-savant cousin, Jubal, who has discovered a simple vacuum-energy shunt. With fre
Ralph McEwen
Feb 22, 2010 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Darlene Milner, Cheryl Anderson, Yve and most everybody else
A truly enjoyable tale. I am glad that I picked up this book when I didn't have time to read it in one go. I got to be in the story for about two weeks. The characters are fun and the adventure is engaging. There is very little “bad” language, since one of the main characters reacts very poorly to it. I recommend this book to all.
John Hood
Apr 11, 2011 rated it it was amazing
"Given that the basic idea is crazy, it's sound workmanship." One of his characters says that about a cobbled-together spacecraft, but it also applies to John Varley's novels.

The guy who wrote the Titan trilogy is back again with a tale of south Florida in the near future, and eight people for whom the best of life has passed them by. But don't count them out yet.

An alcoholic astronaut, his super-genius cousin, and six college rejects accidentally invent a source of almost limitless power (OK so
Dec 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science-fiction
To the critics who complain of this premise as implausible, I say return to your non fiction, for if you're not here for the fantasy, then why are you reading fiction? Since most science exploration usually involves people bred and groomed for that purpose, the fantasy here is that ordinary folk build their own spaceship and become the first to set foot on Mars. It may not be the most plausible story, but if you're willing to go along for the ride, it's entertaining, and I always find that to be ...more
Spider the Doof Warrior
Jul 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This book is good. John Varley is who you need to go to for your sci fi needs. This book doesn't have the delightful weird alieness of the Gaea series but it's brilliant hard sci fi.

I don't think I'd really be good at writing hard science fiction. You do need a basic knowledge of physics to make the book believable.

What makes this book good is the characters. Diverse, interesting characters. My favourite sort of books are ragtag misfits trying to do something cool together that no one thinks th
Aug 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
John Varley is an author I and a good friend "discovered" while we were in high school. I have enjoyed Varley's work ever since and he has really never disappointed me. Red Thunder is a lot of fun to read though the build up was slow-my best advice is not to pull the rip cord on this one too fast as if you do you will really cheat yourself. One thing I loved were all the nods to Robert A Heinlein, whom I conceive as a sort of spiritual godfather to Red Thunder's come from behind race to Mars sto ...more
Mar 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was fabulous. It took an unbelivable premise, made it belivable and had a rolicking good time doing it.

I saw it in the school library, and picked it up off the shelf. I read the cover flap, and said, well, it'll be good for a laugh. But boy, was I wrong! It was much better than I expected.

Despite the rather lofty science fiction concept, the book is remakably human, focusing on the characters and their problems.

This was the first book I've read since Deathly Hallows that I actually f
Jul 24, 2010 rated it really liked it
One of the things I’ve been doing over the last year or so is re-reading old Robert A. Heinlein. It’s been an interesting experience, some of it not always good, others being wonderful.

It’s partly because of that that I’ve had this copy of Red Thunder around Hobbit Towers for a while and actually not got to reading it. As you might expect from a five-time Nebula and Hugo Award winner, John Varley is a wonderful prose writer, one of those, like Heinlein, whose deceptively smooth style just keeps
Pseudonymous d'Elder
Dec 26, 2015 rated it it was ok
"We'll get to Mars before I can say Jack Robinson," said Tom swiftly.

An old school mad inventor story about nineteen-year-olds who help build a rocket out of train tank cars and fly it to Mars. Well, its as believable as Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint, which I read in 1956 when I was in 3rd grade. The trouble is this book was apparently written for adults.
Sean Randall
Jul 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Sold to me as an homage to the heinlein juveniles, I was dead keen to get into this. There are a lot of nods to RAH - especially names, but the style and milieu also fit into the groove (although there are differences).

Chapters 13 and 28 sang out to me, and the whole story is full of the exciting and drive you'd expect from something from Heinlein in his prime, with perhaps an older, somewhat modernised layer of late-teenhood to peer through. To sum, an exciting adventure.
Kevin Schillo
Jun 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A fun juvenile sci-fi novel. Sure, the technology that drives the story forward has no regard for the laws of physics, but it's still an enjoyable read for what it is.
Dec 16, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: f-sf
If you liked the Heinlein juveniles, you’ll like this.
Kathy Davie
Jun 06, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sci-fi, young-adult
First in the Red young adult science fiction series set in a futuristic Florida.

The Story
We start with the four best friends, Manny, Kelly, Dak, and Alicia watching the Mars-bound VentureStar rocket take off with its Ares-Seven crew. It's a special event for the four as both Manny and Dak dream about going into space. This summer they are, okay, so they're trying to, studying hard to pass their online college courses. Online because neither of them can afford to go to a real college. But that n
May 07, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: sci-fi, 2014
Not sure what all the hype is about this book, or the comparison to Robert Heinlein. I've read a few of Heinlein's novels and they're more hard sci-fi than this one. I find Varley writes more like Orson Card personally. This book I'd say has a reading level for 14-18 year olds. There's too much humor and most of it is not funny at an adult level. I find anyway. The basic plot is good and I like the history lesson about the space program that pops up every so often but I was told most of this in ...more
Jun 28, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: dnf
I could not get into this book. I kept having to look at the publication date on this as I was reading to make sure it was actually published as recently as 2006. Something about it just feels dated. For instance, there's the unironic use of the word "mulato," as well as other details here and there that just don't fit with the conspicuous current pop culture references. Meh. Some authors use up all their juice in their first 40 years of writing, me thinks.
Nov 10, 2007 rated it liked it
This felt a lot like reading early Heinlein. That's a complement and I generally enjoyed the story. Varley spins a good yarn.
Tobin Elliott
Apr 16, 2018 rated it it was ok
I really wanted to enjoy this novel.

It's been years since I've read any Varley, but I remember the previous stuff with fondness. The Titan/Wizard/Demon trilogy, Millenium (which was turned into such a shitty movie with Cheryl Ladd), and a couple of short story collections. I remember loving them all.

I was in the Dominican Republic last week, I'd blasted through all the reading material I'd brought with me, and they had a library of used books you could donate to or pull from. Most of it was st
Feb 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I found this on a Book Trade Table at my favorite restaurant, Norma’s North Star! The back reviews compared it to the style of Robert Heinlein...and I agree! It’s tough to find a good book after a Star Wars reading binge. This story features two best friends who live in southern Florida, who drive for hours just to watch spaceships lift off. They dream of becoming astronauts; however, they can’t even afford college. Manny helps his mom & aunt run the Blast-Off Motel & Dak works with his dad in t ...more
David Roy
Having read only Varley's short stories, I was surprised by the somewhat simplistic tone of the book. As I read it, I realized it really is a YA story, though with a lot more adult sexuality than other YA books I've read.

The story is well told despite the cliched story line: The gang of extra-bright misfits along with an adult misfit and a deus ex machina character beat China to Mars. Along the way, they do some maturing, the rich asshole is shown up (though indirectly his wealth funneled to hi
Sep 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
If you ignore the cover and title page, you might think that a somehow-resurrected Robert A. Heinlein wrote this book. The style, the plot, the characters, and the setting are that similar to RAH’s novels.

Red Thunder is a fun book about some average kids who team up with an ex-astronaut, build their own spaceship, and travel to Mars. Read it for enjoyment, since this is pure fantasy, as is their super wham-o-dyne physics-defying drive system. It’s an enjoyable romp, and Heinlein fans will enjoy
What a whale of a tale! Red Thunder is the first of John Varley's Thunder & Lightning series.

Red Thunder is mostly a book about how to design & build a space-going vessel. We don't actually blast off until approx. page 300 of this 411-page work. But that's just fine.

Red Thunder has a totally new, revolutionary propulsion system and a young crew (18-19 year olds), led by a washed-up former astronaut and is constructed (in total secrecy) as a private venture by said crew, with the help of family.
Faith Justice
Sep 07, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: arc-early-reader
This the review I did for Strange Horizons magazine in 2003

Multiple Hugo and Nebula award winner John Varley's first novel of the new century harks back to an earlier era. Red Thunder is an homage to Heinlein's juveniles, but it also borrows the "can do" attitude of young folks from such classics as the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the Andy Hardy movies. But instead of "let's put on a show in the barn," it's "let's build a spaceship in the warehouse." What's to stop them? Men-in-black government
Jim Mann
Oct 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
I hadn't read any John Varley in years. I'd love his short fiction when he burst on the scene in Galaxy in the 1970s with such stories as "The Phantom of the Kansas" and "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance." But somehow I lost touch with his work. But I decided to dive back in, starting with this novel from 2003.

It's a fun ride: three parts Heinlein and one part Carl Hiassen. Two teenagers almost run over a drunk on the beach. They take him home, but find out he's an ex-astronaut. More, his cousin Jubal i
Ted Goldstein
Oct 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I had not yet discovered John Varley when I came across his name on BoingBoing where they called his new books “tributes to the golden age of Heinlein’s juvenile sf novels.” Being a fan of Heinlein’s work I gave Red Thunder a try and was not disappointed. It does read a lot like Heinlein with lots good science and tech details and some good believable near future inventions. Even though it may be like Heinlein’s “juvenile” sf books, and my 9 year old son read and enjoyed Have Space Suit Will Tra ...more
Heinlein done better. He included intelligent females.
Let's build a spaceship and go to Mars. We can beat the Chinese, whose ship is already en route.
Two teenage couples, with the aid of an ex-astronaut and his idiot-savant cousin work out how to build the spaceship, including such things as spacesuits, air and heat, and proper welding to seal it completely. Lots of stuff you wouldn't think of unless you were serious about this job. Interesting characters and their interactions, not to mention p
Frank Burns
Dec 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Now this was a fun ride! Varley's tribute to Heinlein's Young Adult work. That being said this was far more adult than you would expect. Whilst it was upbeat and gung ho, it was certainly realistic with moments of absolute pathos. A rollicking read that took me back to the kind of thing I devoured by the ton in my long, lost youth and would go out of my way to find. This was a very modern book though, centred in a very plausible near future. The piece of handwavium that was necessary to make the ...more
Andy Rondeau
Dec 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
One of my perennial favorites, I reread Red Thunder every year. I have even bought copies to give away as gifts. People have been calling John Varley a young Robert Heinlein since he was, well, young. I'm willing to bet the comparison irks him by now, but he's lived up to that standard and I buy every new John Varley book simply because he's that good.
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Full name: John Herbert Varley.

John Varley was born in Austin, Texas. He grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, moved to Port Arthur in 1957, and graduated from Nederland High School. He went to Michigan State University.

He has written several novels and numerous short stories.He has received both the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Other books in the series

Thunder and Lightning (4 books)
  • Red Lightning (Thunder and Lightning, #2)
  • Rolling Thunder (Thunder and Lightning, #3)
  • Dark Lightning (Thunder and Lightning, #4)

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