I read this book about 18-Feb-2004. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 2003. This note was last modified Sunday, 22-Feb-2004 10:43:19 PST.
This note contains spoilers for the book.
I've never been a big fan of Varley. I didn't like the Titan series, and I didn't like Steel Beach that much either. And I've never read his short fiction, which is supposedly what he's really good at. This one is dedicated to Spider Robinson and Robert A. Heinlein, among others. The list of his work on the dust jacket flap is peculiar; it lists the Gaea trilogy, and Steel Beach and The Golden Globe. And not lots of other things he's written, and none of his collections of short fiction.
This book also seems to be something he's good at. Crazy Cajun inventor comes up with space drive and important new physics, and with some college kids, build a spaceship to go to mars (to beat the Chinese, who are going to beat the American official expedition).
I'm seeing lots of other references to other SF. The main character is "Manuel Garcia", known as Manny; the inventor is "Jubal". (There are several other names that don't recur that I now don't remember, too, darn it.) There's a "Hiaasen" landscape maintenance company, which I presume is a reference to the writer of Florida thrillers, too.
Manny's family runs the Blast-Off motel, in Florida, down near Canaveral. Manny and his friends run into (well, over) a retired astronaut, who among other things tells them he could actually spot the hotel sign during launches sometimes. (He's retired because he saved a mission gone bad by shooting a hole in the windshield with a gun he wasn't supposed to have.)
I'm mostly enjoying this, but large areas are feeling poorly thought out. In their planning, there was no discussion of communication with Earth, for example. In practice, they did have a high-gain antenna, and radio and video communication with Earth; and in fact the antenna is lost during turnover, putting them out of touch with Earth. But there was no advance mention that I remember. Similarly, they had radar, salvaged from the nose of an old fighter. But there was no advance discussion of it during the planning. They haven't yet needed any weapons or explosives, but there was no discussion of such issues -- and they knew they were going to meet the Chinese ship, and they expected the Chinese to be angry at being edged out for first men on Mars. So as I read the sections where they were planning what to take, I kept screaming "you idiots!" in my head. Particularly since their philosophy was to take anything they thought they might need (no weight issues, given their propulsion system).
Then there's the whole question of how to handle the "squozer" technology. It's never really discussed; Travis takes care of it, and they pull a conference at the end. This might even be a decent plan—if they don't get grabbed before they leave, which almost happens. No contingency plan. No discussion of the possibility of going broadly public. Not that that's desirable; this technology is too cheap and powerful, it enables any loon, terrorist, or freedom fighter to have something better than atomic bombs. But is making it widespread better than having just one country control it? And what about the rest of the new physics? No discussion of that even at the end of the book. A breakthrough like this is going to have all sorts of consequences in other areas, and that's completely ignored. And the "priesthood" they create to guard the secret goes a long way towards suppressing any investigation of those areas, just by having so few people know about it. Who knows what they're missing? Possibly a bubble detector? Or a shield?