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Robert Heinlein is one of those authors who is sadly not being allowed to die - his estate keeps digging up old manuscripts out of the extensive archives he donated to UC Santa Cruz and publishing them. Some of the results have been interesting (pieces that had never been reprinted since their original magazine publication, like "A Tenderfoot in Space"), and some have been, well, unfortunate.

The most recent revivified Heinlein is Spider Robinson's 2006 novel, Variable Star, which was based on a story outline by Heinlein.

Be warned: despite the claims on the cover, which gives Heinlein top billing, Variable Star is a Spider Robinson novel through and through. Robinson, for those who haven't read him before, is a very distinct writer with a limited range -- all of his work is more or less similar in style and tone, so if you like what he does in one book, you will enjoy his other books; if you don't, you won't. And if you're like me, you'll start out enjoying his stories and then, after a while, start to find his writerly tics (which don't really vary) grating and irritating.

Rather than review Variable Star, I want to talk about the original story outline (working title "The Star Clock") by Heinlein which Robinson used. The outline is available in PDF from the Heinlein Archives for $2. It is bundled with a bunch of other stuff in the collection called "Story Ideas, part 1", file number WRTG201a-01.*

While Heinlein never turned the outline into a novel himself, he did did not abandon it as the marketing for Variable Star would imply. Rather, he took one core idea (near-light speed travel as a form of time travel into the future) and used it as the basis for Time For the Stars. Then he took the other core idea (poor boy suddenly finds himself dealing with a family more wealthy and powerful than most governments) and incorporated it into Citizen of the Galaxy. Finally he took the last idea from the outline (boy and girl seemingly separated by one-way time travel into the future discover that their ages are not incompatible after all because they've both traveled forward), and used it in The Door Into Summer.

Robinson talks in the afterword to Variable Star that the outline he had to work with was only seven pages long, with page 8 missing. The version in the archive is complete, so the last page must have gone astray somewhere between UCSC and Robinson's desk.

Extensive Googling has not turned up anyone else talking about this outline in specific terms, so here goes.

The outline is eight single space typewritten pages, plus 12 handwritten notecards. The notecards are pages 115-128 and the typed outline pages 129-136 of the PDF. I'll be focusing on the typescript, which I can read without straining my eyes. The notecards are very brief, so we're not missing much this way.

The MS begins "Notes for a novel - 5 Nov 1955," which places it (going by publication dates) after Tunnel in the Sky and before Double Star or Time for the Stars. The second line gives a working title "The Stars are a Clock," and then there are several other titles handwritten at the top of the page:

Dr. Einstein's Clock
The Starship Nautilus
The Starship Naughty Girl
The Star Clock
The Einstein Clock

It's not clear whether the two "The Starship X" ones are meant to be subtitles for "Dr Einstein's Clock" or standalone titles in themselves. Page 2 is headed "Star Clock (The Star Clock, maybe)" and the rest of the outline has "The Star Clock-[page number]" as a running head.

The only named characters are Joel Johnston, age 18, the protagonist, Jinny Jones/aka Jennifer Conrad (Joel's steady high school girlfriend, age 17), and "Mr. Conrad," Jinny's grandfather and head of the Conrad financial empire. A few other characters are described in terms of the real-world people the character should be modeled after (in speaking of the starship, he says "I think maybe Ron Hubbard is her skipper").

This was clearly intended as a juvenile novel - Joel is 18, and when saying he "should have more girl trouble aboard ship," Heinlein adds "(keep it clean, of course!)" One reason Heinlein set the outline aside and started over may be that he decided he couldn't get a book whose plot was centered on a romance accepted for the (at the time) sexless juvenile market.

Joel and Jinny are in love, but Joel is an orphan with no money and he thinks he needs to get through college and start a career before he can get married. If Joel can't get the scholarship he's applied for, then it's going to take even longer, since he'll have to work his way though school.

Having gotten Joel to admit that he would like to marry Jinny if only there was a way, Jinny lets him know that he surname is not Jones but Conrad, and that she is not just a Conrad, but the "'crown princess' of the Conrad industrial empire... which is larger than the Hanseatic League, Rothschild family, and General Motors combined and just smaller than space itself."

Two paragraphs in a row start with a variation of Joel "finally gets it through his head" that Jinny is wealthy enough to pay his way though school, so Joel is yet another variation on the "smart but slow witted youth" that Heinlein used as protagonist again and again.

There's a couple of paragraphs mentioning the marriage and courtship customs of the time, which again probably would not have been acceptable in a novel for the juvenile market: "some discussion of 'student contract,' the trial marriage used" by most college students who wish to get married before they graduate, rejected by Jinny, ("marriage isn't a ticket to an amusement park") who wants an old fashioned life long marriage.

Jinny doesn't "park, diddle, go on no-chaperone weekends... she is old-fashioned and chinchy" because she has been taught since age three that she has a responsibility to the Conrad family to produce an heir with an acceptable father - and she has decided that Joel is that man.

Joel "finally gathers" that he has been tapped not just to marry into the Conrad family but to produce its heirs, and is dubious about being a kept man/prince consort. Jinny says "it isn't like that at all!" and makes him promise to go talk to her grandfather about it.

All this takes just over a page of the outline.

The next morning, Joel is summoned to an audience with Mr. Conrad. There is only one "Mr. Conrad" at any one time, all the other male Conrads go by "Mr. Joseph, Mr. Robert" and so on. Conrad takes Joel's consent for granted and proceeds to tell him how he will live his life from then on -- he will be educated, trained, and groomed to take a top executive position. Joel was thoroughly investigated before Jinny was given permission to propose to him. Mr. Conrad knows all about him - including confidential medical/psychological records.

Joel objects, respectfully, saying that having his life planned out for him like this is not for him. Conrad brushes his objections aside and leaves, still failing to realize that he's just been turned down.

Joel is unable to contact Jinny after this ("she has been gently kidnapped, of course - family stuff"), and once he fails to respond to further messages from Conrad, the screws start to turn: his scholarship (controlled by the Conrad foundation) is turned down.

Unable to continue school, sore at Jinny for not contacting him, and at his wits end, "he sees the ad for 'gentlemen adventurers'" applies, is accepted, and is shortly on his way to Beta Aurigae.

All this takes a page and a half of outline, most of it devoted to a detailed summary of Mr. Conrad's interview with Joel.

Now there's just under two pages of background material, detailing several things:

First, the economics of space travel in this future society - relativistic starships that go out on voyages of exploration often fail to come back, but those that do return invariably show an immense profit, more than enough to pay for the lost ships. Starship exploration is one area where the Conrad empire has competitors, and the ad Joel sees is not affiliated with the Conrad conglomerate.

Second, the nature of Joel's poverty - he has an "orphan's allowance" which ran out on his 18th birthday. Joel's father bought some stock for him but the market shifted and Joel had to sell it low to pay for his last (post 18th birthday) semester at prep school. WIthout the scholarship, Joel has no money at all. He could do many things at this point, from indentured service to a stint in the military, but he's so discombobulated by the whole Jinny/Conrad business that he is in a "what the hell frame of mind" and signs up for this star voyage.

Third, the starship in question is "a pile of junk," old and poorly equipped, carrying low value cargo (emigrants), with low likelihood of returning, but Joel doesn't know that. "She will be a quaint mixture of madhouse and hellship." Subjectively, the trip out and back (to a star 10 light years away) will take a year, but 40 years will pass on Earth.

Fourth, there's a half page of brainstorming, with Heinlein throwing out multiple ideas as to what may happen (is the skipper incompetent, or is he in on a stock market manipulation scheme to delay the ship's return? Perhaps Joel still has some stock his father bought in an old starship that is long overdue, which he instructs his solicitor to invest in Joel's starship if it ever pays off? Perhaps they pay off, but his solicitor put them in a "safe" investment instead, and Joel is penniless - again! - at the end of his trip?)

Joel applies to go on the starship, along with a large crowd of "down-at heels rabble" and he is among the few provisionally accepted. They'd like him to marry one of the single women who have also been provisionally accepted, but he'll have none of that. "He is accepted anyhow and we rush him aboard."

And then there's a bit more than a page of further brainstorming about what happens aboard ship - with an note that "we've got plenty to happen when he gets back; what we need now is adventure and humor" and twists on the ship and on the alien planet.

Heinlein makes several mid-course changes in the story: the back-at-home duration of the voyage gets increased to 60 years, with Joel aging just three years; the ship goes through two names (Nautilus and Naughty Girl) and goes from making an out-and-back voyage to making a 4 or 5 leg journey. He tosses out the idea that an emigrant on the original trip out from Earth (then a 5 year old girl) grows up to be someone he might want to marry on his return to that colony world, and the idea that another girl from his high school is on the crew of the ship, and he falls for her, but she marries one of the officers instead.

One thing he seems certain of is that while Joel's ship is still traveling, FTL ships are perfected and the relativistic starships become obsolete. He also mentions that Joel will find a "space bat" as a "cute and cuddlesome and smart e.-t." pet.

Eventually Joel has to go back to Earth (whether his stocks end up making him well-heeled or broke Heinlein waffles on), still single. A page is devoted to discussing the "Out-of-Phase Club, Anachron Lounge, etc" and Joel's meeting with the secretary of the club, who explains to him the club's purpose of helping relativistic starship crew by acting as translators and as a place where they can meet people from their own time period, since they are almost always going to find Earth's society, language, and customs to be bafflingly different from when they left.

Finally, the last page and a half of the outline is devoted to Joel's arranging to meet Jinny (who he imagines is now almost 80), the girl he ran away from and who has continued to haunt him, keeping him from marrying any of the "half a dozen other nice girls" he met on his travels. After getting to the Conrad house, he first sees Jinny's granddaughter and great-granddaughter, and (once again) is slow on the uptake when Jinny (still young) finally walks into the room.

Because, of course, she took a starship out too, after marrying, giving birth to the requisite heir, and then finding herself both widowed and orphaned in quick succession. So, sixty years later, they are now the same age.

They fight, they make up, they "clinch." They decide, since they are both anachronisms from the past, to buy their own starship (Joel's old ship) and travel around relativistically, coming back to earth every century or so to "see what's new."

For those curious, Robinson's novel is extremely faithful to the first five pages of the outline (up to the point where Joel leaves on the starship). He used few of the brainstorming ideas Heinlein put in page 6 (the trip), and ignored page 7 (Joel's return to Earth) completely (and he didn't have page 8, as explained in his afterword).

Sadly, by staying so faithful to the initial outline, then diverging so widely from it, Robinson ended up with a book that egregiously violates the Chekov's Gun rule - the ending of Variable Star comes from nowhere, with no buildup or foreshadowing, while the beginning of it puts a good many plot threads in motion that are discarded abruptly without resolution to make way for the ending.

* If you buy this collection, you get the following in addition to the Star Clock outline: Numerous newspaper and magazine clippings that Heinlein evidently found evocative; two articles by Jerry Pournelle (one MS, one journal reprint); some handwritten pages that I did not try to decipher; 19 pages of worldbuilding notes for "A Martian named Smith" aka Stranger in a Strange Land from 1949; two typed letters, one to "Sarge" (dec 1963), and one (missing the first page, probably mid 60's also) to "Buz," both talking about race relations.

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