Red Thunder by John Varley
I absolutely loved Varley's Red Thunder, and told Kij that it is one of my favorite books I've read in a long time. I knew while reading it that some people might not feel it is as award-worthy as other, perhaps more-literary, novels, but I can't help but believe books such as this are vital to the health of SF.
The plot is pretty straightforward: Four 18-21 year-olds, a down-on-his-luck ex-astronaut, and his brain-damaged but genius cousin need to build a spaceship and fly to Mars in 60 days so the USA can be there first and they can rescue a doomed NASA mission. The physics is fun but never really described: something about creating bubbles in multiple dimensions to create a near-limitless power source. But after those quibbles, everything else is sheer pleasure. The characters are all slightly criminal but completely moral and likeable, and each is broken in a unique way (a couple are truly heartbreaking), so Varley makes the reader really root for them. The plot is fast-paced and fun, and even though you're pretty sure nothing will really go wrong for our heroes, those pages keep turning. This feels like a Heinlein juvenile for a new generation, just the sort of thing that would have sent me into the garage to build my next rocket as a kid. Yet there are adult situations aplenty, so I suspect Ace was afraid to market it as young-adult. The marketing of this book boggles me. Why the Cold-War thriller cover art and font? It's not really a YA novel -- though the family issues should speak to young people -- but neither is it a Cold-War thriller.
I think this book's value lies in its human-ness, humor, and honesty. I was moved by the family love shared by a few of the characters, I laughed during just about every page, and got teary on a number of occasions. I also admire Varley for writing something so brazenly dream-fulfilling to everyone who grew up believing our future is among the stars, yet have seen us step farther and farther from that future. Books like this are why readers like me got started reading SF. Though conservative parents might be aghast at their teens reading this book, every young person should read it. In a genre becoming less and less accessible to new readers, Varley delivers a wonderful novel any new reader, age 14 to 144 can love, and long-time SF readers can read with great pleasure and even nostalgia, though it is a thorougly modern book in theme, setting, and character.
I hope you read this book. Remember how you felt when you first read SF, when anything seemed possible and regular folk could build a rocketship in their garage. I believe Red Thunder can deliver that same joy to a new generation.