When RAH died it turned out he left, utterly forgotten in a desk drawer, an outline to a book he had never done anything else with. In 2003 it was discovered and Spider Robinson was asked if he would mind taking this outline and turning it into a book. The result has now been published by Tor, Amazon France has just shipped me my copy and I've just spent an enjoyable afternoon reading it.
Verdict - mostly good. While not perfect, its a book I am happy to recommend
Many reviews, not to mention the blurb on the back cover, seem to focus on the interpretation of RAH's bare outline by Spider Robinson. I think that this is, in general, a bad mistake. The blurb says "...The result is vintage Heinlein, faithful in style and spirit to the Grand Master's original vision" which is a flat out lie, it may be vaguely faithful in general principles but the style and spirit is nothing like the "Grand Master's". Treat this book as no more than a Spider Robinson homage to RAH and you will be happy, it is a perfectly good book with lots of the same attention to scientific/engineering/mathematical detail as in many a Heinlein book and it is definitely a fun read but it isn't a Starship Troopers or Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Expect to see another gem from the master and you will disappointed - but then the majority of Heinlein fans were disappointed with the last two or three genuine Heinleins too, and this is far, far better than those.
I found much resonance with other Spider Robinson books particularly the Stardance trilogy recently reissued in one megabook by Baen, a book which I greatly enjoyed and which I plan to review sometime after I get my brain around figuring out how to praise properly it with faint damns. But back to Variable Star. There are many echoes of classic Heinlein plots and characters as well as quotes from the master and I'm sure that Spider has deliberately embedded a whole bunch of throwaway references to other Heinlein books in the names used and so on. It will no doubt repay the dedicated Heinlein fan to reread carefully because I have no doubt that many of these references will only become clear after the second or third time. Since the book will deserve rereading simply for fun, those rereads will not be a chore you have to do to get the last drop of Heinlein in your system.
The outline appears to have been intended to be for a young adult/juvenile, in the spirit of, say, Citizen of the Galaxy but it is clear to me that Spider Robinson (and/or the others involved in the project) thought that the result would be better if it grew up a bit, hence the rather cloying nobility of some Heinlein heros who forswear love and the heroine (think Starman Jones) is used more as a foil for ironic comment than as a model to be followed. The book can still be read by a teenager without serious warping of a young mind - it lacks explicit sex for example - but it probably isn't a book to give to precocious preteen to suck them into the wonderful world of SF. We see mention of the more complex marital (and extra-marital) arrangements that featured in later Heinlein and it kills off a number of fairly important characters on screen; both of which may be considered a little more advanced than you'd like for your 10 year old. On the other hand I think that given that RAH himself bitched about the amount of sex he had to cut out of his juveniles, not to mention changing the original ending to Podkayne, it is true to the sort of young adult book Heinlein probably wanted to write but couldn't because his publisher wouldn't let him. If it were a film I'd give this book a PG-13 film rating rather than a U one.
Although the book manages to mention some very clear Heinleinian beliefs about marriage - you get married to produce children and you only do that when you have the resources to support them - and there is a certain Heinleinian notion about the value of earned vs unearned income, not to mention the requirement for noblesse oblige, the majority of the book is not a Heinlein one. I recall a Lazarus Long quote about religion being a prop for the weak but this book has the fascination with (Zen) Buddhist thought that is classic Spider Robinson. The tale starts off in truly excellent style with the sort of beautiful derailing of standard plans and plots that is a true joy and it continues to be, for the most part, a classic "coming of age" novel where Spider's experience with musicians and other performers is well used to present the challenges of a musician finding his artistic core. I found the hero to be both interesting and sympathetic and the much of the scientific and political background to be good, although there was a certain harping on about how man had outgrown wars which I found irritating, especially given some of the events in the latter parts of the book.
There is only one really bad moment, the truly bizarre anti-Bush rant at page 264 which is completely and utterly gratuitous and which really does nothing except annoy those of us who feel that the Spider Robinson view of current events is wrong. Also somewhere around that point the plot does flounder for a short while looking for a deus ex machina, something that I noticed more than I might otherwise because of the gratuitous political rant, but there is a satisfactory conclusion afterwards and some very nice comments on intelligence which must be Spider's and just about redeem him for his rant. There is even the vague possibility of a sequel, although if one is written I think it should not be Spider that does it because it is going to need someone rather less dedicated to pacifism to get it done.
All in all it's well worth the money you plunk down for it, and it has enjoyable Heinlein echoes. But it is not going to be ranked among the classics of Science Fiction and despite the publisher blurb shouldn't be confused with a book written by Heinlein.