By Any Other Name, Spider Robinson

Baen, 2001, 429 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-31974-4

Ah, Spider Robinson…

I’ve never met the man, but I’ve heard he’s a pretty likable person. Entertainer extraordinaire, quick with witty banter and overall quite a number, a trusted source called him “something else entirely” which, as non-qualifiers go, is pretty good.

But I’ve read a lot of material from him (roughly a dozen books now) and I can say, without casting any sort of judgement on him, that we don’t agree on a bunch of subjects. No surprise there; Robinson practically prides himself of being a product of the counter-culture, an ex-hippie with a high tolerance for sex, drugs and good rock’n’roll. Take away this love for rock’n’roll, and there aren’t a whole lot of common points left with a catholic-raised French-Canadian like myself.

Chances are that Spider Robinson would like it that way. His fiction contains a major motif of questioning the social status-quo, upsetting our assumptions and generally promoting a gentler, more humanistic future. Now, I find his ideals somewhat unrealistic, uncomfortable and even a bit silly… which is probably his point, exactly.

And yet, if I don’t agree with him, why is it that I keep on reading whatever he writes? His two latest collections offer an ideal opportunity to reflect on the subject, especially when I’ve spend a good 20$ acquiring them both.

It would be easier to rationalize if Robinson was an infallible writer, someone whose each and every story was a gem. But the truth is that, while he’s technically very good, he’s not perfect. There are duds, most often stories who go on for far longer than they should (“By any Other Name”, “Nobody Likes to be Lonely”, “When No Man Pursueth”). His reliance on shock tactics also gets real old real fast… and if the tactic doesn’t work, his story often ends up stuck to it.

His humanistic approach also makes him predictable. When, for instance, a hired killer is sent after his target in his fiction, you can be sure that he’ll end up changing his mind before committing the deed, or else do it “out of compassion”. See “The Magnificent Conspiracy”, “Satan’s Children” or “By Any Other Name” for examples. He’ll also drive you crazy with authorial interference. His SF-educated protagonist are so freakin’ intuitive that they’ll make astonishing leaps of logic, drawing “proofs” from suppositions that would deter the National Enquirer and somehow coming up with the correct answer each time. I suppose it’s a change from idiot characters, but it’s a very showy, heavy-handed, self-conscious process, especially in a collection. See “Orphans of Eden”, “-and subsequent construction”, “Tin Ear” and several stories in the Callahan sequence.

But despite everything, it must be said that when Spider Robinson is on, he is on. It’s difficult to disrespect him because, despite every twisted logic, blatant provocation and overindulgence, he plays the SF game like it’s meant to be played. He is a writer with a deep respect and understanding of where SF comes from, and his fiction shows it. He might hold opposite viewpoints to yours, but it’s difficult to state that he is undoubtedly wrong. If you do, it’ll be after a deep and thorough examination of the issue.

And that might be the key to why I’m still buying his books. Beyond the easy style, the witty dialogue and the good plotting, the intellectual appeal of his work is compelling. I have yet to meet a science-fiction fan who doesn’t enjoy a good argument, and for all his faults, Spider Robinson knows how to argue. He pounces on his readership while respecting and understanding them. Preaching to the choir while whipping them into shape. In some ways, he’s the ultimate SF writer.

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