Callahan’s Con, Spider Robinson

Tor, 2003, 286 pages, C$33.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-30270-5

What is it about Spider Robinson’s “Callahan” books that makes them as charming as they’re infuriating?

It’s not hard to see that the series has earned its place in SF history: Callahan’s Con is the tenth book in the cycle, which began with stories published in the mid-seventies and continues with a string of novels ending (so far) in 2003. At its best, the series is a unique blend of light-hearted wordplay, strikingly original characters, permissive politics and good old-fashioned idea-spinning. The story is usually set around a drinking establishment of some sorts, around which cluster a series of old wise regulars (not all of them human) and walk-in lost souls. The prose is sharp, easy, witty and conversational: when the Callahan books hit their stride, they bring readers in an imagined community having the equivalent of the best SF convention chats ever imagined. This, maybe more than anything else, certainly accounts for a chunk of Callahan’s popularity in SF fandom: it’s not hard to wish for the existence of a real Callahan’s where everyone would know your name.

The flip-side of this appeal is obvious: At its worst, the series quickly becomes indolent, indulgent, self-satisfied, convinced of its own innate goodness and disdainful of anyone who falls outside the loose parameters of the target audience. After trying to kill the series a number of time (it features at least four changes of venues), Robinson kept succumbing to public demand for more of the same and, indeed, delivered more of the same. For those reading the books in rapid succession, the plots quickly became repetitive: Stranger walks through the front door, tells sad story, is comforted by infinitely wise super-characters. The process is repeated with a few strangers until a threat against the world/universe is discovered, logically deduced from the shakiest logical premises and solved through the inevitable application of a mass telepathy communion that, we’re assured, is in no way comparable to a mental orgy. Don’t forget the awfully heart-wrenching moment in which sad sacks reveal the terrible past trauma that pushed them to the edge because, hey, “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased.”

And repeat.

Callahan’s Con may indulge in a few refinements, but it’s basically the same story. It moves the series to near-contemporary times, features mafia characters muscling in on Key West and features a confidence game whose working depend on a science-fictional device, but wait a bit and the requisite bits appear: the rigid bureaucrat who wants to destroy the characters’ carefree lives, the bon mots between narrator Jake and his patrons, the bizarre stories, the chain of logic leading to a death-defying scenario, the Truly Sad Moment… all there. The structure of the plot is lazy, moving from one element to the other to give each of the series’ characters a few speaking lines and a chance to hog the spotlight.

But this is comfort food, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the same thing as in all previous volumes: Robinson’s cast of character are as charming as ever, the winks to other writers are numerous and his style remains the epitome of readability. Robinson even works overtime to correct some of the bad feelings left by previous books: the bureaucrat turns out to be a fearsome ally, and bridges are mended with former enemies. All is well that ends well, except for that Sad Moment that seems mechanically added to the book just to ward off the accusations that it’s a mere romp.

There’s no doubts that readers who aren’t already familiar with the Callahan’s series may want to start at the beginning: there are so many references to previous books here that even series faithful with short memories may miss most of the extended gags. Taken on its own terms, Callahan’s Con is pure but substandard fan-service with lazy re-use of familiar plot beats. But fans (even doubtful ones) will like it, and there isn’t much more to say about any tenth volume in any series.

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