Callahan’s Key, Spider Robinson

Bantam Spectra, 2000, 335 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-58060-4

I have detailed, in previous reviews, my various annoyances with Spider Robinson’s unique brand of fiction. With Callahan’s Key, Robinson has come up with a novel that is almost indistinguishable from the previous two or three books in the “Callahan’s” series. So why have I liked it so much?

This latest installment begins on one of the darkest winter days of early 1989, as narrator/protagonist Jake Stonebender suffers through the indignities of yet another Long island snowstorm. Things look grim, but before long, the usual gang of very exceptional friends shows up and convinces Jake to A> move to Key West, Florida and B> save the universe. Not merely the world, mind you, but the universe. The gang reacts in their usual blasé fashion. (“God damn it. AGAIN?” [P.7] Also see P. 181 and 201 of the paperback edition.)

There remains the slight matter of moving some hundred-odd (very odd) people from upstate New York to Key West. Doing so will require some ingenuity, work and more than a dozen yellow school buses. Most of the novel’s first half is spent following Jake and the gang as they first plan and then go on the road trip to end all road trips. Several cool not-so-tourist attractions are visited. A few puns are slung. Authority is defied. A shuttle is launched. A good time is had by all. This first half is by far the most enjoyable; the process of mass-moving from New York State to Florida is far more relevant to us than the process of saving the universe.

Then we’re due for the gang’s arrival in the Keys, where even their full-blown exceptional nature is unremarkable. There remains the slight matter of saving the universe, but as we all know, that part proves to be a cinch. No matter; you know you’ll devour it at once.

No, there isn’t much that’s new or even original at Callahan’s. Robinson has found himself a comfortable niche, and as long as he continues to deliver the goods, he’s not tinkering with the formula. Regulars will appreciate the tall stories, the anti-establishment tone, the puns and of course the feeling that every one is welcome at Callahan’s.

Callahan’s Key is still one of the best entries in the series, though, what with its unusual travelogue that takes the bar away from the characters, somewhat. Robinson doesn’t waste as much time setting up elaborate puns and his description of a shuttle launch seems as moving as the event itself. The book isn’t nearly as weepy as its immediate prequel. There’s also a good role for Nicola Tesla, one of my own favorite historical character, with a wonderful explanation of the man’s latter-year slide in crackpot-hood. (Think Siberia, 1908 and slap yourself for not thinking of it earlier. [Chapter 13])

I still hold on to most of my reservations about Robinson’s shtick, mind you. His cast of characters is, by now, ridiculously powerful (and bulletproof). Group telepathy seems to be the ultimate answer to a remarkable number of things. He still displays a remarkable intolerance for “bureaucrats and Pentagon dolt-heads” (someone should sit with him and explain the nobility of public service, as well as how We Are Not A Monolith, Damnit.) Robinson also overplays to his crowd (we’re go smart, so advanced, so civilized, etc.), but whoever is still reading the Callahan’s series after nearly ten volumes shouldn’t be surprised at most of this stuff.

So why do I keep counting myself as one of them? Well, one of the surprises of Callahan’s Key was finding out that I actually enjoyed reading about Robinson’s merry band of iconoclasts. While Robinson and I obviously come from different backgrounds and would probably start arguing the minute we met (not that this would be a bad thing, mind you), the truth is that coming back to Callahan’s universe almost felt like going someplace familiar. I suspect that a large part of Callahan’s appeal is in offering an idealized representation of a place where all are welcome regardless of prejudice, as long as you enjoy good company, good ale and good songs. I think we’re all looking for something like that. Hurrah to Robinson for providing it, even in a diluted fictional form!

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