Spider Robinson

Callahan’s Con, Spider Robinson

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.

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!

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.

Stardance, Spider and Jeanne Robinson

Ace, 1977, 278 pages, C$2.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-18367-7

Spider Robinson. There’s no one else like him in science-fiction.

Whereas SF has traditionally been logical, mechanistic, goal-driven, conservative and scrupulously clean, Spider Robinson comes from a background that’s far away from the scientific education shared by many of hard-SF’s core membership. He has described in interviews how he had his big break in SF as his regular job was to guard a sewer plant at night. He’s stayed on both coasts of Canada, first Nova Scotia then British Columbia. He’s had some association with communes, is an outspoken drug advocate and looks exactly like one would stereotypically imagine a hippie.

His novels reflect his background, being almost pathologically filled with motifs of universal love, friendship and happiness. His characters -usually narrators; his novel are almost always told from the first person point of view- are charmingly imperfect, yet paradoxally far more tolerant and self-describingly morally superior to your usual human. Most of his stories include one or several rants about how (pick one) intolerance, sexual monogamy, fear of communicating, racism, sexism, narrow-mindedness or other “so-typical” human traits are generally messing up the world.

Stardance isn’t really any exception. An expanded version of Hugo and Nebula-winning novella of the same name, Stardance is narrated by Charlie, an ex-dancer made audiovisual technician by an untimely accident. He meets Shara, a dancer too big for one-gee work who finally decides to invent zero-gee dance. Suddenly, aliens appear and Shara’s super-dance convinces them not to destroy the Earth. End of original novella and the first third of the novel.

I’m being needlessly flippant; Robinson’s greatest strength is how he can write about almost anything and make interesting through the narration. An easy prose style with carefully-chosen details and heaps of humour make up for many structural weaknesses. Even though the magically-dancing-the-aliens-away bit isn’t truly credible in itself, the novel does a good job at suspending our disbelief at this point.

The rest of the novel follows Charlie as he sets up a zero-gee dancing school and gets whisked away to Jupiter for another race-saving dance session. (STARDANCE II: ELECTRIC BUGALOO!) It’s a hugely readable tale, reasonably well-paced and populated with interesting characters. His zero-gee assumptions are curious, but then again Robinson isn’t a Hard-SF writer.

Even then, however, the book remains slightly annoying. It took me some time to figure out what it was, but when I did, it struck me that this flaw of Robinson’s work could be applied to his whole work.

If you accept the theory that Spider Robinson is SF’s hippie representative, it makes sense to assume that his work will promote the ideals of this culture. Check: His whole Callahan series, for instance, creates a family-slash-support-group through a bar where everyone knows everyone’s name. Time Killer spend way too many pages promoting an idealistic view of a 1973 commune.

However, this message of peace-love-happiness carries a none-too-explicit counter message: If you can’t love everyone else, if you can’t realize that serial monogamy is selfish and bad, if you can’t tolerate everyone then you’re scum, you’re despicable, you’re not invited to Spider Robinson’s parties and frankly, you’re not even worthy of calling yourself human. Bang. Like that. In other words, there’s a current of intolerance-for-the-intolerant that runs in all of Robinson’s fiction. It’s made worse by the holier-than-thou stand he himself takes on the subject. Liberals may grind their teeth at conservative novels, but at least conservatives don’t make any attempt to pretend they love everyone!

Stardance goes through the same motions by clearly highlighting that zero-gee isn’t for everyone, and that only superior adaptable humans deserve to be in zero-gee. (His last-minute amendments are bunk.) Everyone else goes back in the gene pool. How tolerant…

(In some future review, I’ll take on another Spider Robinson annoyance of mine; how individualism isn’t worth a damn for him.)

The Callahan Chronicles, Spider Robinson

Various, 1977-1997, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon: Ace, 1977
Time-Travellers Strictly Cash: Ace, 1981
Callahan’s Secret: Berkley, 1986
Callahan’s Lady: Ace, 1991
Lady Slings the Booze: Ace, 1992
The Callahan Touch: Ace, 1993
Callahan’s Legacy: Tor, 1997
Off the Wall at Callahan’s: Tor, 1994

Somewhere along highway 25 in Suffolk County, Long Island (Spider Robinson tells us) once existed an inauspicious bar called Callahan’s Place. That bar wasn’t your average neighbourhood drunk-hole, however. Robinson chronicled the weird, strange and marvellous incidents that happened there: Time-Travellers, Aliens, People with special talents… or just plain unfortunate folks in need of cheering up.

As a non-drinker, non-bargoer, non-whatever, I’m far from being the ideal target audience for Robinson’s own brand of uber-hedonistic philosophy that permeates his work in general and the Callahan chronicles in particular. Despite his well-meaning tone of desolation, I like being a product of the conservative eighties, with all its petty monetary concerns, monogamous sexual relationships and cautious attitude toward alcohol.

And yet, there is a definite charm about the Callahan sequence that is very, very hard to resist. Although it’s a definite possibility that reading these books will infuriate you, you will still come away from it with a sense of goofy satisfaction.

Not least among Robinson’s many talents is the effortless prose and the engaging characters. Simply put, it’s a pleasure to read these books. When this pleasure fades -see below-, we can see the holes in the stories.

The sequence is composed, quite neatly, of three epochs:

The first one comprise the stories contained in the three earliest books. It’s the Callahan’s Place era. This period is characterized by a collection of several short stories setting up of the divergent rules that eventually coalesce to make up the universe in which the Callahan sequence takes place. In many respects, this is the best Callahan’s period: It’s fresh, exciting, invigorating and not too silly. (Fortunately, it is now contained in an omnibus volume from Tor called The Callahan Chronicles.)

The second era takes at about the same chronological time, but at another place: Lady Sally’s House, the best… er… house of pleasure in New York. The two “Lady” books are far more prurient than the opening trilogy and written as novels, not an assembly of stories. The result is more coherent but less impressive. For some reason, Robinson decides to save the world from nuclear terrorists late in Lady Slings the Booze, and that particular plot clashes badly with the remainder of the sequence. Generally speaking, Callahan’s works best when dealing with small-scale weirdness and personal problems: It’s when it tries to be too ambitious that the problems arise.

Finally, the narrator of the first trilogy decides to go in business for himself, and the two more recent books of the series chronicle his time at Mary’s Place. In a way, these two are a return to the familiar environment of the first three books. While written as novels, they’re far less linear than the Lady Sally books. Unfortunately, silliness happens (like the cluricaune and the oh-so-sensual-group-telepathy/orgy-to-save-the-world) and the effect is more ridiculous than uplifting. A curious tendency to showboating and unarguable sermonning by Robinson also diminishes the effect of the later books.

(Off the wall at Callahan’s is a compendium of quotes, puns and jokes from the first five books. It’s recycling, but great recycling.)

Still, readers will be hard-pressed to find this sequence other than enjoyable and refreshing. Reading another Callahan book feels exactly like coming back to a place where everyone knows your name. And that’s probably exactly what Robinson intended.


Callahan’s Legacy, Spider Robinson

Tor, 1996, 217 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85776-4

Asking me to review Callahan’s Legacy is akin to ask a priest to judge a wet T-shirt contest. Sure, it might be enjoyable but does he really agree with this stuff? No chance!

Robinson’s “Callahan” series is usually about places (bars, two times out of three) where people come in to feel better, be witty and indulge in adult pleasures. (sex, drugs and alco’holl). There is an assorted gallery of wacky characters, wackier situations, and the wackiest wordplay you’ll find anywhere. Everything is told from an impeccably delightful narrator’s voice, probably the wittiest 1st-person-POV this side of Heinlein. In short, it’s a blast.

But as it so often happens with this kind of light-hearted fiction, our enjoyment goes out when the plot comes in. The first half of the book is almost completely fun: Only a first chapter marred by tasteless pregnancy/urine/sex jokes diminishes the fun. Once Mary’s Place (the bar) opens for the night, the book really gets in gear.

So the roof is removed by a tornado (only to be replaced by another almost immediately afterward) and the first irregular comes in, opens a guitar case full of hundred-dollar bills and begin shaping paper airplanes out of them, only to throw them into the fire. (Every good bar has a fireplace, of course.) More wordplay ensues and then the weird stuff happens.

But when Mary Callahan and her husband time-teleport in the middle of the bar, the Earth’s very existence is suddenly in peril and the novel’s jolly (harmless) tone changes to something slightly more bitter. Before long, one of the bar’s regular is describing his homosexual experiences (told in dialect, no less!) the narrator’s wife is giving birth, everyone’s linked in a oh-so-sensual group consciousness and the world’s biggest threat is knocking at the door. Add the use of recreational drugs in the mix (I hope you don’t mind the orgy taking place in the background, sir?) and I’m beginning to get seriously annoyed.

Which is, I believe, Robinson’s intent: How straight is the world today! How many problems are we creating for ourselves by rejecting free love and a few good joints! Quick, Batman, let’s go back to the sixties!

What makes it irritating is the smug, no-discussion-is-allowed tone the book takes. Much like it’s impossible to disagree with Heinlein, any difference of opinion with Robinson is a sign of a traumatized existence.

Reading a book review is sometime as revealing of the reviewer than it is of the book. The last paragraphs are doubtlessly the product of a closed mind, will mumble a few. So be it.

Yet, despite my objections to elements of the book’s conclusion, Callahan’s Legacy is fun. While the puns aren’t all equal (a few of them are downright obscure… and the fact that English is my second language doesn’t really help.) there are a few good ones and the initial atmosphere of the bar is pleasant. One almost wishes that somewhere, there is such a thing as Callahan’s. While the effect may lessens after a while (I’ve seen a few jaded reader comment that Callahan’s Legacy was inferior to the other books.) this is a novel that will leave you smiling at the fun and groaning at the puns. Readers beware!