Review of BY ANY OTHER NAME
by Paul Di Filippo
April 3 2001
This collection of 16 stories, a sampling of short newspaper columns and one visual jape follows Robinson's earlier assemblage, USER FRIENDLY (1998), without duplicating any entries. Among the major entrants here we find two Hugo winners: "Melancholy Elephants" forecasts a dire day when human invention runs dry and a kind of willed amnesia is the only solution. In "By Any Other Name," civilization has not avoided a different agent of collapse: hyperosmia, the heightening of the sense of smell to mind-shattering proportions.
Another tale of transmogrification is "Satan's Children," in which a truth-compelling drug drastically revamps society, And "In The Olden Days" takes a look backward at a Golden Age—which happens to be our own. But not all of Robinson's stories deal with global catastrophes. Many concentrate on personal tragedies or triumphs. In "Antinomy," a romance does not survive the freezing and revival of one of the partners/ "Nobody Likes to Be Lonely" depicsts the clinically caring yet mentally cruel prisons of the future. A writer and his wife are forever sundered in "True Minds"—until a loyal reader comes up with a solution.
Of course, Robinson is well known for his humorous, lighter side as well, on display here with "Half an Oaf," about a literally divided time traveler, and "Apogee," a deal-with-the-devil story with a twist. "Chronic Offender" is a Damon-Runyon-inspired romp involving crooks and another time machine. "Tin Ear" deals with a Berserker-type entity undermined by a certain flaw. "Silly Weapons" offers a list of precisely such devices. "Rubber Soul" arranges a Beatles reunion by strange means, while "High Infidelity" postulates monogamy with a scientific escape clause.
Finally, the journalism presented under the rubric "The Crazy Years" examines some of the more bizarre aspects of human behavior and Robinson's contrarian responses.
Here's to you, Spider Robinson
In a career of almost 30 years, Spider Robinson has carved out a niche for a particular type of story and found a legion of fans, mostly for his sequence of tales set in Callahan's Crosstime Saloon. And as his two Hugo winners in this collection attest, his more "hard-core" SF has garnered its own attention and rewards. But while Robinson's virtues are numerous, certain tics and quirks are visible here as well.
Robinson's strong points include a punchy, clear-eyed style, an ability to draw lively characters, a near-tangible concern with community, responsibility and creativity, and a willingness to take risks with offbeat ideas. (The collapse of civilization through bad smells? Well, why not?) His deficiencies number among them a tendency to go for lowbrow humor even in a somber piece, thus undermining his effects, attempting to raise the seriousness quotient by pointless violence, and an overaffection for the fiction of his role models, resulting sometimes in stories that cross the line separating homage from pastiche.
In "Melancholy Elephants," for instnce, the female protagonist kills an unnamed, purposeless assassin in the opening scene, merely, it seems, to juice up the pages of static—albeit interesting—conversation that constitute the rest of the story. Likewise, a semipointless bar brawl opens "True Minds" to satisfy some perceived demand for action in an otherwise talky tale. This story also reveals the massive influence of Theodore Sturgeon on Robinson, as does "Antinomy" (although the latter also harks back to the work of Roger Zelazny). In striving to recreate the thrills he experienced in his own youthful reading, Robinson sometimes mistakes form for content.
Still, no one can accuse the man of failing to pour his heart and soul into his work, a feature also evident in his entertaining newspaper columns. Perhaps the finest story here is "Satan's Children," in which two musicians attempt to spread chemical enlightenment across the globe. The hard-earned ambiguous utopia they engender reveals the real Robinson, shorn of borrowed clothing, and the sight is attractive and satisfying.
If your tolerance for puns—some awful, some witty—is low, steer clear of Spider Robinson's funny stories and focus on his more serious work.