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The Crazy Years

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by Spider Robinson
BenBella Books
294pp/November 2004

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Spider Robinson is best known for his series of Callahan stories, his award winning Stardance series, and his love of Robert Heinlein. It is the last of these that provided him with the title of this collection of articles and essays. Although some of these articles delve into matters science fictional, the majority of them look at contemporary society and extrapolate the future from today's culture. Since this is the stock in trade of science fiction authors, the tenor of the book is not surprising.

Topics range from the social to the political. The latter takes on an interesting view given Robinson’s residence in Canada and his expatriate status from the United States. In “O Canada,” he explains his reasons for taking a quarter of a century to apply for Canadian citizenship. is political views aren't limited to merely which politicians are in power, but what they are doing. In "If You Take It...We Can't Leave It," he discusses the ramifications of the "Sonny Bono Act," which extended copyright by two decades. Given Robinson’s work as a writer, some of his stances in this essay may be surprising.

The articles are all brief and can be read in just a few moments each. However at their best, they are provocative and clever. One instance of this is the article "More than enough is-a too much...," in which he explains why he would turn down 167 million dollars. While Robinson gives his reasons, all of which appear reasonable, it would be interesting to see what would happen if he actually were offered the money without any strings attached. The key to the article is not whether Robinson would accept the money, but rather to think about an "obvious" situation with an open mind.

Robinson’s tone throughout is entertaining and light. Even when he seems to be trying to convert the reader to his way of thinking, he doesn’t come across as preachy or arrogant. Instead, each essay appears to have been written to open a dialogue…between Robinson and the reader and between the reader and himself. Even at his most curmudgeonly, in the essay “Character Defects,” in which Robinson rails against ASCII, Robinson’s rants come across as good natured.

Perhaps as befits a science fiction authors, several of the essays deal with space exploration, from the sadness of “The Day It Hailed Columbia” to the hopefulness of “If You Can Fry and Egg in Space, Hilton Wants to Talk To You.” In fact, the Columbia article looks to a bright future for space exploration in the face of one of NASA’s worst disasters.

Robinson also refuses to neglect the human element in technological advances, whether it is his coffee pot, Ebay, or multi-functional James Bondian pens. Too many people who don’t read science fiction view technology apart from the human element and, as Robinson points out, this is what causes problems.

Overall, The Crazy Years is an informative, clever, and stimulating examination of modern culture and technology, both in the United States and Canada. Of course with the modern world, limiting such a discussion by geographical area is hardly a possibility. Just as with his fiction, Robinson writes these essays with wit and clarity, making them enjoyable even when the reader disagrees with the sentiment.

Locus Looks at Books: Damien Broderick
[Locus, December 2004]

The Crazy Years: Reflections of a Science Fiction Original, Spider Robinson (BenBella Books 1-932100-35-0, $14.95, 294pp, tp) December 2004. Cover by Melody Cadungog, from a photo by Greg McKinnon. [Order from BenBella Books, 6440 N. Central Expressway, Suite 617, Dallas TX 75206; <>]

[ca. 2,000 wds omitted; reviews of new works by Geoff Ryman and Albert E. Cowdrey]

I recently diagnosed Bruce Sterling's jittery, clever non-fiction mode as blogpunditry. This charming gathering of Spider Robinson's newspaper thinkpieces and rants, plus some more from Galaxy Online and perhaps elsewhere, is not exactly punditry; it's too airy and entertaining to be that. But it has its bloggish side, not least because many of the little essays have been available on Spider's website as well as in a Toronto newspaper. No longer, oddly enough. As Robinson notes in a jaundiced Afterword, "In 2004, The Globe & Mail's Comments editor abruptly stopped buying my columns. I could not say why, because he also stopped answering my e-mails and voice messages." It's par for the course with newspaper editors, but gravelling none the less. And that idiot lost one of the most lively and thoughtful voices available outside of, well, free blogs and far more expensive US magazines.

But... While this collection is energetic, funny, insightful, and graced with a delightful cover—Spider trussed inside a straitjacket, in conformity with Robert A. Heinlein's dictum that in the Crazy Years at the turn of the millennium "a man with all his gaskets tight would have to be locked up"—the editors at BenBella should have put down all their feet firmly and demanded that the dismal opening jeremiads be shoved into hiding somewhere in the middle of the book, or allowed to drop off the back. This is my own prejudice showing, I freely admit it. Hearing at repeated length and at the top of Spider's voice how the vile anti-smoking nazis abuse their majoritarian power over innocent stinky cancer-tube incinerators is not the best way to suck readers in, unless they're the programmed children who find cigarette smoking so cool and bad. I'd as gladly learn why hawking up a hefty blue-green glob of mucus and spitting it on the sidewalk is every free human's sacred right. This, after all, was also taken as unspoken gospel a century ago and remains so in plenty of places I don't wish to lay the soles of my shoes.

Leaving aside the special pleading for self-inflicted carcinomas, and a couple of anecdotes repeated almost word for word in adjacent pieces, this diverse mess of pottage unfolds a menu of tasty flavors. While not SF, the book is a distillation of science fiction's distinctive sensibility, its mode of attack and response. Spider Robinson has been acclaimed for decades now as Heinlein's natural son (so to speak), his voice and attitudes catching many echoes from the master's, but always with a ‘60s skew. RAH, one gathers, remained the ramrod military man in private life, while his heir is a laid-back dude with a taste for the mild natural chemicals of merriment. It's hard to imagine Heinlein with hair halfway down his back working in a hippie commune and singing r&b while strumming his guitar. If the hands are the hands of an adopted Canadian, the voice is often the voice of Annapolis and the man who sold the moon.

But there's nothing slavish about Robinson's hommages, his candid appropriations. And his keen-eyed assessments do not stop at goring only the oxen of the mundanes. No skyhook will ever hang down from orbit, he assures us, despite the quarter-century-late enthusiasm of NASA and other serious young space insects. Why not? Because of September 11, in a word. Because the mighty 40,000 klick strands of diamond comprise a Damocles bike chain hanging over our heads, awaiting the missile that will smash down their immense mass into a blazing Grand Canyon slashing the equator (as in Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars" trilogy). I'll leave it to physicists to argue that out, but the blunt dismissal of a cherished SF dream shows Spider's practical side, and good SF's. Meanwhile, his heart patently aches for other dreams:

A few years ago in Florida I saw and photographed perhaps the most transcendentally sad, baffling, infuriating sight I have ever seen: an Apollo Program booster, one of two or three left in the world, one of the most stupendous devices ever built by free men... lying on its side on the ground, rusting in the rain. I wept along with the sky.

But a sort of Voltairean mirth suffuses these pages, alongside grief that mundanes will never begin to understand. "God and human stupidity I can't deal with," writes Robinson. "It's laughter, if anything, that will get me through the Crazy Years." And laughter there is in plenty, rueful and full-bellied by turns, in these pleasing pages. Yet finally it is the tender-hearted patriot of western civilization, the Canadian who retains as well his US citizenship, who speaks with his own voice even in the echo-chamber of Heinlein. Preparing to write from rediscovered notes a postmortem Heinlein novel, Variable Star, reading again the 1980 RAH essay collection Expanded Universe,

curious to see whether this time his success rate would hold, or if not, whether it would go up or down this time -- and eleven pages in, I slammed the book shut, let it fall to the floor, put my head in my hands and burst into tears. I sat there crying for a while. Then, because it is our agreement, I brought my sorrow to my wife and shared it with her, and we comforted each other as best we could. Now I share it with you. Page 266, prediction #4: "It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a 'preventative war'...'

If there's an oddly naive quality in Robinson's despairing misery—"John Wayne doesn't hit first"—still, as the body counts rise in Iraq and new terrorists are bred among their blood and bone, it's very hard not to agree that we are, indeed, in the putrid bowels of the Crazy Years.

—Damien Broderick

The Crazy Years - Reviewed by Joe Murphy
(appears on The Dragon Page, <>)

Spider Robinson begins his book by defining exactly what the "Crazy Years" are. To do this review justice, I think I must do the same. Forgive me for the long quote.

"In 1939, the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived, Robert Anson Heinlein, produced one of the first of the many stunning innovations he was to bring to his field: he sat down and drew up a chart of the history of the future, for the next few thousand years...

"And in Heinlein's Future History chart, the last decades of the twentieth century--the ones he wrote abut and discussed as seldom as possible--were clearly and ominously marked: 'the Crazy Years.'

"I discussed this with him several times before his death in 1988. He had decided--half a century in advance--that a combination of information overload, overpopulation and Millenia Madness were going to drive our whole culture slug-nutty by the end of the century." pg. 4, "The Crazy Years: A Mission Statement"

Well, when you're right, you're right.

Some science fiction readers will find this book a waste of time, I have no doubt, as the book hardly ever discusses science fiction. The book features articles written by Mr. Robinson for Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, in which he holds a mirror up to modern humanity and exposes us for the absolute mental patients we are. No logic. No imagination. Incomprehensible in our foolishness.

For instance, at one point about a third into the book, while--I must admit--becoming a bit bored with reading yet another article railing against the antismoking nazis, Spider slips in an actual recipe for safe, non-carcinogenic cigarettes, nicotine and all, and I stop cold. "Oh. My. God," I think. "Why hasn't anyone ever tried that? WHY HASN'T ANYONE EVER TRIED THAT?"

Think of all the bullshit that goes with smoking: the health problems, the bitching about second hand smoke, antismoking lobbies, those horribly offensive commercials, etc. All gone. Just make them safe. It can be done. Why hasn't anyone tried that? And I asked that same question over and over and over again as he talked about computers, religion, social mahooha, the environment, space, and yes, on rare occasion, science fiction.

How do I review a book like this? Will you like it? I guess that depends largely on your political views in some cases and the limits of your imagination in others (though this book concerns current events, a science fiction writer did pen these articles, after all).

I can tell you this: Spider is funny, and he's smart, and you can't go wrong with a combination like that. Warren James, host of Mike Hodel's Hour 25, says that science fiction allows us to see the world through another set of eyes. Take a chance and take a look at world through the eyes of the Spider.

Rating: 4 out of 5

The Crazy Years by Spider Robinson Published by: Benbella Books; November 28, 2004 ISBN: 1932100350 Genre: Reflections of a Science Fiction Original Author's Webpage:

Enter Spider's web
by Scott Werbin

Special to the Weekender

"The Crazy Years"
by Spider Robinson (Benbella)

"You can't see the forest for the trees..."

You can't really look at human culture objectively through human eyes and not see the obvious little blindspots we have as individuals and as cultures, because we don't see the blindspots. That's why they're blindspots.

Okay then, what about finding someone who has spent years twisting his brain into new shapes- trying to think like something "other than human?" What about someone who makes a living trying to think like an alien? What sort of insights would you expect to learn from the viewpoint of such a detached observer?

Let's find out. (Cue the Twilight Zone music..)

Submitted for your approval: Spider Robinson, professional science fiction author. Born and raised in New York, a child of the '60's, Spider has won almost every possible award in his field, relocated to Canada, where he lives with his wife and family, and for the past few years has been writing a non-fiction observation and opinion column in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper.

Spider asks small questions, like "Why do we have a heat-producer (oven) and a heat-sink (refrigerator) in the kitchen, side-by-side unconnected to each other?" And, "We spend far too much of our lives in the bathroom, why don't we ever make it comfortable?"

Or big questions like, "How can human beings voluntarily place faith in any religion that insists they attack and kill other people in the name of peace?"

Entitled "The Crazy Years," a phrase borrowed from the classic Robert Heinlein timeline of future history, this collection showcases some of Spider's best essays, and some of his favorites.

Spider is actually better than an unbiased alien observer- because Spider wants us to succeed and survive. He's on our side. And Spider knows that sometimes the only solution is to grin and bear it, but the emphasis is on "grin"- a sense of humor is essential in life. You'll find these columns just as laugh-provoking as they are thought-provoking, but isn't that the case with all the great comics?

Spider is willing to point the finger at himself just as often as he jabs it at us. From the silliness that reigns supreme in the U.S.- as seen by a U.S. citizen living abroad - to the idiosyncrasies of every human on the planet.

I guarantee that anyone emerging from this book will not only find their cheeks hurting from laughter, but will also find themselves curious about Spider's fiction; The Callahan's tales (improbable stories set in the most amazing series of bars), his time-travel books, the Stardance (zero-gravity dance) trilogy and his recent suspense novel "Very Bad Deaths."

Spider Robinson,
The Crazy Years
(BenBella, 2004)

For those who don't know -- which probably includes those who, like me, have not read the Callahan books -- Spider Robinson has been for a number of years an op-ed columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail, one of Canada's foremost newspapers. That the Globe and Mail is Canadian, and that Robinson, as a transplanted American with decidedly "Whole Earth Catalogue" leanings, is also one of the more pungently visionary science fiction writers in existence, should give anyone a good take on his columns, which make their appearance in book form in The Crazy Years.

Robinson can actually be located somewhere on a continuum between bloggers and journalists. Unlike many bloggers, Robinson's only ideology seems to be common sense. (The title of the book is based on Robert Heinlein's "Future History," in which he describes the close of the 20th century as "the Crazy Years," when rational thought seems to have deserted the human race -- which seems frighteningly prescient, although I don't know that I can agree with Robinson's assertion that Heinlein was "the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived.") And, unlike most journalists, Robinson doesn't handle the powers-that-be with kid gloves.

Robinson's targets run the gamut, from international terrorism (and media reaction, which Robinson notes, going back to the Dean Ing story "Very Proper Charlies," provides most of the legitimacy they have) to eBay to the future -- that is, the future that has become present reality and is too bizarre for science fiction writers to have considered plausible (except, perhaps, for Heinlein, but that was only in the most general terms).

To those of us who, like Robinson, grew up on science fiction, the idea that the human race would have space travel in its hand and toss it away is more than bizarre, it is one of the great tragedies of human history. The idea that we must learn to accommodate our computers is not so far-fetched, and actually quite reasonable; after all, we are adaptable, they are not, although that begs the question of why they were designed that way to begin with. (The popularity of the laptop, which is certainly an example of arse-backwards design if there ever was one, is a case in point, although Robinson doesn't tackle that particular peccadillo.)

One basic idea that Robinson doesn't seem to address directly, even though it is implicit in many of these pieces, is that so-called "world leaders" are indeed those who hold positions of power in government. It has become increasingly apparent over the past generation or two, which is the period encompassed by the "Crazy Years," that as much of the world as possible is being managed for the interests of major corporations, mostly American. Consequently, while Robinson's confidence in the capabilities of technology is certainly justified, his equal optimism about our desire to feed the hungry and eradicate disease seems somewhat naive: we will certainly do that, it seems, if there is profit in it. If there is no profit, they can starve.

One need only reflect momentarily on the rationale behind our insistence on partaking of more and more expensive and less and less functional goods, pointed out in several of Robinson's pieces, to see that there is one driving force behind the whole phenomenon: profit. The means is not creating a better mousetrap and letting the market decide, but effective marketing of shoddy goods -- propaganda in the interests of the bottom line, which Robinson does not really confront directly.

Similarly, while he derides the voices against consumerism and pollution, he takes "consumerism" as the mere fact that every creature consumes, which is more than a little simplistic -- it's really much more of a feeding frenzy -- and that every creature excretes waste without reference to the kind of waste and the ability of the system to recycle it.

This is a book to browse through. Organized into loosely defined categories, the individual essays are like firecrackers -- one or two are sufficient to wake one up, and they are certainly thought provoking, if not always profound. So, even if you have not read the Callahan books, read this one.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 18 June 2005