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The Importance of Being Spider -- Spider Robinson, Callahan's Keeper

by Patrick O'Leary

(from OTHER VOICES, OTHER DOORS (Fairwood Press, November 2000), a collection of stories, essays and poems, © 2000 by Patrick O'Leary, all rights reserved. This essay posted here by permission of the author.)

I'll share with you one of those embarrassing moments that only become embarrassing in retrospect. I was at a party several years ago and a biologist said I ought to read somebody called "Spider Robinson." I thought: Spider. Spider? How can anyone named "Spider" write anything important? I mean, Gustave, Graham, Vladimir, O.K. (You'll notice I was on a first name basis with some pretty heavy hitters.) And sure, I genuflect before the artistry of Gene (Wolfe) and Jim (Morrow) and Ursula (K. Le Guin) and Octavia (E. Butler) to name a few still on the batting roster. But "Spider?"

In one synapse shutdown of reflexive snobbery I had closed my mind.

So with that cringe and confession aside, and armed with my aftknowledge of one of the warmest, cleverest and funniest yarn weavers I've ever had the privilege to read, I will join my persuasive biologist friend and attempt to tag team that most elusive reader, the One Who Knows Better, whose prejudices are so vulnerable they require continual confirmation, whose opinions are so unsullied by experience he never thinks anything that hasn't been thought by a quorum, whose taste is so calcified it only recognizes variations on previous pleasures: in other words, my former self. If I could, I would say something like this to him.

While he has written some of the tautest, most suspenseful and hilarious science fiction thrillers around (MINDKILLER and TIME PRESSURE) and has treated us (with his wife, Jeanne) to a totally original sequence of alien encounter fiction (STARDANCE, STARSEED and, the soon to be released STARMIND), Spider Robinson is perhaps best known and loved for the books and stories that comprise his Callahan Saga: that weird and lovable troupe of humans and aliens who gather to drink, pun and save the world. Sometimes in bars. Sometimes in a house of Great Repute. And lately in a new establishment dubbed "Mary's Place."

In the paperback release of the seventh installment, THE CALLAHAN TOUCH, Robinson continues to host perhaps the longest running brouhaha in science fiction. It is a place of such powerful psychic attraction and relief, that once entered, you have to be there. In fact, real people have actually sought out in this fictional bar in the consensual universe. I can understand. It's an alternative reality you not only admire, you want to join. Readers don't just become fans at Callahan's, they become members. Or, frankly, they condescend. But for those who gag at the rampant puns (that's the point by the way), or for those who feel manipulated when someone has the nerve to seriously cast a crew of characters who try to act for the betterment of others, for those who in this Age of Oprah miss the significance of the chief rule of the house: Thou Shalt Not Pry, for those who feel a reverse snobbery if they are the least bit reluctant to surrender to the goodwill and cheer, I can only say: Come on in. The Water's fine.

And for those who underestimate his art, I ask: You think it's easy to make someone laugh? You think a book that combines AIDS, Macintosh computers, 3 types of mythological beasts, a treatise on luck versus curses, an essay on the dangers of demonizing computers, a few practical suggestions for creating a better world, and a massive car wreck with no injuries, is Silly? You probably think that capturing a multi instrumental jam with words on paper (as Robinson does here) is just a trick.

Perhaps people condescend because most of Robinson's Art is between the lines, in what Albert Brooks would call "Timing...sayitwithmeTiming." The way his plots constantly surprise. The way his characters suddenly feel like friends. And, especially, not what he writes, but what he leaves out. Pettiness. Smirking. The unlikable person without hope. Pain for pain's sake. Easy love. Miserable sex. Evil that doesn't cost anything. Suffering that only makes you squirm. Individuals so stuck in their own heads that the real world is just another POV.

This man knows something. And he shares it.

What all the laughing, toasting, punning , hugging, learning, coincidence and grab-ass episodic plotting amount to is, I believe, a unique contribution to literature. Robinson's chief speculative leap is to imagine a place where community is possible. And the task he has taken upon himself is to embody the spectrum of Happiness. Now, that may seem a rather hifalutin way of saying he's funny and his books make you feel good. But what Robinson is up to is nothing less than a participatory utopia that a reader enrolls in by reading. He makes you feel warm. He shows you a good time. He teaches you hope. Everyone is included. His Callahan books are about the experience he creates, not just portrays.

Listen to how Robinson describes the Past and Future Proprietor of the original Callahan's Saloon, Mike Callahan. "Fixed broken brains. Made sad people happy and happy people merry and merry people joyous. Tutored in kindness and telepathy. Smoked hideous cigars. Forgave people. Accessory before and after the pun." I can't name another author who can live up to that resume.

Think of the audacity and courage it takes, in these days of cynical Family Values and jaded Pulp Sensationalism, to create an art about the possibility of Joy. I suspect that's either a dream that terrifies, or a dream so many times broken that it hurts to contemplate. You're either on this bus or you don't believe it stops here. But, in any case, Robinson lays out the welcome mat. And he throws the best party on page in the known U.

But before you pass him off as a mere entertainer, a sentimentalist, a ringmaster for aging hippies, a punster for the chronically adolescent, or a preachy idealist, put your adult armor on standby and recall a moment from your childhood.

Maybe it was before the Beatles got all pompous and rococo. Maybe it was before they were more popular than Jesus Christ. Even before yellow submarines. Think about holding broomsticks in your basement, shaking your first bangs and sharing the harmonies of four creatures from the planet Liverpool. Remember the way your baby sister danced below you, her soggy diaper bouncing up and down. Galaxies of dust performing pre fractal choreography in the spotlight beams of summer sun on cool linoleum. Something new was happening. Remember, if you can, the pure unabashed awe you felt, as you joined in their ascending orgasmic Ahhs in Twist and Shout. If four young men could make you feel so good simply by shaking their heads and going "Ahhhh" anything was possible.

If that sounds like a childhood you never had, maybe it's time to get out the old Twister board. A splendid time is guaranteed for all. It's a game where everybody touches, everybody looks ridiculous, and everybody ends up laughing and falling all over each other in one big sweaty web of limbs, chins and buttcracks. You know: the way you feel when you're reading a Spider Book.

For my money that's not just Art. It's fun.

--Patrick O'Leary


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