reviewed by Damien Broderick
in LOCUS, November 2004
Spider Robinson's VERY BAD DEATHS is a poster candidate for transrealism. That's an approach to creating SF promoted during the last couple of decades by Rudy Rucker. Versions of slipstream, SF, and fantasy embodying the transrealist prescription run from Philip K. Dick to Rucker himself and beyond. Rucker's own thumbnail summary is this: "writing about your immediate perceptions in a fantastic way." It is also, just as legitimately, a way to write the fantastic from the standpoint of your own richly personalized reality.
Every SF writer does both, clearly, but the autobiographical aspect of the performance is mostly conducted at arm's length, or even across the width of the galaxy or into the depths of the future. Spider Robinson's latest novel fairly rings out with transrealism, which is perhaps a little surprising. After all, many of Robinson's tales, right from the start of his career, centered on a Heinleinian hippie whorehouse where all the man and women are golden-hearted, like the folks of Lake Wobegon but raunchier: Cheers for sexy, caring, sharing mutants. But then, fans are slans, after all, and maybe the wistful fantasy of Callahan's Bar is a valid reflection of Spider Robinson's life.
You'll have little doubt that Russell Walker, blues singer, doper, and columnist for the Toronto Globe & Mail (Spider lost his G&M column recently), married to a Buddhist dancer (like Jeanne Robinson), is Spider himself lightly transformed, in a story of telepathy, unspeakably cruel murders, thwarted detection, soppy and heart-warming love, and crucifying quantities of pain. It's the last that rings truest. The simple plot, while comprising the meat of this crime mystery-cum-SF novel, hangs upon a vivid recounting of physical suffering that actually is drawn directly from Spider's experiences as a victim of recurrent pneumothorax. That's where your lung collapses, and a fist of steel crushes half of your chest and your breathe in small terrified sips while trying to reach the hospital. This is so remorselessly described I wondered if it might be autobiography or whether, fiction being made up, after all, he had asked his named medical advisors for the most aptly agonizing, debilitating disorder they could think of, and placed it artistically in a tale hinging on maximal psychic and physical pain. If based on direct experience, that would make VERY BAD DEATHS a prime instance of transrealism. Then again, perhaps I was falling into the oldest, most vulgar critical fallacy, mistaking the narrator or protagonist for the author.
In this case, no mistake. Spider Robinson had his first spontaneous pneumothorax at fourteen. Recovery from a thoracotomy to correct the disorder - after ten percent chance of death of the table - is rated the most painful survivable operation. I'm assured that what he writes about lung collapse and repair is literal truth: "I have a scar from my right nipple to my spine." This is more genuinely frightening than most invented horror stories, then, and of course Spider wrings from it pathos and laughter as well as squicked misery.
In 1967, Russell's sophomore year at a Marianite college, he finds himself lumbered with a ghastly roomie: Zandor Zudenigo, campus legend for his brilliance, ugliness, apparent autism, but above all his overpowering stench. "Smelly" proves a fastidious gentleman as a roommate, a lover of the right kind of jazz, but a drug abstainer.
Many years later, in "flashforwards" to 2003, Smelly seeks out Russell, who's still mourning the death of the love of his life, in retreat on an island strikingly similar to Spider Robinson's Bowen Island. Smelly has caught the scent of the world's worst serial killer, a sadistic monster whose life is dedicated to the extreme sport of inflicting extreme agony. This beast is a millionaire computer specialist who plans to entrap and mutilate to death a nice family of four as then munch on their pizzas, inflicting unendurable agony indefinitely prolonged. The descriptions of his past cruelties provoke cold sweats and repeated projectile vomiting in Russell, but left me fairly unmoved; you probably had to be there. The task is to track down this vile madman, knowing only that his name is Allen and that he'll drive a certain hair-raising coastal road on his diabolical mission.
Spider plays fair in this quest, and you get the feeling that in some scenes he's reporting, with bitter anger, precisely the treatment he got from Vancouver police while researching his plot. There's some gruesomely entertaining stuff about the laziness, stupidity, malignity, and corruption of police forces in general and particular. It's hard to know what Heinlein would have made of it. On the one hand, these are civil "servants" gorging at the public trough; on the other, they are the brave band of blue standing between us and lawless ruin.
Luckily, Russell runs into one who more closely fits the latter description, although Constable Nika Mandiç is narrow, rigid, and career-stranded in the contemptible Police Community Services Trailer detail. Together, and with Smelly Zudie's cellphone-mediated help (he can't bear to get close to people), they find themselves trapped by the madman, and...
...Spider Robinson does his good deed for all the scrawny or obese or half-blind or physically inept readers of fantastical crime fiction (I'm one too): he has Russell solve his way free without being John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, or Robert B. Parker's highly physical Spencer and Hawk. It's a geek's treat of wit and thwarted superpowers against weapons, cunning, and evil genius. Most of us enjoy this sort of imaginary comeuppance, and all the tooth-grinding frustration leading to it: we'd be fools not to.
SYNOPSIS: Aging baby-boomer Russell Walker wants only to retreat from the world and the shattering death of his beloved wife, into the woods of British Columbia. But the real world won't let him become a hermit. Instead, he finds himself thrust into the mystery of a series of mass murders by a monstrous sadist and serial killer who makes Hannibal Lector look like a boy scout. And he is caught in a frightening predicament: He is the only possible intermediary between a telepath called Smelly, so sensitive he can't stand to be near most people, and a skeptical police officer who needs to hear and believe what Smelly knows about the fiend. This involuntary trio may be the only ones who can catch the inhuman butcher before he kills again-if he doesn't catch them first.
Review by Paul Di Filippo
Russell Walker is not in an enviable place in his life when our story opens. Aged 55, he does undeniably possess a good job-opinion columnist for a Toronto newspaper-and plenty of material comforts in his isolated house on Heron Island just offshore from Vancouver, Canada. But the recent death of his wife, Susan, his college sweetheart, has left him inconsolable, clinically depressed and on the verge of suicide. That's the exact moment when another old acquaintance from college days unexpectedly shows up.
This new arrival is Zandor "Smelly" Zudenigo. We learn Zandor's origin story in an extended flashback to Russell's college years. Starting in 1967, Russel and Zandor were dormitory roommates, despite Zandor's horrid personal hygiene, which earned him his nickname. Russell was a budding hippie, while Zandor was a certifiable genius at math. The two young men got to be somewhat close, but hardly true friends. And some peculiar incidents during those years led Russell to conclude that Zandor could read minds, an unsettling thought. Finally, changing circumstances separated the two men, and they have not seen each other in three decades.
Zandor is back now because Russell possesses the one mind he can stand to be near for any length of time. Zandor's talent is excruciating to its owner and incapable of being turned off. Thus Zandor has been living like a hermit on a nearby deserted island for most of his post-college life. One day just recently, a personal plane happened to pass near enough to Zandor to reveal that its occupant was a serial killer intent on striking again soon. In the brief interval of contact, Zandor gleaned just enough clues from the killer's mind to make it barely possible to stymie the man. But how can Zandor approach the police with such a wild story? He needs Russell's help.
First, Zandor mentally cures Russell's depression. Then begins the frustrating hunt for the killer. With Zandor back in hiding on his island, Russell enlists the one sympathetic policewoman he meets-Hilda Mandiç-as his partner. The two begin to utilize some of the details from the killer's mind to approach his hideout. But they underestimate the killer's wariness, and soon the tables have been turned. Now the man who has made torture and sophisticated savagery his life's work is after them!
A suspenseful psionic mystery Spider Robinson ensures instant readerly empathy with his protagonist by using a first-person narrative voice. Russell Walker is a generally amiable soul who has endured a lot of hard knocks-his spindly frame is subject to many griefs, including collapsing lungs-and emerged as a wiser soul than most. If not precisely enlightened, Russell still exhibits a maturity and philosophical outlook on life that make his various pronouncements on society sound not harsh and judgmental but rather rueful and accepting. I suspect that Russell is pretty much Spider Robinson behind a fairly transparent mask, right down to the piquant similes and propensity for outrageous punning. (The latter propensity thankfully kept mostly in check.) The immediacy of this kind of lead character and narrative voice works well to build a wide door into the story for the reader. But at the same time, it undercuts a certain measure of suspense. First-person voice equals survival. The narrator has to be around at the end of the tale. And in a thriller, that means that certain outcomes are automatically foreclosed.
Within these parameters, however, Robinson provides plenty of thrills. The eventual confrontation with the madman occupies the final quarter of the book and is taut and surprising for the whole length. The killer proves to be more than just a bogeyman, although I'm not sure his physical appearance is entirely consonant with a sense of menace. But maybe that paradox works. I would point to a couple of passages as being somewhat awkward, where three pages of interior ruminations on Russell's part intervene between suspenseful moments. Russell might say he's thinking in between the "clock cycles" of his fear, but the effect is to bring the reader's emotions to a temporary halt.
Likewise, I'm not sure that Hilda's role is large enough. She really doesn't add much to the action, and one could almost imagine writing her out of the book entirely. But when she is presented, she's vivid enough that you want more.
Readers might find echoes of Theodore Sturgeon and his work in this book, in the meditations on the kinks within every human psyche. Sturgeon's fascination with telepathy was a trope for the perils and rewards of intimacy. Robinson's crucial twist is to have the mental link happen not between lovers, but between Zandor, an honest, damaged man, and his worst nightmare. And as in Robert Parker's Wilderness (1979), Russell's role is to learn how far he will go to protect his innocent friend.
Robinson has always generously acknowledged the influence of Robert Heinlein on his work. Somehow this new book of Robinson's makes me want to dig out Heinlein's "Gulf" for another reading. The Robinson is a worthy companion piece. - Paul
Very Bad Deaths by Spider Robinson
Review by Paul Haggerty
Hardcover: ISBN 074348861X
PubDate: 01 December, 2004 List price $18.00
Buy this book and support SFRevu at Amazon US / Amazon UK
SF has shied away from telepathy stories for the last few decades, but Robinson comes up with an intriguing, and horrifying, tale about a man caught in the psychic web of a mass serial killer and a telepath whose talents have made her a recluse. Thoughtfully done. See Paul Haggerty's review this issue.
Very Bad Deaths is a tale of three people who desperately don't want any part of the job they have been called upon to perform. To make matters worse, it's a job that's been assigned to them by their own consciences, which leaves them no one else to blame.
The book is written half in the present and half in the past, the narrative running through the present and then flashing back whenever a plot detail needs further explaining. It starts out with the main character, Russell Walker, living in self-imposed semi-exile on an island off the coast of British Columbia following the death of his wife. He is visited by Zandor "Smelly" Zudenigo, an old college roommate, who's come to ask him to help stop the sadistic slaughter of an entire family. Since we don't know anything about Zandor, the book takes an immediate 46-page detour into the past to bring us up-to-date on their relationship.
The story continues in this vein, advancing the plot line a while, and then segueing back to the past to fill in the blanks. The curious thing about this is that the regressions are as interesting as the main plot, even if only slightly related at times. Sometimes it feels as if the author had a large collection of vignettes that weren't enough to make a story on their own, so he decided to use them as back story filler.
So what do you do when you have information that you can't possible have, and therefore can't prove? In this case Zandor has information concerning a sadist that has made an art form out of torture and murder. Unfortunately, Zandor is a telepath who is so sensitive that the proximity of people causes him great pain. He can't take his information to the police in person, even if he thought they might believe him. He's picked up these thoughts through a million-to-one coincidence, and now doesn't know what to do about them. Russell really doesn't want to get involved in this, but the horrific details of what this sadist has planned are too much for him to ignore. They begin plotting ways to get help, and to find out who this sadist really is (since we rarely speak our own names in the privacy of our heads), and do something to stop him.
If the book has one major flaw, it's that it feels like it has a beginning and an end, but no real middle. The heroes embark on their quest, and barely get started before it's short-circuited and the end comes crashing down on them in an exciting turn of events. The conclusion of the plot line (plus the inevitable flashbacks even here) is just as interesting as the set up in the beginning, but comes as a bit of a shock. You've just gotten settled in for the meat of the story, when suddenly you're presented with dessert.
All in all, I enjoyed this book. The main plot had interesting characters, and the flashbacks added depth to them as well as amusing side bits. The villain's depravity was understandable once you got to know him, although I thought he was just a bit over the top. With the caveats listed above, I'd recommend Very Bad Deaths to anyone who wants an enjoyable book with good guys, bad guys, plot twists, and a main character with some interesting opinions on life, which he's happy to talk about anytime.
Spider Robinson is, perhaps, best known for the humor of the Callahan series. Wisely, therefore, he eases the reader into Very Bad Deaths, with a humorous opening, which at the same time hints at the darkness which is to follow. When Robinson first springs the horror on his readers, he has managed to successfully prepare them for what is to follow, which is still told in a breezy manner despite the dreadful situation he sets up.
Very Bad Deaths is the story of middle-aged reclusive columnist Russell Walker, his old college roommate Zandor Zudenigo, and a female Vancouver police officer, Nika Mandiç, who has found her career headed nowhere fast. The three are united by the knowledge of a grisly murder about to be committed, but know only the vaguest details of the crime. Often the problem with this type of novel is the protagonist's complete unwillingness to involve the police. Robinson successfully gets around this cliché by including Mandiç.
His characters are thoughtful and move in a calculated manner, but Robinson has provided them with a tight deadline, which limits the effectiveness of their planning. Robinson places other restrictions on his characters. For a variety of reasons which Robinson makes clear early in the novel, Zudenigo, who has the most knowledge of the crime, can't join Walker or, especially Mandiç on their investigations.
Although the villain of the novel, Allen, is not seen until late in the book, his presence as a force of evil is pervasive. However, Robinson, while making the scope and nature of his amorality clear, does not dwell on it, allowing his readers to get to know the heroes of the novel instead. Even as the reader is getting used to the idea of Allen as evil incarnate, Robinson is comfortable reminding the reader of Hannah Arendt's description of Adolf Eichmann.
Very Bad Deaths could have been a straight horror novel, but instead Robinson chose to focus on the heroes and their problem solving skills. The character's attitudes and relationships drive the story and generally don't fall into the clichés of fiction which would have been so easy. In one of the cases where Robinson does permit his characters to fall into cliché, notably the scene in which Allen and Walker confront each other, the characters are very much aware of the cliché, even going so far to discuss why they are allowing themselves to live a cliché.
Despite the horrific aspect of Very Bad Deaths, which Robinson clearly wanted to drive home to his readers, the book is an enjoyable one for the readers because of Robinson's ability to create sympathetic characters. At the same time, he is constantly reminding us that tragedy, whether man-inflicted or natural, can strike at any time, perhaps the single most unsettling aspect of the novel.
VERY BAD DEATHS
Baen, Dec 2004, $18.00, 271 pp.
Fiftyish Canadian Russell Walker writes "The Fifth Horseman" opinion column twice a week for the Globe and Mail national newspaper, but recently has found no joy in his work or his personal life. As Russell hides inside his remote home on Heron Island near Vancouver, he is depressed and thinking about committing suicide as he has ever since his beloved wife and companion for over three decades Susan recently died.
Russell's college acquaintance Zandor "Smelly" Zudenigo arrives needing help. In 1967, Russell met Smelly, an Einstein clone, who could read minds. Zandor needs Russell, the only mind that the genius can tolerate for more than a nanosecond as reading minds devastates the gifted; this skill turned him into a hermit. A low flying plane over his deserted island enabled Zudie to read the brain of a serial killer planning his next murder. He needs Russell to serve as his intermediary with the cops. Russell is blown away by the police categorizing him as a nut; only police officer Hilda Mandic helps, but though they close in on the killer, he is ready to become their predator.
This fantastic paranormal serial killer tale contains four key characters, who seem genuine whether they are depressed, can read and influence minds, have doubts but take a chance, or just sadistically brutal. Russell tells the tale so the audience gains greater insight into him than the others as he somewhat filters how the remaining trio appears. Joyfully, Spider Robinson not so subtly hints this team will return.
Tone of book - suspenseful (sophisticated fear) FANTASY or SCIENCE FICTION? - science fiction story Spying & Investigations Yes What is main char. doing? - finding a killer (criminal) Mental/magical powers focus Yes magical powers: - telepath (scifi) Is this an adult or child's book? - Adult or Young Adult Book
Main Character Identity: - Male Profession/status: - champion of justice Age: - 40's-50's Has magical/special powers? Yes How sensitive is this character? - sensitive to others' feelings Sense of humor - Mostly serious with occasional humor Intelligence - Genius Physique - very athletic
Main Adversary Identity: - Male Age: - 20's-30's Profession/status: - killer How much of work is main antagonist actually present in: - a moderate amount
How sensitive is this character? - mean, arrogant Sense of humor - Mostly serious with occasional humor Intelligence - Smarter than most other characters Physique - very athletic
Setting Earth setting: - near future (later in 21st century) Takes place on Earth? Yes
Style Person? - mostly 3rd Accounts of torture and death? - generic/vague references to death/punishment scientific jargon? (SF only) - none/very little science jargon needed How much dialogue? - significantly more dialog than description.
Very Bad Deaths
by Spider Robinson (Baen Books, Simon & Schuster)
Review by Scott Werbin
The Weekender, February 16, 2005
Would you believe *one* improbable thing for the sake for enjoying a good story? In the past few years in the name of good fiction you've been asked to accept quite a number of unlikely premises. (And I'm not even talking about the more esoteric genres- I'm talking about mainstream fiction.) If so, let me tempt you with a book I mentioned briefly at the end of my last review; Spider Robinson's "Very Bad Deaths".
I'll sweeten the deal- would you believe it for the sake of reading a *great* story? One that will have you laughing when you're not thinking.. and thinking when you're not laughing? What? You greedy readers want more information? Hmmm.. Ok, I'll throw in a filthy-rich brilliantly amoral serial killer, one that Hannibal Lechter would refuse to accept as a next-cell neighbor. And opposing this mastermind? An unlikely trio: an ageing ex-hippie, a young and dis-favored cop, and a hermit known for his "kill you at 30 yards away" odor. (Ok- here is the one small thought-provoking plot-twist ... The hermit can read minds...)
Newspaper columnist Russell Walker (who shares a large part of his fictional biography with his creator, Spider) is surprised one late night by the re-appearance of his old college roommate- (nicknamed "Smelly" -for more-than-obvious reasons). Smelly has been presumed dead for years... but in flashbacks we learn that Smelly's fragrance, his faked death and his decade's long hermitage are due to his telepathy- he finds people too painful to be around- he *needs* his privacy.
Smelly has inadvertently (and thankfully only briefly) encountered an unnamed evil genius - long enough to glimpse his plans but *not* long enough to learn his identity. And Russell is the only person Smelly can trust or even approach close enough to even discuss the problem. It will be Russell's challenge to find a law officer (or anyone!) to believe this impossible tale. What can you do, if you *know* that the evil genius is planning to torture and murder his next victim(s)- before it happens? If you don't know his name, the names of his victims, or even the time and location of the crime?
Spider deftly weaves past and present, as well as possible and improbable into a entertaining tale- enough suspense to grip the mystery reader, yet more than enough of a twist to keep the attention of those looking for something more out of the ordinary. This one is just far enough off Spider's normal route to give him (and all of us) an unexpected and enjoyable challenge!
Monday, March 07, 2005
Very Bad Deaths
By Spider Robinson; Read by Spider Robinson
10 CDs - [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Themes: / Science Fiction / Serial Killer / Psychic /
Many listeners don't like it when the author narrates his own story. I've never understood this, especially when it comes to science fiction,which has a long history of this. Early Caedmon titles featured FrankHerbert, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov reading their own works. Live readings are common events at science fiction conventions. And I find that I usually like author-read audiobooks. The author lends an extra dimension to the reading that a third-party narrator simply can't provide.
Every now and then you run across an author/narrator who is good enough at narrating that you'd like to see him narrate some other author's books too. Harlan Ellison is that good, for example. And so is Spider Robinson. He reads in such a comfortable, personable way that it's easy to imagine that this guy you know popped in for lunch and is telling you this story over the kitchen table. I enjoyed his reading so much that I wondered first how good his Callahan Chronicals would be read by him (not that Barrett Whitener did a bad job - he didn't), and further, how Spider would be narrating another author's work, like, say, a Heinlein novel. The answer? He'd be pretty damn good. I found myself eager to return to this audiobook every time I was forced to put it down.
Along with Russell, who is the loosely autobiographical main character, the story involves a serial killer with a fetish for inflicting pain, a psychic roommate who is appropriately named "Smelly", and a female cop who is not a lesbian. The story flits from the past, where Russell first met Smelly, to the present, where Smelly seeks him out to tell him that he read the mind of the serial killer as he flew over his house in an airplane and they better by God do something about him.
The story is mainly about these characters going after the serial killer, having many conversations about whether they should go after him.Robinson keeps it interesting throughout, but doesn't hesitate to move off the plot for some tangential opinion dumps, or some science fiction references, or some puns. The story moves, and is personal, enjoyable, often funny, and touching. And the bad guy is flinchingly bad. Enjoy this one.
posted by Scott at 10:22 AM
Very Bad Deaths
by Spider Robinson
Blackstone Audiobooks, 2004
Hardcover, Audio, CD
Reviewed by Lance Victor Eaton
A widowed hippie, a telepathic hermit, and a female cop walk into a bar. Well, they don't walk into a bar but they certainly come together for a very sick joke. But the joke is on them as they work together through this intense, albeit humorous, story to combat a psychopath who makes Jeffrey Dahmer seem like a petty shoplifter. This vicious master of masochism has no intention of stopping, and why should he when he's having such a great time coming up with new ways to torture his victims?
Spider Robinson delivers a tale that blurs the boundaries between speculative fiction, thriller and comedy. Robinson's stories usually function in the world of science fiction but selling Very Bad Deaths in the same genre as his tales of Jake Stonebender and the rag-tag gang of galactic travelers might be a bit of a stretch. Non-science fiction fans would more willingly accept this audiobook despite the telepath. The protagonist has all the markings of both the author himself and his former protagonists. Robinson paints Russell as a tall, skinny, pot-loving hippie with a tendency to loathe government and bureaucracy. Russell fights with depression - in the absence of his dead wife - when he is reunited with his school friend, Smelly Xander, a person with horrific odor but also an unusual knack for reading minds. In his wandering, Xander's mind picked up the thoughts of a serious psychopath who has plans to perform some truly sadistic acts. Xander, Russell, and Nika (the policewomen) must race the clock to stop the maniac, but must also prevent him from discovering that they're after him.
This departure from Robinson's more popular narratives provides listeners with great entertainment. Part of the fun of reading Robinson is that he has such rich and eccentric characters, to which this book is no exception. As in his other stories, Robinson strives to make his audience use their imagination by hinting at, but not detailing, certain actions, moments, and people. As is predictable (and unsurprising to fans), Robinson's characters show no love of the United States, in particular, the Bush administration. Spider Robinson reads this audiobook himself in a delightfully good voice that does well to convey the identity of the main character, an older man with hints of youthful vigor. Interestingly, Blackstone Audio, which is not known for its use of sound effects, did sneak in some voice alteration when characters were on the phone or in other situations where sound in the story might be altered. New listeners to Robinson could use Very Bad Deaths as a litmus test to decide if his style is of interest, while existing fans may appreciate the departure from his other stories, particularly since he reads this himself.
Note: This review refers to an unabridged (7.5 hours) audiobook, read by the author, available at Blackstone Audio as CDs, cassettes & MP3 CD, and also as an audio download at Audible.com.