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Very Hard Choices by Spider Robinson
Publisher: Baen
Hardcover: ISBN 1-4165-5556-0
PubDate: 01 June, 2008 List price $19.00

reviewed by Cory Doctorow
in Boing Boing,

Spider Robinson's Very Hard Choices delivers exactly the kind of snappy sf yarn that Robinson fans have come to expect over a career that has spanned decades. Robinson tells stories in the mold of the classic writers -- particularly his mentor and idol, Robert A Heinlein -- stories that rocket along on greased rails, moving so fast that you hardly even notice when the author slides in all kinds of grace-notes, tidbits about politics, spycraft and the oversimplification of the mythology of the 1960s.

Very Hard Choices is the sequel to Very Bad Deaths, a similarly rip-snorting tale that sets up the action: the narrator, Russell, was college roommies with a mysterious geek everyone called "Smelly." Smelly wouldn't bathe and did everything he could to keep people at arm's length. Turns out Smelly is telepathic, and is thrown into increasing agony by proximity to others (his telepathy has no off-switch). He "died" in the 1960s, but he resurfaces for his old roomie in the 2000s, filled with the dreadful knowledge that a savage murderer is plotting a terrible series of deaths in his back-yard.

Very Hard Choices can be read and enjoyed without reading Very Bad Deaths (though it is rife with spoilers of course!), and it continues Deaths's rigorous and thoroughgoing exploration of the special problems of telepathy, diving deep into its premise in a way that is quintessentially science fictional.

In Choices, Robinson takes up the story where he left off, turning the piece into a tense spy-thriller that pits Russell, his son, and the plucky lady cop against a relentless, aging Cold War super-spy who is hunting them as a means of getting to Smelly, for purposes that they can only guess at. Robinson dips in and out of the 1960s throughout the story, presenting us with a more nuanced, complex picture of campus life during the Vietnam War than is common in literature, all the while vividly capturing the flavor of the era in the manner of books like Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis.

This is science fiction in my favorite mode, the "What if?" and "What then?" mode of storybuilding, and Robinson's folksy, punny, style is the sure voice of a lifelong entertainer, the kind of folk-singer mode that gave us Alice's Restaurant and other improbable tales spun by a man with a guitar.

I've been a gigantic Robinson fan since I was a teenager and I've since been privileged to call him a colleague and friend. Among his many virtues, Robinson is also a stupendous reader, and produces DRM-free readings of his books through Blackstone Audio.

reviewed by Jeanne Griggs

Monday, January 4, 2010
Very Hard Choices

I was reading Spider Robinson's Very Hard Choices on the airplane home from our Christmas trip, and it was entertaining enough to get me through the travails of broken luggage wheels, strange women demanding to look down the front of my pants, and snow delays.

This novel is a follow-up to his previous Very Bad Deaths, and it will increase your enjoyment if you've read that one, although it's not essential. Very Bad Deaths told the story of how a physically frail old hippie and a young Canadian cop work together to help a friend of theirs and how the friend ends up saving them from a fate far worse than death. The story is narrated by the old hippie, Russell, who (as usual in Robinson's writing) talks a lot about how much he loves coffee and marijuana and is a Person To Look Up To because of how tolerant he is. At one point, the cop, Nika, clarifies Russell's moral quandry about what to do next by telling him that something bad is about to happen and that "The rest of your life, you'll either be someone who tried to stop it, or someone who didn't." Our hero. But the fun of the story is aptly summarized by Russell's description of Nika's face, at one point: "her eyes lit up with excitement at the same time that her eyebrows frowned in skepticism."

In Very Hard Choices, the story is complicated by the presence of Russell's estranged son and by a plot that hinges more on the right way to live than on how to avoid death. Russell's friend, the one who previously saved his life, is a telepath, and there is an evil government agent out to catch him and make him use his abilities for evil--or so they all think. The government agent, at the very end, turns out to have a few surprises of his own.

My favorite part is when, after two pages of Russell browbeating himself about what he didn't do, his friend, Zudie, loses patience:

"Listen to me. You're absolutely right: the cartoon superheroes in the adventure fiction you love to read would all be disgusted with you. At this very moment, Jack Reacher is curling his lip, Hawk is saying something ironic about you to Spenser, and Travis McGee thinks you're helpless as Meyer. Okay? You're a total failure as Superman. The Saint would be ashamed of you. Parker thinks you're a pussy. Accept that. Deal with it on your own time. Right now, you're in the real world: work the problem."

The other part I enjoyed most is the typical Robinson message about where our hope lies, which is why reading this book was such a good antidote to my recent reading of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. This is what Robinson's government agent says when the characters finally stop running from him and start listening:

"We have a century or so, tops, to get this stupid planet organized, to build the kind of wise benign compassionate Terran Federation you see in so many science fiction movies, to start making the world fair, and get it self-sustaining. If we haven't gotten at least that far by then, the resources necessary to develop and build and maintain the necessary space-based technology will be gone, pissed away in pointless squabbles. Then everything falls to shit, and the future holds only tribal anarchy and progressive decay....
On the evening of September 10, 2001, the United States was closer than any other nation in history has ever come to being widely trusted. That's not very close, granted. Many people despised us. Quite a few just disliked us. But deep down, most people trusted us, on that day, at least a little. No other nation every had a better shot at persuading and cajoling all the nations of the world to come together and work together to save ourselves before it's too late.
And ever since the next morning, we've been blowing it. Setting fire to a century of built-up good will, frightening half the planet and offending the rest."

Trust me that the rest of the story is so fun that you'll hardly notice serious parts like that, at least not consciously, while you're trying to get to the end. It's the best kind of fiction, if you ask me--with an agenda, but only on the side.