Apropos of my previous post on hope, I’ve been rereading some of SF author Spider Robinson‘s early works, and I noticed something I hadn’t paid attention to when I read them years ago. Robinson doesn’t shy away from the tragedies of life. His characters are often in pain, wounded in one way or another by the terrible things intelligent beings can do to one another, or to themselves. But there is an underlying theme to his books, from the Callahan stories to Telempath and the Stardance trilogy, and it has to do with the redemptive power of love — not necessarily or even usually romantic love, but human love: compassion.
That affirmation apparently struck a chord with Robinson’s readers. The Callahan stories in particular enjoy enduring popularity. There are several thriving Callahan communities on the Web, and Robinson is still asked, even today, whether Callahan’s Place is real. Callahan’s Place is a bar where compassion reigns — along with excructiating puns, lively music, and other merriment. Characters wander into the bar, most of them in need of healing of one sort or another; the caring but off-beat regulars, including bartender Mike Callahan and narrator Jake Stonebender*, are always ready to listen. Despite the very real anguish expressed by these characters (only some of them human), the Callahan stories are as full of humor as compassion. The first three books set in the original Callahan’s Place (Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, Time Travellers Strictly Cash, and Callahan’s Secret), are collections of short stories, most of which were originally published in the science fiction magazine Analog. Callahan’s Secret was supposed to be the last book, but readers clamored for more Callahan, so Robinson penned a number of sequels. To be honest, I haven’t read all seven of the sequels and related books (and those I did, I didn’t enjoy quite as much), but the first three are a lot of fun. Sadly, they appear to be out of print, but you may be able to find them through your local library. They were also collected in a single paperback volume called The Callahan Chronicles.**
My personal favorite, and in my opinion the best, of all of Robinson’s books is Stardance, which he wrote with his wife Jeanne, a talented modern dancer. Stardance is expanded from the Hugo and Nebula award-winning novella of the same name, and was published in its current form in 1979. I consider it one of the landmark SF books, up there with the best of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, et al. Shara Drummond is a dancer, extraordinarily talented yet unable to make it on earth because she is simply too big to fit in with an existing company: too tall, too curvacious. When her efforts to start a solo video career fail, she follows her dream into space, hoping to create a new form of dance in zero-gravity. Then the aliens show up, and Shara Drummond may be the only person capable of communicating with them. After all, how do you communicate between species, in space, except through movement — through dance? All that forms the original novella, told through the eyes and voice of Charlie, Shara’s videographer; the remainder of the the novel deals with Charlie’s formation of a group of zero-G dancers and the return of the aliens. Stardance holds up surprisingly well for science fiction written over 30 years ago. The Robinsons brilliantly evoke the worlds of both dance and space, but it’s the characters, and through them the underlying themes of compassion, love, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit, that truly make this novel special.***
If you’re new to Spider Robinson’s books, start with Stardance for serious (and wonderful) SF. Then try a little Callahan’s Place for dessert.
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Post-script: Jeanne Robinson died in November 2010, after a hard-fought battle with cancer. In the years before her death, she, along with filmmaker and entrepreneur James Sposto and others, began trying to bring the Stardance trilogy to film. At Jeanne’s request, the project continues; novelist and screenwriter David Gerrold has been brought on to continue work on the screenplay. You can read about the Stardance Movie project at its website; all future updates on this project will be posted to the Stardance Movie blog.
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*Yes, that’s a deliberate tribute to Heinlein. There are other literary tributes scattered throughout Robinson’s works.
** Sadly, the early Callahan books appear to be out of print. However, e-book editions of the first two are available for Kindle and Nook.
*** Stardance is currently in print only in an omnibus edition with its sequels, Starseed and Starmind. The sequels, while interesting, never quite rise to Stardance’s heights; they’re merely very good, while Stardance will linger in the memory for years to come. The trilogy is also available as an e-book directly from Baen.