Book: Time Travelers Strictly Cash by Spider Robinson
Age/Genre: Science Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: A bar or restaurant where you can get lost in a book for a while.
Reading Accoutrements: Your favorite beer or bar beverage.
Content Notes: Misogyny, Racial Slurs, References to suicide and violence
Recently, I was hunting through the science fiction section in one of my local thrift stores, and I happened upon Time Travelers Strictly Cash by Spider Robinson. The cover caught my eye, as did the author’s name. The cover art portrays a colorful bunch of characters at a bar. There’s an alien (possibly two or three), a giant green man, a dog in a suit, and some sort of dwarf-sized creature in elf shoes dancing on the bar with his long tongue sticking out. It looked pretty silly and fun. The blurb on the back begins:
“Human or otherwise, regardless of race, creed, or dimension of origin, if you’re looking for a good time in a place where the beer is always flowing and the stories always out of this world, step up to the bar at Callahan’s.”
Upon further reading, I learned that this is Spider Robinson’s second of several collections of short stories set at Callahan’s tavern. I was intrigued, so I added it to my cart and put it in my “to-read-soon” pile.
It turns out that, though Spider Robinson has written short story collections exclusively set in Callahan’s, this is not one of them. There are four Callahan’s stories, a few standalone pieces, a chapter from a book Robinson had not released yet, an essay, a sci-fi review, and a speech.
I’m going to address the giant arachnid in the room before I get to the stories. I thought I could just accept Robinson’s uncommon first name without giving in to curiosity, but as I read this collection, particularly the non-fiction parts, I had to know. Did this guy’s parents name him Spider?
The answer is no. Spider is a chosen name, and a cursory glance of the interwebs did not reveal his birth name. The main reason I was curious was because the framing of the stories – both in the text and in the explanations before and/or after each piece – is a mixture of reality and fiction. Robinson alludes to awards he’s really won and authors he’s really worked with, but he also talks about learning the Callahan stories from Jake, the narrator and protagonist of said tales, and about how Callahan’s is a real place. So I thought knowing the story behind the “Spider” moniker would help me better decipher fact from fiction. It didn’t.
The collection starts off with two forwards, one for readers who have never heard of Callahan’s, and one for “Friend’s of Callahan’s Place.” These offer a brief insight into the setting of the bar, though the stories are self contained enough to not need it too much.
“Fivesight,” the first story, opens on a Saturday night in Callahan’s bar. Jake is lamenting a painful anniversary and his fellow regulars tell stories to cheer him up. Jake notices a woman who is in obvious emotional anguish and we learn one of the laws of Callahan’s: “no prying.” Luckily for Jake, the woman readily tells her sad tale, and the bar learns of a person with fivesight (yeah, it’s what you think it is), revealing an intriguing sequence of events. I thought this was a great introduction to some of the regulars at Callahan’s, and it really set the atmosphere for the type of place the bar is. There’s a lot of rowdiness, everyone loves puns way too much, and the place is pretty judgement-free. People end up at Callahan’s who need it, and the patrons take care of each other. Callahan takes the keys of anyone he deems unfit to drive, and people begrudgingly accept his rules.
Next is “Soul Search.” This story was fun, and possibly the one that had me imagining the most “sci-fi-y” setting – labs with futuristic blue lights. Rebecca Howell is trying to reanimate the cryogenically frozen body of her husband. This story mixes science and spirituality, bringing up questions about reincarnation and the relationship between bodies and souls. Rebecca is a pretty decent villain for a short story, and the twist at the end was pretty good – albeit accompanied by a bit of Woody Allen-esque creepiness I did not enjoy.
I think “God is an Iron” is the longest piece in this collection. It’s a chapter of a longer work, Mindkiller, which was released in 1982 – a year after Time Travelers Strictly Cash. I really enjoyed most of this story – the world is intriguing and the characters are very interesting – and I’d probably read Mindkiller if I happened to come across it. But from the chapter, I have no idea what the rest of the book would be about. This segment was really good on it’s own, and I’m a little afraid that the book around it would ruin some of the charm. I liked how information unfolded in this excerpt. The brevity was part of what I liked and I think that a larger frame might add a lot of junk that takes away from the engaging parts.
“Have you Heard the One…?” is another Callahan’s tale, and the inspiration for the title. A time traveling, elf-sized salesman appears in Callahan’s and plies his wares on the clientele for mere pennies. This story developed Josie Bauer, who is mentioned in almost all of the Callahan’s stories in this collection. Before, we only knew that Josie was attractive, but in this story, we get to see her be a badass. She also sleeps with the winner of the recurring pun contest, because she likes funny guys. I was afraid that this plot point would lead to some derision of her character, but I was pleasantly surprised. It’s openly talked about that Josie will go home with the winner, but nobody calls her a slut and sleeping with her is not devalued because of the patternistic nature of her desires.
Okay now that I’ve talked about some of the stories I liked, I want to talk about some of the things I did not enjoy in this collection. And I’m going to start with the biggie: How Spider Robinson, a Male Author, Writes About Women. I know, I know, you don’t want to hear it. But this is my blog post and I’m going to rant about it anyway.
In the review so far, I’ve already mentioned an engaging female villain and a badass hot empowered woman, so you might be asking, “What is there to rant about, Jeriann?” and to that I say, “Everything else.” In the first story, the main character, Jake, notices the pain in a woman’s face, then shifts to commenting about how she isn’t particularly attractive, doesn’t dress well, and is otherwise just a normal person. Then a few pages later, he remarks that she’s still not pretty, but the way the light hits her face makes her beautiful, and that’s better any day.
That’s not too bad. We haven’t gotten any “attractiveness” speculation about any of the male characters, but this is from a specific character’s POV, and he’s not really judging her on her attractiveness, just noting it, so fine.
Then, in “God is an Iron,” the main character walks in on this woman who has just attempted suicide, and as he takes care of her and cleans up her apartment, he muses about how she wouldn’t be attractive by conventional standards even on a good day, and right now she’s emaciated from malnourishment, all bones and taut skin except for her breasts and bloated belly. If her face was animated, she could have been beautiful, but no amount of makeup could make her pretty.
Okay. Aside from the fact that this character is speculating on this woman’s attractiveness WHILE CLEANING UP HER SUICIDE ATTEMPT, I have a few issues. The focus on the breasts bugged me a bit, even though he comments that “In this world, a woman whose breasts are her best feature is in for a rough time.” I get that Robinson is pointing out societal flaws, and that these characters aren’t necessarily valuing conventional beauty above all else, but the fact that they’re using conventional beauty as their frame in assessing these women is… frustrating. Why does their attractiveness level matter? What makes it relevant? We don’t get this analysis for male characters, we get ACTUAL DESCRIPTION. Saying whether or not someone is “conventionally pretty” is not a descriptor – it’s a cop-out, and it implies that a woman’s looks will always play into how she is treated and judged. I realize this was written in the early 80s, but come on.
Robinson also brings up this idea of beauty vs. prettiness in his Heinlein essay, and the repetition of the concept makes me think that he uses this idea as a crutch – a defense against the argument that he focuses too much on women’s looks. “I’m not saying that she can’t be beautiful. Anyone can be beautiful. I’m just saying she’s not conventionally pretty. I don’t set conventions, society does.” Okay, but why do you have to bring it up all the time? If you don’t agree with the conventions, why do they matter? Of course, this brings us to the subject of author intent, which can’t be proven and leads to all sorts of circular “Does intent matter?” arguments so I’m going to move on.
Speaking of the Heinlein essay, it’s called “Rah, Rah, R.A.H,” and it’s Robinson’s rebuttal to common critiques he hears about Robert A. Heinlein. Robinson has been greatly inspired by Heinlein and refers to him as the creator of modern science fiction. Now, I have only read one Heinlein book, and I never see anything about it, so I assume it’s not seen as one of the better examples of his work. So, I’m pretty neutral on Heinlein, due to lack of information to form an opinion. But Robinson’s ranting about the illegitimacy of almost all arguments against Heinlein…kind of made me want to hate Heinlein. The arguments were shallow, and several times boiled down to “you’re wrong because you’re wrong.” He said he doesn’t worship Heinlein and that criticism is fine, but all these critiques were “missing the point.” But Robinson seems to miss the point of several of the arguments. And again, I know it was the 80s and social issues were not in the same place as they are today, but the fact he said that potential conservative political views were not a reason to discount an author’s writing but did not make the same argument about “accusations” of homosexuality irked me. I agree that you can see merit in an author’s writing regardless of their political views, but I think that point is MORE relevant to an author’s sexuality, not less.
The way Robinson talked about current events and “the state of things” did make me see a bit of a “the more things change, the more they stay the same” pattern. It makes sense, because science fiction is largely a future-focused endeavor, but all the talk about climate change and civil rights made me view a lot of the despair of today in a different light. Like, sure, it’s a little disheartening that these issues have been problems forever and they’re still not getting fixed, but at the same time, improvements have been made, and even uphill battles can be won eventually. In “The Web of Sanity,” a speech Robinson wrote for a sci-fi convention, he talks about the general lack of morale and the view that the world is going to hell so nothing matters. I immediately thought of all the memes I see about how often Millennials joke about killing themselves. There is a definite sense of despair in a lot of people today, and knowing that it’s not new is a bit reassuring. Previous generations survived and the world isn’t complete crap right now, so maybe the future isn’t utterly doomed after all.
The only other thing I have to say about the stories is that there were way too many puns. Sure, he makes them part of the plot in the Callahan’s stories, and the text invites the reader to groan along, but I still feel like the sheer amount of puns and plays on words was overwhelming. It was almost like he was begging for praise for being able to come up with so many bad jokes. In “The Web of Sanity,” the first page and a half is just pun after pun after pun. I counted no less than sixteen plays on words or twists of common idioms. Many of those involved words where the joke hinges on the spelling (right vs. rite, etc).This was a speech, meant to be heard out loud. So the visual element of the wordplay combined with the fast-paced nature of joke after joke after joke means that a large number of the jokes were unable to be appreciated in the moment. I wasn’t a big fan especially since the largest portion of that section without wordplay that Jason Mraz would aspire to was an extended poop joke.
Overall, I’m not upset I picked this up at a thrift store. If I see Spider Robinson books in the future, I’ll consider buying them. The worlds have a lot to offer and the sci-fi concepts are fun. I found a lot to criticise, and I’ll never be a Spider Robinson fan, per se. But I did appreciate this look into a specific era of sci-fi, particularly from an author who worked with a lot of sci-fi magazines other sci-fi authors. Now, please excuse me while I go read some more Octavia Butler.