Spider Robinson, according to Wikipedia, was born “Paul.” His pen name may be due either to his inordinate skinniness or his respect to a blues musician of the same name. His story felt skinny as well, a short story fluffed up to make a novel. This was not helped by pandering allusions to Delany and other sf writers. Additionally, this is a Heinleinesque book. People “grok.” Conveniently for the protagonist Sam, every self-serving desire he has is forgivable, if not downright noble: sex with his best friend’s wife, his standing back to allow pregnant girlfriend’s death-wish, and even murdering the time traveler Rachel and his friends. No surprise: Spider Robinson was just chosen to novelize a post-humus outline by Heinlein.
Okay. I guess I have it out with The Man before it gets any uglier. I don’t mind the concept of the Competent Man. Really, I don’t. It just seems that every time he is invoked, there has to be a matching Incompetent Woman to make C. Man’s world-view work.
But still, this is not a bad book at all. The Nova Scotia 1970s setting and hippie characters are readable and interesting. It delightfully builds up to its exciting best in the last quarter. I liked the frank discussions (perhaps the upside of Heinleinism) on homosexuality, sexuality in general, religion, death, and telepathy. My favorite part was one nice stacking of effect that created a real emotional punch: “You’re as smart as I am, brother. Figure it out. This ought to be the best documented age in human history to date. We’ve got record-keeping even the Romans wouldn’t believe. Print. Computer files. Microfilm. Photocopies. Words. Pictures. Moving pictures. Sound. Documentaries, surveys, polls, studies, satellite reconnaissance, censi or whatever the plural of ‘census’ is, newspapers, magazines, film, videotapes, novels, archives, the Library of goddam Congress – this is the best-documented age in the fucking history of the world so far, Snake, and we’re living in what has to be its best-documented culture; now you tell me: Why wouldn’t Rachel’s people have access to all that stuff?”
A book like this is comforting for a writer like me. This is not a masterpiece, but I know I can write at this level. It means I can probably publish books. (Talk about self-serving desires!) But why isn’t it a greater book? To quote Teresa Nielsen Hayden, “Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.” Where this tale fails, it is merely plot; where it succeeds, it is story. This may be an artifact of trying to build a marketable story instead of letting the story work its way through. And again, I find myself searching for the true nature of story. I mean: Story.