Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon

Spider Robinson Callahan's Crosstime Saloon (1977)
I'm a little torn by this one - a bunch of short stories all sharing the same basic setting and cast of characters, namely a bar which counts the occasional time traveller or representative of an alien invasion force amongst its customers - at least just enough to render the book recognisable as science-fiction, but with otherwise sufficient restraint as to prevent it turning into an episode of Red Dwarf, sort of.

In relation to a great many of his contemporaries rising up through magazines such as Analog, Spider Robinson's prose comes as a breath of fresh air, a shot in the arm, or whichever simile you prefer. His style is worldly and conversational, well-suited to the sort of jovial horseshit you'll hear in a bar - imagine a cheerier Bukowski who knows when he's reached his limit. Given the setting, most of the actual content of this collection occurs as what I suppose you might almost term Socratic dialogues, in this case a bunch of guys sat around in a bar talking about stuff, right and wrong, guilt, absolution, and occasionally rambling accounts of life on other planets or a tour of duty in Vietnam.

I went off to Nam soon after that—tried to get word to Steve in the stockade, but it couldn't be done. He got left behind with the rest of America, and I found myself in a jungle full of unfriendly strangers. It was bad—real bad—and I began to think a lot about Steve and the choice he had made. I couldn't tell the people I was fighting from the people I was fighting for, and the official policy of kill what moves didn't satisfy me.

At first. Then one day a twelve-year old boy as cute as Dondi took off my left earlobe with a machete while I got some K-rations out of my pack for him. The kid would have taken off my head instead of my ear, but a pretty tight buddy of mine, Sean Reilly, shot him in the belly while he was winding up.

'Christ, Tony,' Sean said when he'd made sure the kid was dead, 'you know the word: never turn your back on a Gook.'

I was too busy with my bleeding ear to reply, but I was coming to agree with him. Just as Nam had been easier than jail, catching the rifle easier than refusing to, killing Gooks was easier than discussing political philosophy with them.

In case it isn't apparent from the above, there's a well-reasoned liberalism underlying Robinson's fiction, nothing too shouty or cornily illustrative, but we're left with a clear impression of where he stands on issues of racism and even homophobia - subjects which seem infrequently tackled so openly in many strains of science-fiction literature, presumably for fear of alienating cuntier sections of the readership.

The only problem with this is that, for all it's wonderful turns of phrase and vivid sense of invention, Callahan's Crosstime Saloon may as well be Cheers with an occasional extraterrestrial dropping in to shoot the breeze, and is as such a little dull when it really shouldn't be. The gags work fine, but most are told as things said by some guy in a bar followed by how funny everyone else found it, and the more anecdotal narratives are related with interjections about beer nuts and the like, so the book tells it's story with just the faintest suggestion of perhaps you had to be there. This is a shame because there's obviously some good stuff here, not least when one customer turns out to have been Adolf Hitler in a previous existence and the encounter is plausibly played as a morality tale rather than for laughs; but it really should have been better, and I really wanted to like it, but I'm afraid I was kind of bored for the most part.

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