Spider RobinsonSpider Robinson Interview
Conducted by Ernest Lilley
Also: Free Lunch  Review 

Author's own website: www.spiderrobinson.com

Possibly Spider Robinson should consider adding Murphy to his cast of Callahan Characters, as pretty much everything that could go wrong in getting this interview did. But it was worth waiting for, as you'll soon see, as Spider spills the beans below... - editor

SFRevu: Spider, much to my astonishment, I really enjoyed Free Lunch. I picked it up ready to go after its inherent Heinlein Heresy with a hot poker...but found I was laughing too hard to swing it. As usual. There seems to be a certain amount of Citizen of the Galaxy in Free Lunch. Is that my over active imagination, or are you combining tribute and sendup?

Spider Robinson: No sendup; pure tribute. I deliberately selected the title as homage to Robert, when I suddenly realized the rules John Varley and I had set up for our collaborative novel appeared to allow an exception to Robert's famous "TANSTAAFL" dictum. (They don't, of course; we cheated.) Herb approved the name at once. I've always wished we could have completed the project in time for Robert to get the joke. I think he would have chuckled. And then broke our balls in some diabolically hilarious way, down the line. God, I miss him.

Q: But didn't you just throw the notion of a closed economic system out the window? Heinlein never would have said, there aint no such thing as a free lunch...given the existence of a non-causal universe, perpetual motion, or time travel. On the other hand, he attacked his own idea in Waldo and Magic Incorporated, didn't he?

SR: As I said, you (and Robert) are quite right. The only way to beat TANSTAAFL is to cheat. But I have no firm evidence that the universe precludes cheating...

Q: Every author puts something of themselves into their characters. Hitchcock put himself into every movie. Did you sneak yourself into Free Lunch?

SR: Okay, I'm busted. At least I got it over with fast. That's me in the opening paragraph of THE FREE LUNCH. That's what I looked like, emerging from my first-ever visit to Disneyland (the real one) -- which is what triggered the book. Like that guy, I had come expecting to sneer. And then David Gerrold and Herb Varley showed me the place....and there may be two humans alive who love Disneyland more, but I doubt it....and on my way out, I realized that I wanted to turn around and go back in, and *stay* there...that I wanted to BE Mike. I decided to write him instead. Later, it was pointed out to me that Disney might perhaps be somewhat unsympathetic to promoting the idea of people stowing away in there, and my villains using firearms there, and so on...and so Dreamworld was born.

Q: Morgue Attendant? Night Watchman? Midnight Writer? How long have you had this problem with sleeping? Did either of those early gigs show up in your stories? Did working in a morgue make being a night watchman more interesting?

SR: People claim that they want kids to read. Maybe they do, and they're just dumb. As a kid I found adults would almost never shut up and leave me in peace long enough to get any reading done....until late at night, when, under the covers with a flashlight ("turn that light out and go to sleep, up there!"), I could open the dimensional portal to the infinity of universes. I actually think reading good SF is more fun than dreaming. *Sleeping*, I could always get done in class the next day.

So night was always Magic Time. It still is. It's the perfect time to create, if your field involves creative concentration. At night nobody from Porlock comes to my door, nobody calls me on the phone, there's nothing much on TV, my favorite distraction is asleep, and the psychic airwaves are relatively silent, because nobody's awake but the Tom Waits people, the nightshift crowd, and they have pretty good vibes.

Q: Though you started out on the road to a career as a folk musician, the only thing you've recorded was the sound track to the computer game version of Callahan's Saloon. Do you play for fun with friends? Is there a weekly gig somewhere you don't want the world to discover? Do you....filk?

How nice of you to ask about music! It just so happens that I've just released a CD called BELABORING THE OBVIOUS....

It was produced by my darling Jeanne. It features all four tracks from the Legend Entertainment computer game CALLAHAN'S CROSSTIME SALOON: original songs of mine, sung by me with the assistance of my guitar Lady Macbeth and a band of superb studio players produced by Danny Casavant--and featuring my favorite guitarist in the world, Mr. Amos Garrett, on lead. (Remember Maria Muldaur's "Midnight at the Oasis"? *That* Amos Garrett...) Filling out the CD, I read aloud from the opening of the latest Callahan paperback, CALLAHAN'S KEY.

The CD can be ordered by direct hotlink from the Music page at www.spiderrobinson.com. And a fairly lengthy, accurately ridiculous account of the recording of the CD is available on the Diary page.

I don't seem to gig much any more these days. For awhile a few years ago, I played a few of the coffeehouses in Vancouver, but it never worked. I drew customers, all right....but they tended to be science fiction fans. This was seldom what management had had in mind, so I kept getting fired. I haven't played a paying gig in some time, now...although Jeanne and I have been invited to a folk festival in Comox, BC, next July. One of my favorite recent gigs was a live performance at a literary festival called Wordfest in Calgary, a couple of years ago: me, Jeanne, Amos Garrett on acoustic guitar and Ron Casat on bass and keyboards. Ecstasy! All I need to do now is jam with Ray Charles and Sir Paul McCartney, and I'll be ready to catch a cab.

These days I play and sing in the living room, and if I am lucky my beloved has time to join me. For my 50th birthday she arranged to have two of my favorite musician friends, Steve Fahnestalk and Tam Gordy, come out to my island from Vancouver, and while everybody else had a party, the three of us played and sang every Beatles song that can be accomplished without electronic assistance: that was my present. I don't know if I've ever had more fun with my clothes on.

Q: What was the first SF you read...was it a life changing event?

In 1954, when I was six years old, my mother sent me off to the library, with instructions to go inside and ask someone to give me a book. I did so, and a lady whose name I've never been able to learn and whose face I can still see sized me up and handed me a copy of Robert A. Heinlein's ROCKETSHIP GALILEO. God bless her. It was the first of the famous Heinlein Juveniles, and Robert himself called it the worst, but I dunno. Three kids and their uncle the scientist build a moon rocket in the back yard, only to find that diehard Nazis got there first--what's not to like?

Anyway, yes, it was a life-changing event. I zipped through the book in a day (Mom had already infected me with literacy--this was merely the first book I'd read all by myself with no pictures in it to help), and went back to the library and said, "Gimme *another* book." The kind lady took me to a special section, where *all* the books had a sticker on their spine, depicting a hydrogen atom being impaled by a V-2 rocket. There were several other Heinleins, which I devoured. And then I learned a remarkable thing: every other book in that section turned out to be darned near as good as a Heinlein...

This was 1954, you see. SF was a scorned subliterary genre; almost none of it was published in hardcover, and of the little that was, almost none was purchased by libraries. So if a science fiction book made it onto the library shelves, it had to have been championed by some staff member who risked ridicule to do so, and thus was *very* likely to be excellent. It didn't take me long to grok that the QCR (Quality-to-Crap Ratio) averaged far higher in the SF section than anywhere else in the library...and so my tastes were perverted for life.

Q: Do you have a most and least favorite book by him?

My most favorite would be a tie between STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, GLORY ROAD, TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, THE DOOR INTO SUMMER, METHUSELAH'S CHILDREN, THE UNPLEASANT PROFESSION OF JONATHAN HOAG, ASSIGNMENT IN ETERNITY, EXPANDED UNIVERSE, FRIDAY (which is dedicated to my wife, among others), and THE CAT WHO WALKS THROUGH WALLS (in which our daughter Luanna has a brief walkon as a low-gee ballerina in the first chapter.) I have no least favorite.

Q: Who do you like to read in Science Fiction?

Let's limit this to living writers, who are presently working--else we'll be at this all week. Before we even begin, a few of the True Elder Gods still walk the earth, so I'd like to salute them *before* they join Poul Anderson in becoming existence-challenged: I speak of Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson, and Not Quite So Elder But Just As True Gods like Harlan Ellison, Ben Bova, Robert Sheckley and Larry Janifer. 

Of my own generation, I've never gotten over my love affair with the work of John Varley, George R.R. Martin, Phyllis Gotlieb, Connie Willis or Vernor Vinge. My current favorite writers of the present generation include Ted Chiang (a former student of mine at the Clarion Workshop, and I doubt I taught him a thing), Vancouver's Don DeBrandt, Robert Charles Wilson, Rob Sawyer, Candas Jane Dorsey...hey, I just realized that's four Canadians in a row! I swear I didn't plan that. And a new voice coming on real strong and sweet, Nalo Hopkinson, is also Canadian. Other great new Americans besides Ted include Neil Stephenson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sarah Zettel, and a dozen other people I'm forgetting...(There's quite a bit of slippage in my chronological ordering, of course. Phyllis Gotlieb, for example, achieved major fame with her first novel SUNBURST in 1964, and is still as prolific as ever, which is why I think of her as being of my cohort...but she had a story in *Fantastic* in 1959.)

My Top Ten favorite SF writers of all time, in no particular order:

Robert A. Heinlein Theodore Sturgeon Edgar Pangborn Frederik Pohl Cyril Kornbluth Poul Anderson Roger Zelazny Harlan Ellison Gordon R. Dickson John Varley James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon)

Yes, I know that makes eleven. Be grateful I restrained myself, and left out Alfie Bester and Samuel R. Delany and Ben Bova and...

My present favorite MYSTERY writers (alive and publishing), in order:

Donald E. Westlake Lawrence Block Thomas Perry Larry McMurtry Laurence Shames Don Winslow and a new guy coming up, Tim Dorsey: he's both loonier and funnier than Carl Hiaasen, and in each of his first two books he invents *several* utterly unique and unforgettably hilarious methods of murder.

Q: Now that Douglas Adam's is gone...who's the funniest SF writer that's not you? (Or who are the funniest SF Writers?)

Funny science fiction has always been a hard sell. Indeed, the very first professional editor I was ever introduced to assured me it was impossible: that no two people agree on what's funny, and science fiction is just too small an audience to aim for only a fragment of. He claimed Ron Goulart and Bob Sheckley were the beginning and end of funny SF, and I should give it up. As far as I know that editor has not worked in the field in over twenty-five years now...

But he may have been right: after I come up with the obvious three--Bob Sheckley, a lunatic on a Phil Dick-ian scale but a vastly more skilled writer--Terry Pratchett, and Bob Asprin--it's hard to think offhand of anybody else who's allowed him- or herself to be painted with the label of "funny" writer, and is still publishing. (William Tenn, where are you?) Newcomer Don DeBrandt will be recognized as a comic genius when he's better known, I think: the guy is an idea-fountain, and quite a few of them are pants-pissingly funny.

Q: Is SF going to die off with the first generation fans?

Not a chance. It's in one of its regular declines, just now, many readers having apparently decided they're more comfortable with warlocks and elves than with aliens and time travelers--but it will come back strong. Soon, please God!

I think perhaps part of the problem is that the magic Sci Fi year of 2001 finally arrived...and we *still* aren't all rich and immortal, and the Terran Federation *still* hasn't brought world peace, and we *still* haven't met superaliens who'll straighten everything. So, the feeling seems to be, "The hell with it, let's go read about unicorns."

Not to worry: it will all blow over (And we *will* become rich and immortal, establish world peace, and meet wise aliens.) Science fiction cannot die. Too many intelligent people are born into each generation.

Enough to make me rich? Not a chance. Solvent? Well, one can hope. But alive until the next wave of interest arrives? Yes, I think that's doable. Deus volent.

Q: I gather that you've gotten used to having stories optioned and things grinding to a halt just before the money starts flowing, or the film starts rolling. Is anything currently looking like it might happen?

The trouble is that there's *always* something currently looking like it might be happening. And because it might be happening, you can't talk about it. And then because it didn't, you don't feel like talking about it. So no, nothing to report as of today.

On the other hand, tomorrow Vince Gerardis could call me up and tell me a major cable channel has ordered sixteen episodes, and David Chase is interested in producing but won't touch it unless he's guaranteed I'll be the script editor, whereas Spielberg wants to do it as a movie with Bill Goldman...

I'd love to see Brian Dennehy play Mike Callahan...

Q: Are there any directors or producers you'd like to see work on a project based on your work?

Yes. Exactly right. I'd like to see any director or producer work on a project based on my work.

Correction: any producer whose checks clear.

Among director/writers, I think highly of Phil Robinson (no relation), who did such a magnificent job of translating my friend Bill Kinsella's superb book SHOELESS JOE into the superb movie FIELD OF DREAMS.

Q: Ok, you probably knew this was coming. Did the events of 9/11 shake your faith in civilization, mankind, and the whole deal, or was it a long time coming and you were impressed by folks rising to the occasion?

More the latter. It wasn't a long *enough* time coming for *me* by a damn sight...but I was impressed by the courage and kindness and kinship of all good people who responded, from the dead firemen and cops at The Site to the firefighters here in Vancouver, B.C., who raised $600,000 in a few days to help out.

The attack had particular impact for me. I was born in New York City, and lived in and immediately around it for the first half of my life, before I moved to Canada in the early 70s. My family includes two FDNY firefighters and an NYPD detective--all retired on 11/9/01, thank the Buddha. My sister and her husband and three children still live just outside the city. My agent was close enough to hear the sound.

I'm appending below an op-ed column I wrote for THE GLOBE AND MAIL (Canada's national newspaper) a couple of weeks after the attack, my first attempt to deal with it on paper. (Of course, *everybody* wrote a column on the same topic at about the same time. What with one thing and another, mine didn't run in the Globe until yesterday, Saturday October 27.) Feel free to use as much or as little as you feel appropriate or have space/bandwidth for--crediting THE GLOBE AND MAIL for first pub, please.

Q: Do you go into Callahan's back story in any of your novels? When did he stop tending bar to become a Time Lord? Will there be a book about his cosmic adventures, or did you do that already?

Haven't yet, and don't know if I ever will. Mike has not yet *told* me much about his cosmic adventures...and I suspect that if he ever does, I won't understand more than one word in three at best. Similarly, if he told me his backstory with complete candor and forthrightness, I doubt I'd comprehend much of it.

What little he *has* let drop so far is enough to tell me that he comes from a culture so vastly different from my own in its most basic assumptions that I'm not sure any contemporary human could get his or her mind around it. Where/when he comes from, he once said, "Nobody's hungry; nobody's hurting, nobody's horny, nobody's lonely." What can I possibly grok of such a society, or one of citizens? If somehow I could...how could I explain it to you?

Q: Callahan's Conchs is listed on your website as in progress. Do you have a target date for it? How long do you expect us to hold out without a new Callahan's novel anyway?

I'm workin' on it, I'm workin' on it. Thanks for asking. I took a little time off to quit cigarettes, but I'm back at work again now. I hope the new nonCallahan hardcover novel, THE FREE LUNCH (see our SFRevu)  (Tor), and the Callahan-related reprint paperback CALLAHAN'S LADY (Baen), will be enough to hold you over for a while. The former takes place literally in a Dreamworld; the latter in a fabulous whorehouse founded and run by Mike Callahan's wife Lady Sally McGee. Either should, hopefully, be at least as much fun to hang out in as a bar full of broken glass and drunken punsters...

If not, the third and final volume of the original Callahan's Place trilogy, CALLAHAN'S SECRET, will be reprinted in paperback by Tor in...you guessed it: February 2002.

Oh, and the title CALLAHAN'S CONCHS is, I'm afraid, "no longer operative," as Richard Nixon would say. Everyone at the publisher's hated it. Apparently I'm the only person north of Miami who knows how to pronounce "conch." (One guy even accused me of mocking Ebonic spelling. If so I swear it was completely unconchs.)

Q: Is there anything you've got on your mind that I haven't asked about?

A thin layer of dust.

People whom I have not already bored comatose by now are invited to wander over to my new commercial website, < www.spiderrobinson.com  >, or to its venerable noncommercial precursor, Ted Powell's site at < http://psg.com/~ted/spider/ >

Again, thanks for asking all these questions. I'd have felt pretty silly just standing here talking to myself.

SFRevu: Spider, the pleasure was all ours.

================ And now, that column I mentioned above:==================

FUTURE TENSE #25: What does it mean to be human? 
(c) 2001 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved
(originally printed in THE GLOBE AND MAIL, 27 OCT 2001).

As a science fiction writer I'm probably best known for a series that began with the first story I ever published, and 28 years later has metastasized into nine books, all involving a fabulous tavern called Callahan's Place. If I were forced to condense the entire million-word saga into a single word--and I can't tell you how many journalists have asked me to do just that, over the years--the word would be *tolerance.* Specifically, tolerance of the weird. Mike Callahan ran the kind of bar where, if a pink gorilla walked in and ordered a beer, he'd be allowed to drink it in peace. Customers included a talking dog, a cyborg starkiller, the man who accidentally created AIDS, and the Internet itself, come alive. Callahan often said he didn't insist his customers be human, as long as they had good manners.

Okay, science fiction boy: define "human" for us, in light of the World Trade Center Massacre.

Robert A. Heinlein's classic STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND concerns a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith. Only survivor of the first human expedition to Mars, Mike is raised from infancy entirely by Martians...then in his twenties, he is returned to Earth, where he spends the book being baffled by human beings, and trying desperately to learn to become one.

There comes a point when Mike has learned to *imitate* a human quite well, to speak fluently and obey even the most confusing human customs. But he just doesn't *get* humans--can't understand, for instance, why if there is hunger, nobody volunteers to become soup. In particular, he does not get humor. Mike cannot laugh, cannot fathom why humans sometimes bark like that...and it bothers him.

Then one day at the zoo, he tosses a peanut to a monkey. A bigger monkey comes along, beats the little monkey up, and steals his peanut. Mike watches. The little monkey gets up, looks around...spots an even smaller monkey, and suckerpunches it. And suddenly, for the first time in his life, Mike begins to laugh. And laugh, until he falls to his knees and they have to carry him away, gasping for breath. At last, he understands humans...and thus finally is one himself.

A few days ago I e-mailed several friends a Salon.com essay by Afghanian-American Tamim Ansary, urging us not to blame the starving people of Afghanistan for the actions of the Taliban that crushes them or the terrorists it shelters among them. One respondent agreed, but said the terrorists themselves and their supporters should be "stamped out like cockroaches." I emphatically agreed.

Today Jef Raskin, the man who thought up the Macintosh, responded. "Stamp them out like cockroaches? No. Capture suspects and try them like humans. We have had too much treating humans like cockroaches."

I sent a hasty reply I now regret, saying I was comfortable with a definition of "human" which excluded the Nineteen Nitwits, and anyone who helped them.

I was dead wrong. That's *exactly* the way those Nineteen Nincompoops thought, themselves. They were able to butcher thousands of innocent strangers because they had redefined "human" so as to exclude them. Just like Milosevic or Pol Pot or Amin or Hitler or Stalin, in *their* turn. If we do the same to them, they win. As Walt Kelly said during the Vietnam War, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

That's the very essence of human civilization: the sense to realize that revenge *is not possible,* that the generational feuders of Belfast and Jerusalem and other such places are wasting not only their blood, their substance and their lives, but their time. It's a game that can never end, unless and until one side simply makes up its mind to stop. Maybe not to forgive--maybe that's too much to ask--but just to *stop*. For the sake of the children, who don't *care* whether their ancestors slew or were cruelly slain, and shouldn't have to.

Like everyone else in the civilized world, I am too heartsick to stand it, and like everyone else, I would like to transmute my pain into anger. It's slightly easier to carry, and *much* easier to unload. This tragedy also offers me license to unleash some of that free-floating rage and bitterness I carry around, the accumulated residue of a lifetime of petty indignities, frustrations and humiliations. The murderous anger that must have led the Nineteen Numbskulls to bushwhack nearly 6,000 strangers somehow sanctifies my own anger, makes it righteous. In the very words the Blues Brothers used to justify killing or crippling dozens of policemen doing their jobs, "We're on a mission from God."

Well, the Nineteen Knuckleheads thought they were too.

Back in 1976 my wife Jeanne and I wrote, in a novella called "Stardance," these words:

"This is what it is to be human: to see the essential existential futility of all action, all striving--and to act, to strive...This is what it is to be human: to reach forever beyond your grasp...This is what it is to be human: to live forever or die trying...This is what it is to be human: to perpetually ask the unanswerable questions, in the hope that the asking of them will somehow hasten the day when they will be answered...This is what it is to be human: to strive in the face of the certainty of failure. This is what it is to be human: to persist."

I imagine the Nineteen Nimrods felt the same way, as they saw their unsuspecting targets grow larger in their windshields. They were human, all right. Sick, but human. I apologize, Jef: you were quite right. Let us accord them the same humane treatment we gave Eichmann. Sure, it's more than they deserve. But hey--I want more than *I* deserve. Who doesn't?

Let's not demonize them. Let's just bring them in, try them, offer them a bit of a lie-down...at Tim McVeigh's table...and then, as quickly as possible, do the one thing in our power that might make them squirm even more in the flames of Hell. Forget them.

Not their victims, ever. Just them.

 

2001 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu