The principle is simple: “shared pain is lessened, and shared joy is increased.” (Robinson xii). It could be quickly shrugged off as just another turn of phrase, but think about it for a minute. We’re all caught up so much in our own lives, our own pains, that we don’t stop to listen, REALLY listen to the people around us. Doesn’t it make you stop and wonder, if only for a minute, that maybe if we could get past that and genuinely care about each other, things would be better? We’ve seen the studies and reports expounding researchers’ findings of human behavior, finding (unsurprisingly, for some of us) that this statement is a fundamental aspect of who we are as humans. When we share our pain, honestly share that pain with those around us, the pain is lessened, even mitigated through the awareness that those around you really care about what is bothering you, even if they haven’t experienced it themselves (and sometimes, sometimes they can even corroborate). When we share our joy, our elation over an experience or situation or event, it brightens the whole room. Imagine a place that takes this principle to its logical conclusion, and explicitly fosters an environment that encourages such behavior, where every person that comes there is there because they need to be, and where every person there cares about each other. That is Callahan’s.
The Callahan Chronicals is actually an omnibus collection of the first three books in the series: Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, Time Travellers Strictly Cash, and Callahan’s Secret. They’re technically classified as science fiction, and there are certainly a fair share of aliens, time travellers, telepaths, and talking dogs, but these are really stories about people. (Though so are many other science fiction stories… caveat emptor, I suppose.) The fact of the matter is that the “science” part of the stories is kind of extraneous, it’s the people and their reactions that are important. From the very first story (“The Guy With The Eyes”), it makes this clear: it doesn’t matter whether you’re a heroin junkie or an alien scout charged with the destruction of the human race, the people here CARE about you, and will do whatever they can to help. They will not pry (in fact, there is a standing rule that if you are caught asking prying questions, Fast Eddie the piano player will blackjack you and you’ll be waking up elsewhere).
That’s the basis for the rest of the stories: they won’t pry, but they’ll listen and share if you want them to. ALL of them. How to break the ice, then? Simple: every drink in the place costs $.50. You put down a dollar on the bar, order your poison of choice, and you are given The Choice: you can either collect your change from the cigar box full of quarters at the end of the bar, or you can make a toast. The toast involves stepping up to the line in front of the fireplace, making a toast, and throwing the glass in the fire. Everyone will have quieted down for the toast, but again, they won’t pry… if you don’t want to talk about the reason for the toast, you don’t have to, but they’ll listen if you feel like talking. It seems to me like a great way to get people to open up without making them.
I’m torn on what my favorite story in the book is. “The Guy With The Eyes” is a strong contender, dealing with Tommy Janssen’s first night at the bar. Tommy is a recovering heroin addict, and had heard about Callahan’s from someone. It’s a pretty emotional bit of writing, as he toasts to smack, and rolls up his sleeves: clean, no needle-marks. It is also the first night of another regular… Mickey Finn, an alien scout sent to evaluate the risk factor of the human race, and if deemed necessary, destroy them. His assessment was going to be sent in later that night, and despite his desire not to destroy them, he had been counter-programmed and could not disobey. So they slipped him a “mickey finn” and made him miss his scheduled time to report it, thus saving the human race…
The other big contender for favorite story is “The Time Traveller”. It’s a bit different a kind of time traveling than you might think. It’s the story of Tom Hauptman, a former minister who had been visiting his sister-in-law with his wife in a small banana republic in central America. While there, a revolution happened, and they were thrown into prison under false names, and forgotten about for fully a decade. His sister-in-law died early on, and his wife died 9 years in of Malaria. Visiting tourists noticed them disposing of his wife’s body, and an investigation caused him to finally be released. That’s the time travel. Think about how much has happened in the past 10 years. (Or in the case of the story, 1963 to 1974.) If you are removed completely from any sort of communication with the outside world, think about how alien the world would seem once you were out. How much displacement can you take? You’ve lost your spouse AND your world, and your previous job hinged on an awareness of current social and moral dilemmas? It’s a damned hard thing, and Spider wrote about it beautifully.
The Callahan Chronicals is truly some excellent writing. The characters have depth and emotion, the stories are interesting (and funny when appropriate), and the overall composition is wonderful. I would heartily recommend the book to anyone looking to see what modern science fiction can be. Since the books is a collection of short stories, it works out well as a bedtime reader — there is no reason NOT to read this book, finding time is not an excuse. By the end of it, two facts are evident: I want to become as good a writer, and I want to find my own Callahan’s.
Robinson, Spider. The Callahan Chronicals. New York: Tor Books, 1997.