Annotation: The Callahan Chronicals

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.

Annotation: Friday

Robert A. Heinlein has been considered one of the (if not THE) most influential science fiction authors of the modern era. He wrote fiction for over fifty years, primarily in the field of science fiction, and became the first recipient of the Grand Master Nebula award, an award given for exemplary writing and contribution to the field over a lifetime of writing. There is a very good reason for him receiving this award: his ideas and writing style are both superb in both concept and implementation. He has been accused of being bigoted and sexist, and given some underlying themes within his writing, it is most likely true. This does not change the fact that the stories themselves are masterfully done, and well worth reading.

Friday was released roughly six years before Robert’s death, making it one of his last written works (The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset are two later books that come to mind), and his last work not involved in his massive Future History collection of stories. The book is written in the style of a memoir, following the life of Friday Jones, an Artificial Person (AP) who works as an extremely talented courier for a para-military organization (the name of the organization is never given). She is sent all over the world as well as off-planet, delivering and retrieving information for her employer, “Boss”. At the outset of the book, she is just completing a mission and is returning home. After completing her mission, she goes on vacation. While on vacation, a series of sabotages and assassinations occur, stranding her away from her organization. The story then follows her adventures getting through closed borders and trying to report in. Once she has finally reported in, things settle down until her Boss passes away. Her life is turned upside down, and she ends up taking a job as a courier heading off-planet. The job goes awry, however, when she discovers that she will likely be killed after making her delivery, so she ends up jumping ship during a planetary stop. The book ends with her happy on this colony planet.

That, of course, is very much a synopsis, and doesn’t really deal with any of the details that are discussed in the rest of the book. What really makes the book excellent is the combination of attention to detail and narrative voice. The universe of the book has a rich and robust history and society, and he really works it in beautifully to depict it (which, I will admit, was aided by Friday’s profession taking her globally, giving a perfect excuse to SHOW, rather than TELL). The world is believable, in a scary sort of way, taking place once we are in a space-faring era, with colonies on other worlds (including the moon and stations in space). In this world, we have the environment largely under control, it is well within reason to live in New Zealand and commute to Winnipeg for work, and nations as we know them have fragmented and/or congealed into new structures (ironically, I’ve seen the breakdown Heinlein uses before, with only slight variation, in a book called The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau). For instance, the nation that Friday normally lives in is the Chicago Imperium, which essentially governs the current U.S. “heartland”. Other countries include Alaska Free State, Quebec, California Confederacy, and others. There is a nominal world government, but it is largely ignored by the author, possibly intentionally. Considering the amount of autonomy there is between countries, this actually sort of makes sense — why mention something that has no impact on your life (or the story at hand)?

From a sociological aspect, there is a dichotomy between “tradition” and technology. The advent of new, safe, clean energy (Shipstones) does away with the need for power plants and wires strewn across the landscape, and most old cities have been completely wiped away. There is a strange combination of “proper behavior for a lady” and sexual freedom and autonomy that suggests (to me) that in the intervening years between “now” and then (200+ years in the future) there have been several more radical swings between liberal and ultra-conservative views in society. If I had been asked whether this seemed realistic, as late as the 1990s, I probably would have said no. However, given the current swing back towards conservatism and “propriety”, I’m inclined to say that Heinlein once again called it spot on. (He may have been trained as an engineer, but in my opinion his strength lay in social and technological observation/speculation.)

What really makes this a fantastic book for me, however, is the role of Artificial People and Living Artifacts in the story, including the primary character and narrator. The difference between an Artificial Person (AP) and a Living Artifact (LA) is their form. APs are Living Artifacts that have the additional caveat of looking human. They may be smarter, stronger, faster. They might have better memories, or innate spatial awareness, or any of the above… but they look human in every discernible way. Living Artifacts do not have this restriction, and can take the form of near-mythical creatures like Kobolds, or mermen, or even just talking dogs. Here, function takes precedence over form: kobolds were designed for mining for instance.

While the technology of this is interesting, that’s not the part that grabs me. The involving aspect this has is the psychological effect of being treated like a third-class citizen (read: slave) by the rest of the world — APs do not have rights, and despite the fact that due to her work she’s had all records of her being designed destroyed, SHE knows it, and lets it affect her behavior. The inherent loneliness of this situation is remarkably well done in the course of the story, and often manifests it in Friday’s desire to belong, whether it is with work, in a family, or with friends. I think this really strikes a chord in me, on a lot of levels, or with anyone who has wanted to be accepted.

I really enjoyed Friday, and would definitely recommend it to others. I think it is an excellent example of Heinlein’s writing, and an amusing, intelligent story in its own right. I also think this book, combined with others such as the movie Gattaca, could be used quite effectively in an academic setting to juxtapose possible scenarios created through genetic manipulation (Gattaca relegating “normal” people to second class citizens, Friday turning the genetically modified into slaves).

Heinlein, Robert A. Friday. New York: Del Ray, 1982.

Annotation: Dhalgren

There are some books out there that are uniquely capable of immersing you into their world, in every sense. The number of books that can actually manage to do this is surprisingly small, in my experience, taking up only a small percentage of that selection of books that you might, on any given day, consider “good”, “worthwhile”, or “thought-provoking”. We’re not talking about good books here, we’re not talking about books that make you sit in some coffee shop and ponder the meaning of life. We (by which I mean, “I”) are talking about books that take hold of your entire sense of awareness, and direct it elsewhere. Books that make you abundantly aware and appreciative of the vagaries and nature of being a human. They ignore the romanticized notion of Man and instead shows them as they are, warts, grunts, pains, insecurities and all (and in the process becomes romantic itself). With an opening quote of “You have confused the true and the real.” (George Stanley/In Conversation) before even the table of contents setting the mood for the rest of the book, I would definitely say that Dhalgren is one of these books. For lack of a better term, (bearing in mind that opening comment) it is a remarkably HONEST book.

I’ve read two editions of Dhalgren. The first contained a fascinating if dry introduction by Frederick Pohl, whose name has also been attached to a writing award for which Dhalgren is a recipient. Alas, I lent that copy to a friend back in 1998, and have yet to see it again. Rather than go without, I went out and picked up a new copy of the rereleased novel. This one contains a rather interesting introduction by William Gibson of Neuromancer fame. What particularly struck me about his introduction is that it felt very much as if the introduction was written immediately after reading the book again, leaving Gibson still immersed in that peculiar outlook and train of thought that Dhalgren seems so eminently good at creating. This was rather gratifying, as it made it more apparent that it is NOT just me that becomes so affected by this book.

At the risk of letting my metaphor careen out of control and butcher my train of thought, these introductions act very much like an appetizer before a substantial meal. The type and flavor of the appetizer very much influences what nuances you pull out of the subsequent main course. I certainly find this to hold true very much in this case: I pull significantly different parts out of the first chapter especially, depending on which introduction preceded it. Mind you, this is entirely separate from the various aspects of the story (and structure of the story) that I continue to pick up each time I reread it. My interpretations of the nature of the relationships between different characters (the protagonist, Kid, and his interactions with the surrounding people, as well as the nature of relationships between these peripheral characters themselves) shift wildly between readings, with some relationships becoming more vivid in my mind while others become vague, hazy.

The first few times I read Dhalgren, I felt that it had no real structure, that its structure was as amorphous and chaotic as the city the story takes place in. I then came to the conclusion that perhaps it is not so chaotic, so much as an elliptical spiral, coming back to things that have happened before in unexpected ways, continuing to go farther and farther out. I’m beginning to think that the true nature of the story structure is in fact something in between. That it IS elliptical, but not as precise as a smooth orbit, but rather tumult in a pattern, like the arms of a hurricane. Further, the city’s landscape changes according to the acts of the observer. On Kid’s first night in town, he comes off the bridge and proceeds to meet someone on the roof a building. Despite having walked for no more than 15 minutes, he can no longer see the bridge or the waterfront from the roof. Later on in the book, on that same rooftop, the bridge looms nearby. This discrepancy (if you wanted to call it that) is by intent, however. The bridge symbolizes the exit leading to the outside world, and as previously stated, the landscape adjusts according to the acts or needs of the observer.

What acts or needs would cause Kid to need to leave? Especially since he doesn’t leave, nor even really considers it for more than half a second? One of his friends is leaving at that point, but the importance of that particular action is largely irrelevant, and could have just as easily been avoided. In my eyes from this latest reading, I would say the bridge serves as a metaphor at that point of bringing himself back to reality if only for a moment, and the city itself is a metaphor for the descent into madness. Kid had just lost several days, and the trip to the bridge serves as a re-acknowledgment of reality. While he continues to lose time and remains in the city, it is at this point that he accepts it and no longer lets it bother him.

The writing style for Dhalgren changes for each major “chapter” of the book (there are seven of these chapters). Sometimes the changes are subtle (for instance chapters 3, 4, and 5 are all very similar, and really only change in narrative emphasis), and in others the changes are significant and jarring (in the first chapter, each section opens with a narrative dialogue that leads into Kid’s next action, but has no relation to what else is happening in the story). The most jarring and unique chapter is the final chapter: “The Anathemata: a plague journal.” Over the course of the book, Kid discovers a notebook that is someone’s journal, and uses the unused pages for his own writing. The last chapter of the book is written as if it were a portion of that journal. It is decidedly nonlinear: true to character, he writes where there is space, not necessarily where it makes sense, so an entry might start on one page, and get continued four pages further along. There are even little blurbs of writing in the margins — wherever he could find to write. There are misspellings, crossed out words (crossed out paragraphs!). It is blunt and honest and disturbing in subject matter in a way that makes you realize just how refined and separated the rest of the book is in comparison (the rest of the book in comparison to other literature already was pushing boundaries).

The first time I read Dhalgren, I hated the last chapter. I found it a disappointment, I found it a pain in the ass to read, and it simply made no sense. The second time I read the book, I didn’t even bother with the final chapter. It wasn’t until the third or fourth time I read it that I began to appreciate what was being done with the final chapter (my own writing having grown in that intervening time). It continues to be an extremely disturbing piece of writing. Possibly the most disturbing I’ve ever read, anywhere. Thinking about it as I write this, I think that perhaps the reason I like the book so much, and the reason the book has so much effect on me, is BECAUSE it challenges me at every level. I like it because it is disturbing.

Delany, Samuel R. Dhalgren. Wesleyan University Press.