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Review: CALLAHAN’S CROSSTIME SALOON series by Spider Robinson

posted on April 23, 2007 at 10:40 pm · filed under Reviews

“If one were ever given the task of creating Spider Robinson from scratch, the best way to do it would be to snatch James Joyce from history, force-feed him Marx Brothers films and good jazz for the better part of a decade, then turn him loose on a world badly in need of a look at itself.”–Vancouver Sun

Spider Robinson’s Callahan series contains the definitive works of pub sci-fi. Spider has been faithfully cranking out books in the series since 1977 and they’re all highly-readable, highly-intoxicated affairs full of booze, bad puns, good puns, and err… hilarious hi-jinx? Yep, that’s the only way to describe it. Sound intriguing? Read on!

The basic facts go thusly: The nominal Callahan is from the future. He and his wife/significant other, Lady Sally have taken it upon themselves to make sure that the future happens. Basically, their advanced and perfect society has subjected the events of 20th century to intensive computer analysis and determined that everything should have blowed-up sometime in the 80s/90s/whatevers, and so they did what every time-traveling Irishman would do. They started a bar in New York City during the era in question, to look at world events and figure out what was going to go wrong and make sure that it continues to have gone right.

The first four or five books are absolutely brilliant in every respect. The plots are both zany and believable, the writing is top-notch, the characters are… well, insane. There’s just no arguing with them. I will note that as time has passed, the stories seem a little more forced, a bit contrived, and also a little heavy-handed with the morals. The moral to every Callahan’s book boils down to “Shared pain is lessened; shared joy is increased.” But where that’s mostly incidental (while totally important) in the first books, the latter ones tend to just be Spider’s guidebook to applying that rule to solving whatever ills of the world happen to be topical at the time of writing and/or get on his nerves.

I haven’t read the ninth or tenth book yet, so hopefully that’s not the case with the newest entries. Even the latter books are funny read-once affairs that would still make instant fans of the series if they hadn’t read the same basic formula a half-dozen times before. There’s always enough explanation given for new readers to be able to jump in at any point in the series (although the full story of, say, Ralph Von Wau Wau’s introduction to Callahan’s Place is infinitely more satisfying than a tossed off “Ralph was a talking German Shepherd who professionally wrote childrens stories” as the characters get introduced to whatever newcomer-to-the-bar has rolled into the joint in whichever novel you’re reading) so if you can’t find the first one, don’t sweat it. Just grab whichever one you happen to see at your local library or friend’s house, and roll with it.

For the inevitable record, my personal favorite is “Lady Slings the Booze” – it takes the Callahan’s formula, puts it in a Brooklyn whorehouse run by Lady Sally, and stars a straight-out-of-noir-detective-stories private dick named Joe Quigley. It’s hilarious, and it appeals to my love of all things Chandleresque. You can read the first five chapters for free from Baen Books here, so give it a glance and see if you like it. It’s one of (I think) two of the Callahans books that don’t actually take place in the bar or its successors (when the fate of the world is decided in your drinking establishment, sometimes bad things happen; the world continues to exist, but the bar has been destroyed a time or two; I think it’s currently located in Key West, but like I said, I haven’t read the last two books).

If you demand that your fiction be dense, Miller-esque affairs full of pathos, depression, and sadness, you probably won’t enjoy Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon. It’s flippant, it’s fast, and it’s friendly. But if you’re a fan of genre fiction (or puns – if you like puns… well, you have found your paradise; they fly fast and heavy) or light-hearted fiction, this is the stuff for you. It’s hard to be sad, or even pessimistic, after reading one of these novels. Like the tiger said, they’re GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRREEEATTT!

Spider’s Official Website

First Five Chapters of Lady Slings the Booze (linked above)

The Callahan Chronicles at Amazon.com (an omnibus collection of the first three books)

— devlocke

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