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By Any Other Name
Spider Robinson
Baen, 448 pages

By Any Other Name
Spider Robinson
In 1973, Spider Robinson moved to Nova Scotia, where he met and married Jeanne Robinson, a choreographer/dancer, and founder of Halifax's modern dance company, Nova Dance Theatre. Both Robinsons collaborated on the multiple award-winning Stardance. Since he began writing professionally in 1972, he has won 3 Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the E.E. ("Doc") Smith Memorial Award (Skylark), the Pat Terry Memorial Award for Humorous Science Fiction, and Locus Awards for Best Novella and Best Critic. The Robinsons now live in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Spider Robinson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Crazy Years
SF Site Review: Very Bad Deaths
SF Site Review: Callahan's Con
SF Site Review: The Free Lunch
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Kit O'Connell

Spider Robinson is best known to many science fiction readers for his Callahan's Crosstime Saloon series (which has spawned everything from conventions to Usenet newsgroups), or his recent efforts with Robert A. Heinlein's estate, and much less for his equally impressive body of non-Callahanian work. Although quite gifted with futuristic ideas, humorous science fiction, and bad puns, his skill with creating well-rounded human characters and his warm regard for human life (even as he is destroying it or bemoaning its stupidity in his writing) is what has truly carried his career and created a loyal following.

"Antinomy," one of the strongest stories in the fantastic 2001 collection, By Any Other Name, makes a fine example of both his talent at coming up with interesting ideas and at creating believable people to populate the futures those ideas create. Virginia Harding is a wealthy woman who is placed into suspended animation to prevent the ravages of a then-incurable disease. However, suspended animation eradicates the memories of the last year of consciousness a person has -- including, in this case, the entirety of the romance Harding had with Dr. Thomas Higgins, a man who subsequently helped cure her disease. Now he has to compete for her heart with Tom McLaughlin, the man assigned to acclimate her to the changes society has undergone in the ten years since Virginia was frozen. Although the ideas could merely be a setup for a run-of-the-mill love triangle, the way that triangle plays out is anything but thanks to Spider Robinson's superior grasp of human nature, and the inclusion of a fourth character, a nurse named Debbie Manning, who though relatively minor effects major changes on each of the protagonists like a catalyst changes other chemicals. It is worth noting here (as a testament to Robinson's talents) that a friend of mine, a devout fan of both the author's work in general and this specific book, finds she can't read this story too often because Manning reminds her too much of herself.

In "Melancholy Elephants," one of Robinson's two Hugo award-winning works represented in the anthology, Robinson examines a potential danger of indefinitely extending the reach of copyright. Though the story is thought-provoking in its own right, it becomes especially fascinating in light of Robinson's January 2003 Crazy Years newspaper column "If You Take It ... We Can't Leave It" (obviously not included amongst the sampling of his essays in this collection, it is anthologized in his 2004 essay collection, The Crazy Years) in which he reverses his stance on the need for copyright extension. I can't say that I agree with his arguments -- roughly that his daughter and the late Virginia Heinlein would be doomed if not for the legacies left behind by their writer family. I think this does a great disservice to Robert Heinlein's accomplished widow (to whom "Elephants" was originally dedicated) and, I suspect, to Robinson's daughter as well. However, you can't help but admire an author willing to come up with not one but two such thoughtful examinations of a topic most never consider, not to mention one willing to contradict one of their most successful works in print almost two decades after its original publication.

The samples from his newspaper columns, originally published in The Globe and Mail, make for stimulating reading especially "Bloomin' Yoomins," and "Yoomins Reconsidered," which suggest numerous ways in which humanity is wasting its supposedly superior intellect and making life far more difficult for itself than it needs to be. I wish the engineers, inventors, and law-makers of earth could be forced to read both these essays.

Equally thought-provoking are the stories, "Satan's Children," and "Nobody Likes To Be Lonely." Written five years apart, they make for dual examinations of both the good and the bad brought via invention of a true truth serum and its use by a drug-loving public. The latter also makes the argument that life imprisonment is not inherently less cruel than capital punishment when it comes to a way to handle society's worst offenders.

The other stories in By Any Other Name are provide equally pleasurable reading although most, with notable exceptions, offer futures more hopeful or at least more humorous than the stories mentioned in this review so far. Among the most memorable are "Half An Oaf," in which a faulty time-travel device allows only the top half of a traveller to escape his dystopian future. Likewise in "Chronic Offender," a time machine adds humour and plot twists to a typical criminal double-cross caper. "High Infidelity" takes a decidedly sexual look at brain transplantation and in "Rubber Soul," Robinson uses the god-like powers of an author to return one of his heroes from the grave.

The Crazy Years newspaper columns in By Any Other Name are reprinted in Robinson's recent collection of the same name, and the other Hugo award-winner, the novella from which the anthology takes its title, was later expanded as the novel Telempath. However, even if you already own both (and you should!), this collection is still a great acquisition. In addition to being a pleasure to read, it also makes a fantastic introduction for those who have never read Robinson before, or readers who are only familiar with Callahan's. Although apparently out of print, many inexpensive copies are available online; it may be possible to turn up a copy at a local bookstore, and the reward of By Any Other Name is definitely worth the small effort required to obtain it.

Copyright © 2005 Kit O'Connell

Although Kit O'Connell sometimes considers himself a writer, none of his books are in print; this is not surprising since he hasn't written any (unless you count the one, self-published and now out of print chap book). He also fancies himself a bookseller, but mostly he surfs the web and takes pictures of pretty things. You can read his journal at

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