Monday, March 18, 2013

Callaghan's Crosstime Saloon and down-home SF group therapy

If anyone ever suggests that SF has nothing to say about the human condition, you could do a lot worse than point them towards Spider Robinson (1)

Callaghan's Crosstime Saloon (1977) - the first of many collections of stories he's produced about a very special Long Island Bar - is by some lights barely in the genre at all. The tropes it does employ - little green men, time travel, telepathy - seem in most of the tales to be window dressing for solving a patron's problems

Taking the first story as an example: In The Guy With The Eyes, the very first Callaghan story, the bar has to help an alien scout avoid a compulsion to report back to their superiors, thus triggering the destruction of the Earth. But the first half of the tale is taken up with the story of a recovering heroin addict seeking an audience and some kind of absolution. 

 And here's the kicker: both parts are complimentary reflections on the absolute value of agape - the ability of mankind to offer unconditional, fraternal love.

With a quiet mistrust of authority, an emphasis on the personal rather than the political, and the sense of a people licking its wounds, it's also hard not to read the Callaghan stories as group therapy for the counter-culture in the After The Goldrush 1970's. 

So in the second piece, The Time Traveller, there is actually no time travel as such - 'only' the experience of one who has for tragic but mundane reasons missed the political, social and sexual explosion of the late sixties, and feels radically alienated from the current era. 

With subject matter like this, the risk is that one loses the effervescence of much SF. Robinson's achievement is to cloak this depth in descriptions of what sounds like the best boy's club (2) in existence. Come to Callaghans, and you'll get yarn spinning, punning contests, musical entertainment and endless repartee.

This could have all been a whimsy too far in the wrong hands, but the tales rattle on, never quite leaving the rails, like a chance meeting of Ray Bradbury, John Barth and Douglas Adams in a Norman Rockwell painting. Glibness is largely avoided.

Callaghan's Crosstime Saloon might defy categorisation under Asimov's three types of SF - gadget SF, adventure SF and social SF -  but it's undeniably part of the genre. It forms part of a long-standing fourth pillar of science fiction which is mainly interested in providing new ways of looking at how we live now. And it has as much to say about that as anything from within the mainstream. 

(1) Spider Robinson is not a real spider, for then we would be expecting insights into the arachnid condition. 

(2) Women characters are a little scarce in these tales, and the only two major characters are looking for love and children, respectively. 

No comments:

Post a Comment