The Spirituality of Spider
"Nearly unimaginable wonders and marvels are just around the corner." - Spider Robinson
Rui Umezawa-Toronto: One Book, One Vancouver since 2002 has united the city under a well-publicized reading program organized by its public libraries. Based on similar initiatives in Chicago, Los Angeles and Seattle, one title is chosen every year as a recommended read from October through November, essentially giving all of Vancouver’s literate citizens something about which they can discuss with one another. Further strengthening the sense of community was how the books usually had strong ties with either the city or with British Columbia. Timothy Taylor’s gripping Stanley Park, chosen in 2003, takes its title from Vancouver’s most famous and central park. The 2005 choice, Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, based on the author’s actual experiences as one of 22,000 Japanese Canadians removed from the West Coast and interned by their government during the Second World War, is considered one of the most important books in Canadian history.
The program’s surprising pick this year was the late Douglas Adams’s hilarious yet profoundly philosophical work of science fiction, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – surprising only because, as noted by Vancouver Observer technology blogger Terry Lavender, neither the author nor the book has any connection to Vancouver. The choice is even more puzzling because having a living author on hand to discuss his or her work would enhance the event dramatically, and Vancouver is home to some of the world’s greatest contemporary science fiction authors. The aim of this post is not to discredit One Book, One Vancouver or argue against its choice of Hitchhiker’s Guide – far be it that a minor-league Toronto writer would have any business doing so, especially considering how I also am a big fan of Douglas Adams. But this bit of news reminded me that among the West Coast’s iconic SF writers is someone else who also is very dear to my heart even though we’ve never met.
How can anyone not love an author who calls himself Spider Robinson?
There are writers whose styles I find awe-inspiring: Kazuo Ishiguro’s reserved but elegantly evocative prose; the hard-boiled amphetamine-laced storytelling of William Gibson (another Vancouver science fiction author); the piercing sad music that is silent but nonetheless audible over the lyrical storytelling of Chang-Rae Lee; the imagist poetry disguised as prose by Ben Okri.
There are writers whose worldviews have shaped my own: I have already written on The Spirit Age of the German Nobel laureate Herman Hesse and have also mentioned the acclaimed Czech novelist Milan Kundera. Others include Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Orwell, E.M. Forster and, perhaps most significantly, Oscar Wilde. (My wife and I first met at a performance of Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Ernest.) There are also those who have shown me that humour need not sacrifice profundity of vision: Mark Twain, John Irving, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, David Sedaris – as well as Warren Murphy, the creator of the pulp adventure series The Destroyer.
These are wordsmiths whose works have greatly influenced my own. I furthermore must admit I have even tried to emulate many of them. But no other writer has inspired this skeptical, pessimistic cynic simply to be a better person more than Spider Robinson.
Born in New York in 1948, Robinson moved to Canada in the early 1970s. Although the Vietnam War was still raging, Robinson was not a draft dodger. “I was a born 4-F [unfit for service], who simply came up to Nova Scotia to visit friends for a few weeks, and fell goofy in love with the whole country,” he wrote once in the Literary Review of Canada (LRC). He moved to Vancouver in the late 1980s, and around 1999 to the quaint community of Bowen Island with his wife Jeanne, a dancer, choreographer and ordained Soto Zen monk, as well as co-author with her husband of the acclaimed Stardance Saga. “I’m not Buddhist myself,” Spider wrote in the LRC. “I use Irish whisky.”
Regretfully, Jeanne Robinson passed away this past spring from biliary cancer. She was 62 years old.
Full disclosure: I have yet to start on what is arguably Spider’s most popular work, the Callahan stories, a series of short pieces and novels set in a fictional bar frequented by time-travellers, aliens, vampires and other exotic patrons. However, I clearly recall reading his work for the first time – a story contained in a collection by the same title of his short works: Melancholy Elephants. The short story was a brilliant argument for the limitation of copyright laws made through engrossing narrative set in a futuristic Washington DC. The story won the 1983 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. (By coincidence, I discovered while researching for this post that Robinson makes it available for reading on his Web site.)
He is nothing if not a fiction writer inspired by science – as opposed to those who simply uses outer space as a setting for fantastic but scientifically suspicious plots. While the appearance of time travel and telepathy will likely strike many as outlandish, Robinson uses these, arguably theoretically possible devices as a starting point to speculate what might transpire if such things actually became reality. In “Not Fade Away”, another story contained in Melancholy Elephants as well as a later collection, User Friendly, he imagines a distant future in which all sentient consciousness in the universe have successfully melded into a harmonious whole, then questions what would become of such sublime concepts as the noble warrior and the merciful healer in such a utopia.
Artists, particularly writers, are acutely aware of human weakness, and often use cynicism to define their work. Robinson’s essays and stories, in contrast, are defined by forgiveness and hope. He often marvels at advances made by modern technology and science, and speculates that we are about to enter a time in history when knowledge and wisdom garnered from a variety of disciplines will converge to bestow humanity with unprecedented progress. This was the theme in such works as his essay “Pandora’s Last Gift” and the short story “Too Soon We Grow Old”. (This very same perspective in great part inspires much of The Spirit Age.) In such works as Time Pressure (1987) and Starseed (1991), he combines such typical elements of science fiction as time travel, telepathy and space exploration to produce an extremely hopeful model of our future. Not before providing a gripping, suspenseful narrative beforehand, however, and not without demanding what is sadly so often in short supply: compassion.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Askwith, one of the founding producers of The Space Channel, when I was given the task of introducing him at a Readings Series event at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre. Space is Canada’s equivalent of The Sci Fi Channel in the US, and Askwith even before taking its helm was a well-known writer, journalist, interviewer and entrepreneur in the fields of science fiction and fantasy. We soon discovered we were neighbours and began running into each other frequently while running various errands.
Assuming he would know Robinson well, I could not help asking Askwith a question one day as we watched our children taking their swimming lessons in the local community centre: “Mark, is Spider Robinson as nice a guy in person as he comes across in his writing?”
Askwith did not even pause to think about the answer. “Nicer,” he said.
Of his wife Jeanne’s recent passing, Spider Robinson had this to say on his Web site: “I’ll simply track her across the universes and through the dimensions like Kimball Kinnison and his Clarissa, or Alexander Hergensheimer chasing his Margrethe to Hell itself…. Have a lot to tell her about when we finally do find each other [again]. Try to spend the downtime becoming a better, kinder man.”
I shall try to do the same, Spider, although I shall undoubtedly be less adept at this than you. Peace be with you.