Monday, January 4, 2010

Very Hard Choices

I was reading Spider Robinson's Very Hard Choices on the airplane home from our Christmas trip, and it was entertaining enough to get me through the travails of broken luggage wheels, strange women demanding to look down the front of my pants, and snow delays.

This novel is a follow-up to his previous Very Bad Deaths, and it will increase your enjoyment if you've read that one, although it's not essential. Very Bad Deaths told the story of how a physically frail old hippie and a young Canadian cop work together to help a friend of theirs and how the friend ends up saving them from a fate far worse than death. The story is narrated by the old hippie, Russell, who (as usual in Robinson's writing) talks a lot about how much he loves coffee and marijuana and is a Person To Look Up To because of how tolerant he is. At one point, the cop, Nika, clarifies Russell's moral quandry about what to do next by telling him that something bad is about to happen and that "The rest of your life, you'll either be someone who tried to stop it, or someone who didn't." Our hero. But the fun of the story is aptly summarized by Russell's description of Nika's face, at one point: "her eyes lit up with excitement at the same time that her eyebrows frowned in skepticism."

In Very Hard Choices, the story is complicated by the presence of Russell's estranged son and by a plot that hinges more on the right way to live than on how to avoid death. Russell's friend, the one who previously saved his life, is a telepath, and there is an evil government agent out to catch him and make him use his abilities for evil--or so they all think. The government agent, at the very end, turns out to have a few surprises of his own.

My favorite part is when, after two pages of Russell browbeating himself about what he didn't do, his friend, Zudie, loses patience:
"Listen to me. You're absolutely right: the cartoon superheroes in the adventure fiction you love to read would all be disgusted with you. At this very moment, Jack Reacher is curling his lip, Hawk is saying something ironic about you to Spenser, and Travis McGee thinks you're helpless as Meyer. Okay? You're a total failure as Superman. The Saint would be ashamed of you. Parker thinks you're a pussy. Accept that. Deal with it on your own time. Right now, you're in the real world: work the problem."

The other part I enjoyed most is the typical Robinson message about where our hope lies, which is why reading this book was such a good antidote to my recent reading of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. This is what Robinson's government agent says when the characters finally stop running from him and start listening:
"We have a century or so, tops, to get this stupid planet organized, to build the kind of wise benign compassionate Terran Federation you see in so many science fiction movies, to start making the world fair, and get it self-sustaining. If we haven't gotten at least that far by then, the resources necessary to develop and build and maintain the necessary space-based technology will be gone, pissed away in pointless squabbles. Then everything falls to shit, and the future holds only tribal anarchy and progressive decay....
On the evening of September 10, 2001, the United States was closer than any other nation in history has ever come to being widely trusted. That's not very close, granted. Many people despised us. Quite a few just disliked us. But deep down, most people trusted us, on that day, at least a little. No other nation every had a better shot at persuading and cajoling all the nations of the world to come together and work together to save ourselves before it's too late.
And ever since the next morning, we've been blowing it. Setting fire to a century of built-up good will, frightening half the planet and offending the rest."

Trust me that the rest of the story is so fun that you'll hardly notice serious parts like that, at least not consciously, while you're trying to get to the end. It's the best kind of fiction, if you ask me--with an agenda, but only on the side.


Marie said...

that sounds like a blast! :-) Happy New Year!

Jeanne said...

Marie, It is fun to read. I like some escapist fiction on an airplane to take my mind off what I'm doing.