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Steven H. Wilson

Author, Publisher, New Media Artist

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REVIEW - "The Guy with the Eyes" by Spider Robinson

I have a confession to make: I lived nearly forty-seven years, calling myself a science fiction fan, and I'd never read Spider Robinson. 

Correction: I've read Variable Star, which Spider wrote based on an outline for a novel left behind by the Grand Master, Robert A. Heinlein; but I read that because it was a "lost" Heinlein novel.  It's also technically a collaborative work, though I think Spider had little more than six pages to work from, and those included no ending for the story.  Still, it wasn't a pure Spider Robinson creation. It was an attempt to write the way Heinlein wrote.  I appreciate that sort of work, but I think it's generally best for writers to write with their own voice, as opposed to aping someone else's. 

I now think that's especially true when your the voice just happens to belong to Spider Robinson.

I have another confession to make, this one leaving me especially shame-faced: twenty or more years ago, a friend loaned me a copy of Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, told me I would love it, and made me promise to get it back to her, as it was a cherished possession.  I thanked her, promised its return, and promised to read it.  Then I didn't do either.  Didn't read it, didn't return it.  (Hey, Cindy -- if you see this, I have it, it's safe, and you were right.  I love it.)

I'll focus herein on just the introductory story.  It's the first story Spider Robinson ever had published, and I can see why Ben Bova bought it. It's just that good. The sense of story, of character, the richness imbued in just those few short pages... wow. I not only see why Spider's story got selected for Analog, I see why so many of mine and so many others did not over the years: they didn't stand up and scream, "Damn, this guy can tell a story!"

Don't get me wrong. I still think it's too hard for a good writer to find a publisher in 2012. I still think a lot of crap gets published because the author knows a guy and a lot of good stuff gets overlooked because the author does not know a guy. I also still think the stories I've had rejected over the years were good stories. They just weren't fantastic stories. They weren't candidates, any of them, for the status of the best thing I'd written to date. "The Guy with the Eyes" is fantastic, and I can easily imagine that it was the single best thing Spider had written as of the time of its publication. When you're unknown, being good probably isn't good enough. You have to be great, and this story is.

"The Guy with the Eyes" is, when we meet him, sitting in a bar named Callahan's on Long Island. The narrator tells us if we're poorer if we've never visited Callahan's ("God's pity on you," is his exact sentiment.) And he tells us about the Guy with the Eyes. They're not just haunted eyes, they remind him of "a guy I knew once in Topeka, who got four people with an antique revolver before they cut him down."

SPOILER WARNING: When I review short stories, I give away important plot points. You can't say anything substantive about a short story without doing so. If you want to read "The Guy with the Eyes" and be surprised and delighted, stop now, go read it based on the above, and then come back if you care to. Or spend your time more wisely and read more Spider Robinson instead of this silly drivel I'm producing.

After we meet some of the regulars and soak up some of the atmosphere, we realize that Callahan's place is a tonic for a lot of souls. We learn that Callahan loses a lot of regulars because, after they're sought solace within the walls of his establishment, they often find it unnecessary to continue drinking liquor. At Callahan's, a customer may purchase one drink -- any drink -- for fifty cents, but he must pony up one dollar to do so. Upon finishing the drink, he may then take his change and leave quietly, or her may stand before the fireplace and offer up a toast. Upon completing a toast may he have a second drink. Apparently, the toasts are never trivial. The first comes from a hopeless teenager who drinks "to smack!"  He then expresses a litany of his fears and dissatisfactions, and his desire to run away from an unfriendly world, possibly through drugs, possibly through death. No doubt his expectation is that his elders -- even in a bar -- would come down on him for being an irresponsible slacker. Mike Callahan says simply and without implied judgment, "So run." This freedom to make up his mind seems to have a positive effect. The kid throws his unused drugs in the fire.

And then the Guy with the Eyes steps forward, takes not one drink but ten, and drinks ten toasts to his profession. He then reveals that his profession is that of advance scout for an alien civilization. He's been on earth three days, and in two hours he'll go home. When he leaves, earth will be destroyed by his masters, who will view the data he's collected about it and see that humanity is a cancer which must be eradicated.

Only this alien scout has realized, in his hour at Callahan's, that humans have love:

"This place, this . . . `bar' place we are in-this is not like the rest I have seen. Outside are hatred, competition, morals elevated to the status of ethics, prejudices elevated to the status of morals, whims elevated to the status of prejudices, all things with which I am wearily familiar, the classic symptoms of disease.

"But here is difference. Here in this place I sense qualities, attributes I did not know your species possessed, attributes which everywhere else in the known universe are mutually exclusive of the things I have perceived here tonight. They are good things . . ."

Here's the catch, though: the alien has no choice in the matter. He contains "installations," he explains, data recorders, we assume. These will automatically transfer his data to his masters at the prescribed time... as long as he is alive and conscious.

When the alien, whose name, he says, is Michael Finn, reveals his nature and purpose, he is met, not with hostility or rage, or even fear, but with sympathy. If this were a modern SF story, inspired by a video game and aimed at hyper-adrenalized adolescents in their forties, all three of those emotions would ooze from the page, gagging and even strangling the reader. But this is a story about human nature, about how we all have our burdens to carry, and, beneath them, we're just, well... people.  Sometimes we're green alien people, but we're people all the same.

At Callahan's, Finn is met with sympathy. His listeners, even when he invites them -- begs them -- to kill him and eliminate the threat to themselves, don't see a dangerous invader. They see a guy with a problem who could be them. They tell him not to be so hard on himself. They tell him they've been there. And then they find a better answer, saving the Earth and their new-found friend.

In these post 9/11 days, when we're all slapped in the face with fear and told how angry and hateful we should be; when we're admonished that the only way we can be safe is by being suspicious, even paranoid, and that we're gonna have to kill some people to preserve our freedom... it's refreshing to be reminded that there once was, and maybe still is, compassion in the human race. That guy we're supposed to be afraid of? Maybe he's just a guy, y'know? Doesn't mean we have to be stupid and hand him a gun, or trust him with our valuables, or lie down and die for him; but maybe we could try to understand what it's like to be him.

It's not an easy thing to do. It's a little scary. It's possible though, and it might make things better. This story was written nearly forty years ago, when no one expected the events that have since transpired, or the world we now live in. Still, it speaks to us today. It certainly spoke to me. So, belatedly, thank you, Spider, for sending me a reminder across the decades, that there's a little good in all of us, and we all have the potential to recognize that.

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I'm glad to have you aboard the Spider Appreciation bus finally, and I hope you get through the rest of his Callahan books, all of which are phenomenal in their own unique way. The crew are all friends of mine, not literally but rather literary friends, whose exploits and adventures have all helped me get through bad times since "Shared pain is lessened, but shared joy is multiplied." The rest of his short stories that I've read are equal gems, so I hope you'll read them as well. I think that you'll especially appreciate "God is an Iron" story, it's one of the best!

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