Spider Robinson,
The Crazy Years
(BenBella, 2004)

For those who don't know -- which probably includes those who, like me, have not read the Callahan books -- Spider Robinson has been for a number of years an op-ed columnist for the Toronto Globe and Mail, one of Canada's foremost newspapers. That the Globe and Mail is Canadian, and that Robinson, as a transplanted American with decidedly "Whole Earth Catalogue" leanings, is also one of the more pungently visionary science fiction writers in existence, should give anyone a good take on his columns, which make their appearance in book form in The Crazy Years.

Robinson can actually be located somewhere on a continuum between bloggers and journalists. Unlike many bloggers, Robinson's only ideology seems to be common sense. (The title of the book is based on Robert Heinlein's "Future History," in which he describes the close of the 20th century as "the Crazy Years," when rational thought seems to have deserted the human race -- which seems frighteningly prescient, although I don't know that I can agree with Robinson's assertion that Heinlein was "the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived.") And, unlike most journalists, Robinson doesn't handle the powers-that-be with kid gloves.

Robinson's targets run the gamut, from international terrorism (and media reaction, which Robinson notes, going back to the Dean Ing story "Very Proper Charlies," provides most of the legitimacy they have) to eBay to the future -- that is, the future that has become present reality and is too bizarre for science fiction writers to have considered plausible (except, perhaps, for Heinlein, but that was only in the most general terms).

To those of us who, like Robinson, grew up on science fiction, the idea that the human race would have space travel in its hand and toss it away is more than bizarre, it is one of the great tragedies of human history. The idea that we must learn to accommodate our computers is not so far-fetched, and actually quite reasonable; after all, we are adaptable, they are not, although that begs the question of why they were designed that way to begin with. (The popularity of the laptop, which is certainly an example of arse-backwards design if there ever was one, is a case in point, although Robinson doesn't tackle that particular peccadillo.)

One basic idea that Robinson doesn't seem to address directly, even though it is implicit in many of these pieces, is that so-called "world leaders" are indeed those who hold positions of power in government. It has become increasingly apparent over the past generation or two, which is the period encompassed by the "Crazy Years," that as much of the world as possible is being managed for the interests of major corporations, mostly American. Consequently, while Robinson's confidence in the capabilities of technology is certainly justified, his equal optimism about our desire to feed the hungry and eradicate disease seems somewhat naive: we will certainly do that, it seems, if there is profit in it. If there is no profit, they can starve.

One need only reflect momentarily on the rationale behind our insistence on partaking of more and more expensive and less and less functional goods, pointed out in several of Robinson's pieces, to see that there is one driving force behind the whole phenomenon: profit. The means is not creating a better mousetrap and letting the market decide, but effective marketing of shoddy goods -- propaganda in the interests of the bottom line, which Robinson does not really confront directly.

Similarly, while he derides the voices against consumerism and pollution, he takes "consumerism" as the mere fact that every creature consumes, which is more than a little simplistic -- it's really much more of a feeding frenzy -- and that every creature excretes waste without reference to the kind of waste and the ability of the system to recycle it.

This is a book to browse through. Organized into loosely defined categories, the individual essays are like firecrackers -- one or two are sufficient to wake one up, and they are certainly thought provoking, if not always profound. So, even if you have not read the Callahan books, read this one.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 18 June 2005

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