Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, by Spider Robinson
Posted May 10, 2013on:
published in 1977
where I got it: purchased used
I suppose Spider Robinson wasn’t the first guy who started writing because he passionately hated his day job. Not the first, and certainly not the last. But when was the last time I ran into scifi that was so casually inviting? Reading this short story collection felt more like chatting with a friend over a beer than reading a book. I finished it in two sittings, which means Jake Stonebender and I will need to have another chat (beer for me, he’ll have a whiskey) soon. Had I know how good it was going to be, I’d have savored it, only allowing myself one story an evening, instead of seemingly rushing through it.
How to describe Callahan’s Saloon? Drinks are cheap, toasts are required, references to classic science fiction is appreciated, puns are a dime a dozen, and there’s always a story to be told and a laugh to be had, often at the same time, especially if it isn’t a funny story. The bar doesn’t advertise, only accepts cash, and if you need to be there you’ll find yourself at the front door and welcomed in. Anything, and I do mean anything, can happen at Callahan’s.
The stories in this collection are told through Jake Stonebender, a regular patron of Callahan’s who found himself there after blaming himself for the car accident that killed his wife and child. We’re quickly introduced to the owner of the bar, Mike Callahan, and a few other regulars, including piano playing Fast Eddie, and the incorrigible punster Doc Webster. Each story introduces another character who will be referenced later, so it’s a good idea to read them in the presented order.
Some evenings momentous things happen at Callahan’s, such as when an alien walked in with regret at his mission to destroy the earth, and Mike Callahan ended up offering him a job as a bartender. Other evenings it’s simply the weekly punning contest, which I guarantee will have you laughing out loud, or at least groaning at some truly awful wordplays (and then using them on your friends later!).
Like the regulars at Callahan’s, the stories in this volume are comfortable and gentle, but unafraid to talk about painful truths. So many of these people are broken inside, carrying around guilt and confusion and anxiety. Even with so much sadness, every story is permeated with a strong feeling of hopefulness. As much as I enjoy reading dark fiction, it’s uplifting and refreshing to read something like this, to realize all that darkness can only be created by something so very bright. Spider Robinson is just as empathic as his characters, and that’s damn rare to find in an SF writer.
The stories in this collection mostly follow a similar pattern: Jake introduces the scene, be it the yearly Halloween party, or just another Tuesday night at the bar; a stranger walks in and has a story to tell; the regulars of the bar dispense advice, and the stranger feels better and is probably on their way to becoming a regular, and the evening continues like nothing unusual happened. I’m a huge fan of the “story within a story” literary device, so I was in story telling mode heaven. Even with the pattern, the stories never feel repetitive, and as soon as I thought I could predict what was going to happen next, something insane and surprising happens. Often followed by a groan-worthy pun.
And oh, the puns! For those of you who have a habit of reading very late at night or very early in the morning while your loved ones are sleeping, you’ll want to read this during normal business hours. Otherwise your bouts of laughter may wake children and spouses. Mike Callahan and Doc Webster’s love for puns have rubbed off on everyone at the bar, to the point where there are weekly punning contests (and tall tale contests, but that’s a different story, literally) with the evening’s prize being free drinks.
Spider Robinson didn’t impart any special knowledge of universe on me. There’s no jaw dropping twists to these stories. Or at least it didn’t feel like it. But you know what? I felt better about the universe and its inhabitants after reading them. I felt like everything was worth it. Who’da thought, that just reading about Callahan’s could be as therapeutic as visiting the place? And okay, there was a smidgen of a twist right at the end, but I wouldn’t call it a plot twist.
Researching the Callahan’s universe on the wiki, it’s tough to figure out exactly how many volumes of short stories there are, as some have been republished as omnibuses (omnibusii?) and others also include stories that aren’t in the Callahan’s universe, and later in the series there are also novels. From what I could find, this is the order of the series:
Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon
Time Travelers Strictly Cash
The Callahan Touch
For those of you currently saying to yourself “she’s just discovering Spider Robinson now? jeez, has she been living under a rock for the last 30 years?” please chime in with more information!
My advice to everyone else is if you run across a copy of Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, or any other book that even appears to be in this universe, grab it. You’ll thank me, and you’ll understand why the series has such a long lived and rabid fanbase.