Turning the Pages

I love science fiction. In particular, I really enjoy the works of Spider Robinson, an American author who has lived a long time in Canada. In fact, he lives here in British Columbia, fairly close to my house. This week’s selection is his newest work entitled Very Bad Deaths.

More a mystery novel or even a thriller than a science-fiction work, fans of Robinson’s will notice some recurring bits from his other books. For instance, his protagonist is a tall, slim, pot-smoker who grew up in the USA and avoided the draft for Vietnam. One of the other characters is Serbian, another character is Croatian, and both of these individuals have difficult-to-pronounce names. Telepathy is involved. All of these are, individually, very familiar devices from this writer.

But Robinson puts it all together in new and interesting ways, like a musician playing variations on a lovely theme (Oh, yes. The Beatles and jazz music are both featured. Again). This time, the telepath has managed to glimpse the mind of an evil, serially murderous freak who looks so normal that he has blended in perfectly to society. Knowing only some of the worst details of the killer’s life like the faces of his next victims and who he plans to kill “next week,” but not the killer’s name or location, the telepath sets to work. He engages his best friend, to whom he hasn’t spoken for thirty years, to help him stop the murderer. But how?

There is a great deal of difficulty in stopping the killer, and I won’t spoil all of it for you. Suffice it to say that this novel explores what it is to be a decent human being. If you knew, absolutely and without a shadow of a doubt, that someone was planning to kill another human being, but couldn’t prove it, what would you be willing to do to stop him? How do you reconcile your point of view (about anything) with another’s, opposite, point of view? Does it matter who’s right? Do you have to be right all the time? Why? What beliefs do you hold firm? Why? Which of your beliefs are you willing to question? How far? Robinson explores those ideas for his protagonist, and encourages his readers to do the same for themselves.

There are, of course, some excruciatingly funny parts to this book. Robinson writes very humorous science fiction works and does it exceedingly well. His bit about how to find the Vancouver Police Department Headquarters is hilarious and obviously written from experience. He weaves some commentary about current events or recently past events, like the murders of the sex trade workers on Vancouver’s east-side, into the book (and his opinion of the police is, let’s just say, not generous).

This book has lots of Vancouver-area local colour, lots of funny bits, and many thought-provoking moments. It also includes a dandy puzzle (how do you get the police to help you track a murderer, based only on the word of a telepath who can’t see the cops in person?). The familiar elements from Robinson’s other works are a bit of a put-off for those of us who have been reading them in one form or another for thirty years, but they’re good pieces and worth a look if you’re not bored with them yet.

All in all, Very Bad Deaths is a Very Good Book, but I’d wait for the paperback.

Robinson, S. (2004). Very Bad Deaths. Riverdale, NY: Baen Books.

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