Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Telempath by Spider Robinson


While we're on the topic of race on the covers of science fiction.... The one on the left is the cover my first copy of this book had, with young Black man Isham Stone facing down Wendell Carlson in the ruins of Columbia University. The one on the right is the reissue cover, and I suppose that could be Wendell Carlson eating a sandwich, but there is a notable lack of Isham Stone. I like the rest of it - the leopard, the skeleton in the park, it's just kind of weird that in the intervening 20 years, Baen books decided that the main character shouldn't be on the cover.

At any rate. Science fiction covers continue to be something I'm interested in. 

But back to this book, which is a very early one by my favourite author of all time, Spider Robinson. As such, it has yet to develop many of the themes that will run so strongly through all of his books, but the seeds of them are there.

The premise is this: 20 years ago, a young idealist decided that cities were what was killing us, that and our removal from the natural world. So he created the Hyperosmic Virus, which swept the world in 48 hours, increasing everyone's sense of smell a hundredfold or more. This emptied the cities, but it also created a lot of people who were unable to cope with the overwhelming sensory input, and became more or less catatonic. Far more people than he had intended to kill, died. And that was before the War started, between people and the airborne creatures known as the Muskies, which were now identifiable by smell, and suddenly, distinctly homicidal. 

Young Isham Stone was brought up by his father to be the Hand of Man, to hunt and execute Wendell Carlson, who created the virus. To do so, he ventured into the largest stink of them all - New York City, long deserted. In the process, this book looks at the stickiness of vengeance, and the tension that might exist between those who long to have civilization back, and those who see in the greatest collective trauma in human history a warning of what not to do. 

Spider strikes a chord here between a blanket assumption that everything would be hunky-dory in the new hippie utopia, and the idea that what we need to do to fix things is to reindustrialize with better noseplugs. 

This isn't his best, but I always find that it holds up remarkably well. When my husband read it, he thought that at least one part of the ending was trying too hard to be optimistic, and I can see what he means, but I like it nonetheless. We see early threads of Spider's interest in telepathy, but more than that, his ideas on what we would need for a truly sane society. I am always persuaded. Particularly since it still includes ice cream.


  1. Spider strikes me as a relentlessly optimistic cynic. Have you read the Callahan's Place books? You have to read the Callahan's Place books.