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Callahan's Key

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Callahan's Key by Spider Robinson
Mass Market Paperback: 352 pages
Spectra; Reprint edition (May 1, 2001)
ISBN: 0553580604

Review by Tom Piccirilli,
in's July Science Fiction Feature

Fans of Spider Robinsons "Callahan" series (TIME TRAVELERS STRICTLY CASH, THE CALLAHAN TOUCH, CALLAHANS LEGACY) will rejoice in the return of Jake Stonebender and all the usual suspects from Callahans bar. Here theyre on a madcap road trip filled with wild times, weirdness, camaraderie, and of course lots of really bad puns. A thoroughly enjoyable and often laugh out-loud novel, CALLAHANS KEY contains the kind of energetic voice that sets readers to discovering all previous works of the author.

After the destruction of Callahans bar, Jake Stonebender decided to give proprietorship a try himself and opened Marys Place. After running into trouble with zoning laws and liquor licenses, the new pub was shut down after a year and the gang scattered. However, that doesn't stop the brilliant and enduring scientist Nikola Tesla from showing up at Jakes door when the entire universe needs to be saved.

Along with his wife Zoey and super-genius year-old daughter, Erin, Jake calls each of the old gang in turn. Everyone of course rises to the occasion and comes running, including Fast Eddie the piano player, resident talking dog Ralph Von Wau Wau, the Lucky Duck who bends the laws of probability, and most of the other regulars. When a phone call from Doc down in Key West comes in, they decide to quit the scene on snowy Long Island and move everybody down to Florida en masse.

Though Nikola Tesla assures them all that the threat is genuine, theres still really no rush to act: theyve got ten years to figure out a plan to save the world. After managing to swing two dozen school buses, Jake and crew convert the vehicles into habitable quarters and moving trucks for their voyage. Cops are bound to cause trouble, and they do, but friends are also made on the bizarre voyage to Key West as the gang attempts to become telepathically-united for a third time in order to prevent universal catastrophe.

The leisurely but genial plot here plays to one of Robinsons greatest strengths, which is creating a vast and believable friendship between the large number of bizarre cast members. Robinsons narrative is a fast, engaging blend of science fantasy and satirical elements mixed into such an appealing story that the novel is incredibly inviting. The author relishes bad puns, literary fireworks, and closely-knit relationships, leading readers into the kind of heartfelt tale they wish would never end. Spending time reading this novel is like attending a gathering of old friends and new.

One of the funniest running gags in the book is how each chapter begins with a true life perplexing misquote from Dan Quayle, such as, "We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur" and "I am not part of the problem. I am a Republican." Since the novel takes place in 1989, there is both an underlying political lampoonery and all around mockery of authority figures to give an extra edge to the crews, and our, journey. In CALLAHANS KEY youll find a great deal of endearing and ardent, sometimes heartbreaking material that is woven along with the authors usual biting wit, irony, and social commentary.


The universe is again threatened with destruction, but fans of Jake Stonebender and his team will fear not, for they know that these heroes will not only save the day but will make it safely to happy hour. At the outset of the latest book in Nebula-winner Robinson's series of feel-good SF romps, we find Stonebender frustrated by the failure of his bar, Callahan's, and by the fact that none of his 50 closest friends still live near his Long Island home. So, in exchange for the chance to move with his friends, his wife and his wunderkind toddler to Key West, where he'll open up a new watering hole, Jake accepts an assignment from famed scientist Nikola Tesla to save the universe.

The narrative progresses as Jake and company board 20 buses for the road trip down to Florida, during which they party, clash with the fuzz and meet a talking German shepherd (complete with accent) and Robert Heinlein's cat, Pixel. Along the way, Robinson delivers some amusing good times and an inspirational description of a space shuttle launch. True to form, he constructs the end of the universe from some mind-bending but solid science, and he proves as consummate at maintaining suspense as he is at keeping the laughs coming. Fans and the uninitiated alike will devour this intoxicating blend of character comedy and hard SF, for Robinson's writing remains as potentially addictive and as full of earthy delight as Stonebender's famed Irish coffee. (July)

Callahan's Key reviewed by Joan Ramsay
Saturday, August 19, 2000

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon has been blown to smithereens. Mary's Place is shut down tighter than a drunk on New Year's Eve. And Jake Stonebender is up to his shorts in snow and selfpity--not necessarily in that order.

What's an aging punster to do? Why, slug back an Irish coffee or two and save the universe, of course.

But not before herding 20 buses--full of his hundred or so closest misfit hippie friends and a talking German shepherd--from Long Island to Key West to find a whole new place to savour the finer things in life.

Welcome to Callahan's Key, the latest in the series by Hugo-Award-winning British Columbian Spider Robinson. It pits Jake, his wife Zoey, their intellectually challenging baby daughter, Erin, and the gang from Callahan's against the flukes of hazard. (You know, those events that, when occurring separately, are insignificant, but when accidentally occurring together are catastrophic.)

Jake has already helped to avert two worldending bangs (or whimpers). Now 133-yearold scientist Nikola Tesla has a bigger assignment: Get the old crowd together and save the universe--in the next 10 years.

That seems to Jake et al like plenty of time to get everything done, and still take former fellow Callahanite Doc Webster up on his offer to join him in Key West. Well, why not? Long Island has nothing but snow, the hated neighbour Nyjmnckra Grtozkzhnyi and her town inspector nephew, who managed to close down Mary's Place (Jake's attempt to replace Callahan's) in less than a year.

Much to Jake's surprise, the whole gang decides to tag along. Several weeks and 20 converted school buses later, the caravan points itself at Florida and takes off. And just to prove that the crew could get even more motley, Jake picks up Officer Marty, a wayward highway patrolman, and Pixel (the cat who walks through walls) along the way.

Needless to say, they find just the place in Key West: a former nudist compound complete with a bright blue foulmouthed potty-trained parrot.

It is heaven.

The bad news is that Tesla miscalculated by nine years and seven months--give or take a little. The worse news is that he figured out what will cause the big boom.

One of the joys of Robinson's writing is that it is easy without being loose. The style is light, the conversations clever--even the puns--and the science impressive. He obviously enjoys his work. Need a little irony? A Dan Quayle quote sets the stage at the start of each chapter. Who can argue with such gems as: "If we don't succeed, we run the risk of failure." Or, "We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur." They also provide a nifty little counterpoint for two-yearold Erin's hyperintelligence.

These books can be as deep--or as shallow--as you want. Which isn't nearly as easy as it sounds. Sliding in that reference to ethnic prejudices or tribal intolerance could get a tad preachy in the wrong hands. But Robinson makes his point without drawing blood and it's up to the reader to take it, or leave it. Better yet, each book is selfcontained, so you can read them in any order and still get maximum enjoyment.

Indeed, the only serious flaw is on pages 293-4, when Jake and his pals fail to realize that Jesus was really a woman: He had to feed a crowd at a moment's notice when there was no food; He kept trying to get the message across to a bunch of men who just didn't get it, and even when He was dead, He had to get up because there was more work for him to do.

* * *

Joan Ramsay is deputy editor of The Globe Review and a longtime scifi fan.

Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine
August 21, 2000

A cosmic cocktail

Vancouver based Spider Robinson, who has won a slew of awards for his more than two dozen science fiction novels, is back with another installment in his comical Callahan series. In Callahan's Key (Bantam), the defence system of the United States, orbiting above Earth, runs into cosmic trouble and threatens to destroy the entire universe. To the rescue comes a ragtag group including bar owner Jake Stonebender, his wife, Zoey, their toddler, Erin, and an assortment of axhippies, a cat, a parrot from a brothel and inventor Nikola Tesla, who is miraculously alive despite his death in 1943. Evicted from Jake's bar on Long Island, the saviours travel to Key West, where they communicate telepathically, consume vast quantities of Irish coffee and listen to rock 'n' roll and salsa, all in the interest of saving the world.

'CalIahan's Key' unlocks door to '60s
by Jay MacDonald
Special to The NewsPress
Fort Myers, Florida
13 August, 2000

Itinerant bartender Jake Stonebender, his wife, Zoey, and their super-intelligent toddler Erin most definitely ain't the Joads.

Two dozen busloads of their closest hippie pals, including barflies, a talking dog and assorted savants, ain't exactly Dust Bowl Oakies in search of the Promised Land, either.

In scifi funnyman Spider Robinson's "Callahan's Key," "The Grapes of Wrath" have fermented and everybody is smoking the leaves as they make their exodus from snowy Long Island to balmy Key West, ostensibly to save the universe-again. The way we know this is science fiction is, they do it without making reservations.

Spider Robinson has been chronicling the adventures of his fictitious Merry Pranksters since bellbottoms were in fashion the first time. This is the 11th installment of their ongoing pipe dream.

For the uninitiated, this hopelessly hedonistic tribe has managed to a) save the world twice, b) become telepathic when they need to be, c) acquire a bullet proof coating, and d) entertain themselves with very, very bad puns.

Robinson has acquired a cult following on the order of Tom Robbins by mixing plenty of hemp with whizbang goofs on science and space technology. Also like Robbins' offbeat novels, the Callahan books tend to be loosely plotted affairs long on barroom philosophy and short on dramatic conflict. Here, his characters primarily drink Irish coffees, smoke pot and groan at each other's stoned mal mots.

Your enjoyment of all this will likely be in direct proportion to your appreciation of a '60s leftover seated at the bar next to you who launches into an extended rap on Delta blues music and/or quantum physics.

If it's crack science fiction with a splash of humor you're after, try Robinson's more serious efforts. But if you're looking for a fullblown party already in progress, Callahan's is still the place.