Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
(Ace, 1977; Tor, 1997)
It doesn't even seem like science fiction, at first glance. In fact, you can give Callahan's Crosstime Saloon a cursory read-through and still not really spot the SF elements therein. If the title and cover (of both the original Ace publication and the recent Tor re-issue) didn't provide a few clues, the book might be overlooked by a lot of science fiction fans.
Their loss. Callahan's Crosstime Saloon may not be hard-core science fiction -- there are no streamlined spaceships, googly-eyed aliens, intelligent computers or massive galactic battles -- but it's a great read nonetheless.
Mostly, it's about people. People who drift in and out (and back in, invariably) of Callahan's Place, a New York watering hole with a unique outlook on life and, more importantly, a unique man behind the bar. Sure, a few of them are secretly aliens, but who's to know?
Callahan likes a merry crowd. He sells his drinks cheaply, and the glasses, too. For an extra 50 cents, anyone can make a toast -- solemn or droll -- and smash his glass into the large fireplace. Momentous occurrences can lead to a deluge of smashing glasses, many of them not even emptied. Callahan also encourages music, stories, soul-searching and, god help us, puns.
It's the sort of establishment which encourages people to unload their problems. Here's the unique bit: people there actually listen. Even if you come in waving a gun and threatening violence, you'll find a willing audience for your troubles at Callahan's. And it's the stories which make this book sparkle.
Callahan's Crosstime Saloon is a collection of nine short stories, several of which appeared in Analog in the 1970s. Each stands alone, but each teaches you a little bit more about the Callahan's regulars and the bar's peculiar customs. And each introduces you to some new element, someone who wanders into the establishment looking for a drink, a fight or something else entirely, and finding exactly what he needs (which may not be what he expected).
In "The Guy with the Eyes," an alien (no googly eyes, trust me) confesses his unwitting part in the pending invasion and destruction of the Earth. "The Time-Traveler" shows how someone can find himself outside his own time -- without the benefit of H.G. Wellsian technology. In "The Centipede's Dilemma," the perils of telekinesis become apparent through a simple game of darts. And in "Two Heads are Better Than One," we learn a downside to telepathy. And there's more, but you get the idea -- it's best to discover these on your own.
There are morsels of science fiction in these tales, but tiny ones only. They provide additional spice, but the stories would survive quite well without them. Perhaps Robinson provided that small bit of otherworldliness just to prevent too many people from scouring the New York landscape to find an actual Callahan's Place. (And if it does exist, who can blame the author for wanting to keep it to himself?) Besides, if he'd written them today, I suspect these stories would be defined as contemporary fantasy, not science fiction at all. ("Unnatural Causes" is a notable exception, although the SF elements aren't apparent at first.)
Some might describe these as "feel-good" tales, because they invariably end on an upbeat note. So what? The world is not so grim that we need to expect bad things to be waiting around every corner and, I'll be the first to admit it, it's nice believing that somewhere in the world, there really is a place where everybody either knows your name or cares to try and find out.
by Tom Knapp
Printed in Rambles, a cultural arts magazine