Jumpdrives & Cantrips

Very Bad Deaths
February 6, 2008, 0006
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Very Bad Deaths
I have to confess: I am a horrendously huge fan of the bargain bins at large booksellers. I always check them, and I nearly always come out of the section with some kind of treasure. The last bargain bin binge I went on, I found a copy of Spider Robinson’s Very Bad Deaths. I generally enjoy Spider Robinson’s writing, with the exception of the Callahan series, which simply wasn’t to my taste. His writing is exceptionally distinct, and has an identifiable voice. So identifiable, in fact, that if you are familiar with any of Spider Robinson’s books, you can probably spot one without anyone telling you who wrote it.

His works share a few characteristics: some mention of marijuana, free love, music, puns, and communes (generally in that order). But the most important is a sudden revelation, usually by one character regarding another character that the latter is either a) a time traveler, b) a telepath/empath/etc., or c) an alien. Sometimes this revelation makes no sense to the reader and seems vaguely like a MacGuffin attribute, existing only to move the plot forward (or create a pun, if the piece is short fiction).

This is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s almost like stepping into your most comfortable pair of shoes, or your favourite pair of jeans that have been worn in for about 4 years but aren’t yet worn out.

In Very Bad Deaths our main character is Russel, an American ex-pat and writer of an op-ed column for a national newspaper who lives on a remote island outside Vancouver. The realization comes earlier than usual–if you read the summary printed on the book this is no spoiler–that Russel’s old college roommate is a telepath, so sensitive that it hurts him to be around people. And he needs Russel’s help to stop the very bad deaths of an innocent family from a serial sadist, since he can’t get near anyone except Russel. This ends up creating our odd couple within the trio: Russel who tends to fly by the seat of his pants and Nika, the perfectionist police officer, a token officer stuck in the public relations division despite her talents for law enforcement.

Once the set up is taken care of, the book turns into more of a suspense novel with a little police procedural flavour tossed in for good measure. This is not a hard SF book, and in fact, the only thing that separates in from mainstream suspense is the telepath–and even then they can pop up on occasion.

But the beauty of the story is Spider Robinson’s deft writing, engaging characters, and compassionate humour. Robinson is one of those rare authors who can truly craft a gut-wrenching, laugh-out-loud moment on paper and does so frequently. His writing is a joy to read, his description is precise and evokes immediate imagery. As in most of his novels, Robinson provides a book that is an astute commentary on humanity.

In Very Bad Deaths, Robinson is at the height of his form, which is tall to begin with. I suppose I can’t lay the blame on him for fueling my bargain bin addiction, but he certainly hasn’t helped.

Robinson, Spider. Very Bad Deaths. Riverdale, NY: Baen, 2004. 271 pages. $5.99 (Canadian) from the bargain bin.


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Spider Robinson is an author that I’ve always meant to read, but have never gotten around to. I saw this book lying out on the bargain table, but never picked it up because honestly, thoose floating heads sorta creeped me right out.

Comment by Hariador

Yeah… To be honest, I nearly didn’t buy it myself. It was kind of like the worst possible permutation of Mt. Rushmore ever. If you judge his books by their covers, the vast majority would probably never get bought. On the other hand, the floating heads brought me pleasant memories of Futurama…


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