Spider Robinson's "Very Hard Choices" — rigorous, science fictional look at telepathy's problems

Spider Robinson's Very Hard Choices delivers exactly the kind of snappy sf yarn that Robinson fans have come to expect over a career that has spanned decades. Robinson tells stories in the mold of the classic writers — particularly his mentor and idol, Robert A Heinlein — stories that rocket along on greased rails, moving so fast that you hardly even notice when the author slides in all kinds of grace-notes, tidbits about politics, spycraft and the oversimplification of the mythology of the 1960s.

Very Hard Choices is the sequel to Very Bad Deaths, a similarly rip-snorting tale that sets up the action: the narrator, Russell, was college roommies with a mysterious geek everyone called "Smelly." Smelly wouldn't bathe and did everything he could to keep people at arm's length. Turns out Smelly is telepathic, and is thrown into increasing agony by proximity to others (his telepathy has no off-switch). He "died" in the 1960s, but he resurfaces for his old roomie in the 2000s, filled with the dreadful knowledge that a savage murderer is plotting a terrible series of deaths in his back-yard.

Very Hard Choices can be read and enjoyed without reading Very Bad Deaths (though it is rife with spoilers of course!), and it continues Deaths's rigorous and thoroughgoing exploration of the special problems of telepathy, diving deep into its premise in a way that is quintessentially science fictional.

In Choices, Robinson takes up the story where he left off, turning the piece into a tense spy-thriller that pits Russell, his son, and the plucky lady cop against a relentless, aging Cold War super-spy who is hunting them as a means of getting to Smelly, for purposes that they can only guess at. Robinson dips in and out of the 1960s throughout the story, presenting us with a more nuanced, complex picture of campus life during the Vietnam War than is common in literature, all the while vividly capturing the flavor of the era in the manner of books like Stephen King's Hearts in Atlantis.

This is science fiction in my favorite mode, the "What if?" and "What then?" mode of storybuilding, and Robinson's folksy, punny, style is the sure voice of a lifelong entertainer, the kind of folk-singer mode that gave us Alice's Restaurant and other improbable tales spun by a man with a guitar.

I've been a gigantic Robinson fan since I was a teenager and I've since been privileged to call him a colleague and friend. Among his many virtues, Robinson is also a stupendous reader, and produces DRM-free readings of his books through Blackstone Audio.

Very Hard Choices