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Book Review: Very Hard Choices Spider Robinson

There are some writers who are as warm and comfortable as a favourite sweater on a raw day in November. You open their books with the same sense of relief that you'd feel when enveloped in the folds of the sweater that's keeping the bite of a fall rain out of your bones. Not only do these writers know how to write well, the way they write convinces you that they believe there is nothing they'd rather be doing than telling you this particular story.

You can tell by the way they write that not only do they believe in everything they have written, every word has come directly from their heart. Yet, in spite of their passionate beliefs, you know that they have an open mind and would be willing to listen to someone with a convincing argument on the other side. They know that opinions should not be shaped by beliefs alone, but need to be substantiated by facts. Otherwise you are left with nothing but a knee jerk, emotional response that borders on the fanatical.

Of course it doesn't hurt if you agree with the opinions that they are expressing in the first place, as admittedly a great deal of the comfort you derive from their writing is seeing the things you believe in articulated rationally. It's one thing to find them on the op-editorial page of a newspaper, but another thing altogether to find them within the pages of a well written novel. They're aren't very many people out there who can write a book and make the story be about moral and political choices without it becoming polemic and tedious, but Spider Robinson is one of them.
Spider Robinson.jpg
Spider is your atypical aging hippie in some ways; (many years ago he even wrote a story about Paul figuring out a way of bringing John back to life, because the music just hadn't been as good without him) he lives in British Columbia on Canada's west coast and his writing continues to espouse the hope that Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. instilled in some members of his generation. Whether the story is set in a bar on a distant planet peopled with beings from all over the galaxy, or in the more familiar territory of present day Earth, his books are populated by people who believe in the potential of a better world.

This continues to hold true for his most recent release, Very Hard Choices, published by Simon & Schuster Canada. Set in contemporary British Columbia the book sets us down into the life of aging hippie and newspaper columnist Russell Walker. After his wife had died from cancer, Russell just wanted to hide out from the world, but events had conspired against him.

A few years back he had discovered that his former University room mate was telepathic. Zandor Zudenigo had literally shown up at his door one day demanding help in ridding the world of a serial killer whose thoughts he had picked up via a chance encounter. With the aid of a Vancouver police officer, Nika Mandic, they managed to capture and kill the serial killer before he could execute his next killing spree, and had hoped to bury the incident as deeply as they had buried the body.

Unfortunately the CIA had invested in Zandor forty years ago, and although he had slipped through their fingers then (at great personal cost as the woman he loved died during their escape) it appears that the agent in charge of that particular program is still after him. Nika had tried to do some discrete checking up on Zandor, and although her query turned up nothing it set off an alarm that alerted the agent that someone was interested in him. He doesn't know where Zandor is, but he does know who was looking for him and who his friends were.

When Nika hurries off to warn Russell that somebody is after them, she unwittingly leads him right to his front door as the agent has placed an electronic tag on her car that allows him to follow her off the mainland onto the island where Russell lives. A bad situation is made even worse by the fact that Russell's estranged son Jesse is visiting for the first time since his mother died. How is Russell going to explain to his son about the whole situation, and how are they going to get a warning to Zandor without leading the agent right to him?

While this sounds like a fairly conventional science fiction/spy novel, Robinson has written something that has quite a bit more meat on the bone than you'd expect. First of all the agent is not a one dimensional bad guy. We spend quite a bit of time with him on his quest to track down Zandor, and the more time we spend inside his mind the less inclined we are to have a knee jerk reaction to him as one of the forces of evil. We begin to wonder why is this guy so intent on tracking Zandor down, and in the end the answer comes as something as a surprise.

The hard choice of the title can be seen superficially as the decision Russell must make about whether or not to protect someone he basically barely knows, after all he's only seen Zandor once since they both graduated from college, and is it worth putting his life and his son's at risk to do so? In another writer's hands that might have been the case, but in this instance the Very Hard Choices of the title refers to the way in which we make our decisions. We can choose to make our decisions based on our personal prejudices and the conventional wisdom of our peers, or we can make them based on what's right for the situation and what the evidence tells us is correct.

It's all very well to believe in something, but if you let that belief blind you to reality and let it dictate decisions than you have abdicated your ability to choose. The hardest choice any of us will ever have to make is the choice to choose freely without prejudice. Very Hard Choices is an intelligent and thought provoking book that will hopefully have you challenging your own assumptions. It is very rare that anybody on either side of the political spectrum has the courage to do that, and whether you agree with Mr. Robinson's politics or not, he is to be admired for having that kind of courage.

I have to admit I was disappointed that a glaring factual error was allowed into print. Near the beginning of the book Robinson mentions the imposition of the War Measures Act in Canada in 1970 by the government in response to kidnappings carried out by the Front de Liberation Quebecois (FLQ). He incorrectly identified James Cross as being the kidnapping victim killed when it was Pierre Laporte, Quebec's Minister of Labour who was murdered. While it doesn't detract from the story, it does weaken the author's credibility somewhat when information that could be verified by a simple Google search is incorrect. A lesson for us all.

Very Hard Choices can be purchased either directly from Simon & Schuster Canada or an on line retailer like Amazon.ca

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