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User Friendly
by Spider Robinson
Baen Books, 282pp
Published: February 1998

Ah, Spider…I do miss you so.  I hadn't read this collection of short stories and essays in a very long time.  It was so like hearing from an old and beloved friend; to hear his voice in my head.  I was reminded of what a thoughtful, insightful and loving man he is/was.  If anyone is a poster child for the absence of a benevolent and compassionate god, he is.  He never deserved the misery he received.

The title story is about the effect on humans when visiting aliens co-opt their bodies to do a walk-about. Well, actually - the effect on the hag-ridden person's spouse.  The next story, "Copyright Violation" was a humorous take on whether one's thoughts and feelings ought to be in the public domain.  "The Magnificent Conspiracy" is a clever, thoughtful reasoning about conscientious objectors (probably a heated topic in Canada in the Vietnam era) which was obviously near to Spider's heart since he was still thinking about it in 1998.  It is disguised as something else which made it very entertaining.

Next up is an essay which Spider used on a radio show in 1987.  He discusses his mentors - Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon and Ben Bova - with anecdotes and descriptions that we old-timers will appreciate more than most.  This piece, more than the others dates this book and will not have any appeal to a younger reader.  I found it irrepressibly nostalgic and charming.

There is a homage to Lord Richard Buckley, a stand-up comedian of the vaudevillian era that left this reader uninterested.  Which is why, as much as I truly love this collection of stories, the book itself includes too many dated references to engage younger readers.

"His Own Petard" was awfully funny with a great ironic ending. Then there's another tiny piece written in the style of Lord Buckley but about Robert Heinlein this time.  And while I am not comfortable with the vernacular, I totally appreciated it and I think I got all the references.

There's a long-ish story "When No Man Pursueth" which is a classic SF story with a lot of detective-type mystery which was fun and concludes with a classic twist, might have been more original back then.  "Too Soon We Grow Old" showed some definite Heinlein influence but left me a mite confused at the conclusion; I think it's supposed to be ironic but I wasn't impressed.

Then there's a great little essay about Spider's take on Murphy's Laws as they relate to society, science and even the Internet which are still spot-on.  I enjoyed "The Gifts of the Magistrate" as a judge personally interviews a prisoner in an attempt to understand why she deliberately changed the course of Halley's Comet to save her lover.

"Distraction" is a cute little story that pokes gently at SF writers and made me howl at the end!  "Orphans of Eden" is not the novel he was working on when he had a stroke; and, as near as I can tell, that story was never completed.  But he used the title in a short story starring himself having a conversation with a time traveler over a philosophical question - and I found myself caught up in the rationalizations and wishing my voice could be heard.  And while I think I know how I would have responded, I really wanted Spider to tell me what he would've done.

"Pandora's Last Gift" was another essay where Spider waxed on about cynicism.  I have a large dose of that myself and found that many of his observations are still completely relevant.

The next short story was, again, pretty classic and involved a woman trying to invent a time machine and planning to re-visit her younger self to prove the test.  It had a nice twist.  "Not Fade Away" had some familiar tropes but I can't bring them to mind exactly.  But it felt familiar: humanity had evolved past the need for corporeal bodies but one person remained, albeit still quite dissimilar to us; and he was trapped in his existence as there was nothing left that could destroy him.  It was well-done.

And the last essay "Seduction of the Ignorant" was a timeless rant on the inadequacies of public education and society's inherent laziness.  The results of which - ignorant humans - cannot be overstated.  Spider was able to deliver this diatribe publicly at an international Literacy Day convention in 1990.  Too bad so many of us are all still lazy with inadequate training in the art of critical thinking to pay attention. 

Overall, I hold this book to my heart and will keep it in my collection.  Woe to my son who might read it someday.  Woe that there isn't more Spider to share.  ~~  Catherine Book

For more titles by Spider Robinson click here

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