alt.callahans post March 26, 1996
by Spider Robinson
Jake Stonebender, proprietor of Mary's Place (spiritual successor to
Callahan's Place), has been making music with Zoey and Fast Eddie for
over an hour, and his fingers are shot. "Tom," he calls out
to the man behind the stick, "Bring me a double!"
Tom Hauptman grins. "Sure thing, Boss," he says. Then, oddly,
he turns on his heel and leaves the room, walks through the bead curtain
into the back -- into Jake and Zoey's living quarters. Jake stares after
him in puzzlement.
A moment later Tom emerges with a companion. Tall, unreasonably thin,
long of hair and reasonably sanitary of beard, thick glasses, Beatle
boots, otherwise clad in an odd mixture of L.L. Bean and The Gap, with
long fingers, a splendid guitar around his neck and a vaguely alarming
gleam in his eye. He is, in short, a reasonable facsimile of Jake.
"You did ask for a double," Tom says, straightfaced,
and the bar bursts into thunderous laughter and applause.
"Spider Robinson!" Jake cries. "By da t'underin' Jesus,
it's good to see you, mate!"
"Right back at you, bro," says Spider. "Hi Zoey. Hi,
Eddy -- Doc -- Drink -- everybody..."
There is a merry rumble of welcome. "What brings you back to Long
Island, pal?" Long-Drink McGonnigle calls out. "If you don't
mind my asking," he adds hastily, as Fast Eddie stirs on his piano
"I came to give you all a speech, and a toast, and a song,"
Spider says solemnly, and a respectful silence falls. Tom Hauptman is
already pouring the Bushmills 1608. Spider takes it, walks around the
bar and strides up to the chalk line on the floor, faces the crackling
He holds up his shot and looks through it at the fire for a long moment,
seems lost in thought. Then he lowers it, untasted, and turns to the
"As most of you know," he says, "I come from what Admiral
Bob calls a different 'ficton' -- a different dimension, a different
reality -- than this one. My reality is adjacent to and congruent to and
very similar to yours, but different. For example, in the 1996 that I
come from, the Beatles just put out two new singles."
(rumbles of astonishment and profound envy from all sides)
"With help from Mike Callahan, I visit this ficton once every few
years, and get Jake there stoned, and transmute what he tells me about
you into stories that I publish as science fiction back in my own
fiction. I get to support a family without owning a necktie, and Jake
gets the free reefer and someone to listen to him talk: like
breastfeeding, the relationship is mutually satisfactory, so much that
it has endured for two dozen years.
"So in my ficton, there are a lot of people who have the
preposterous idea that I invented all of you, that you are all
just figments and figwoments of my imagination. To be honest, I haven't
done much to dissuade them -- because anybody who could think up people
like you rummies would have to be one hell of a
(sounds of raucous agreement from the patrons)
"Well, I recently learned that, to humble me, God created yet
another ficton, which is adjacent and congruent and similar to my own,
yet different -- called USENET -- and in that ficton, some
people seem to have the idea that Spider Robinson is a fictional
character they invented. They're apparently engaged in
rewriting me as I speak, patting me into shape. I only recently got the
word: some of them hipped me, and kept it up 'till I finally heard them.
"I'm not complaining: it serves me right. Talk about poetic
justice! And they're not even doing a bad job, so far, if you ask me:
they actually make me sound pretty interesting. Did you know, for
instance, that Robert Heinlein once saved my life? I hadn't...
"But I didn't come here to boast. I came here to tell you all that
the seed you used me to plant in my ficton has metastasized...to another.
"The denizens of this world called USENET, see, were kind of like
Jubal Harshaw's proverbial editor and his soup. Having invented a sci-fi
writer named Spider, they decided they liked some of his stories enough
to make them real. So, 7 or 8 years ago, they did.
"That's right, jadies and lentilmen: they whipped up their own
Callahan's Place, out of thin air! It's called alt.callahans..."
(a roar of astonishment and confusion and glee and outrage and
disbelief...which finally morphs into a long rolling wave of laughter...
followed by another...and another)
"Now, I know what many of you want to hear about. You want me to
tell you all the countless little ways their Callahan's Place is
different from the one you lot used to drink in, and from Mary's Place
here. And there are a lot of differences, and maybe we can talk about
them another time. But the things I want to tell you first -- the most
important things -- are the ways their Callahan's Place is like
"Do they make rotten puns there?" Doc Webster calls.
"Do dey make music dere?" Fast Eddie asks.
"Do they drink there?" Long-Drink bellows.
"Do they smash their glasses in the fireplace?" Tommy Janssen
asks, and the rumble of the crowd indicates that he has come closest so
far to a good question.
"None of that is really important," Jake Stonebender says,
meeting Spider's eye. "What about the important stuff,
Spider? Did they get that right?"
The room falls silent.
Slowly, enjoying the suspense, Spider lets his poker face relax into a
"As far as I can tell, they did, Jake. At alt.callahans
they believe that shared pain is diminished, and that shared joy is
increased, just like here. They believe that a snoopy question merits a
mild concussion. They help the ones that hurt and make merry with the
ones that don't."
(stunned silence in Mary's Place)
"They care about one another, there, 24-7. They don't make any
magical claims, but they seem to have compassion by the carload, and they
value kindness over hipness. And they use a system of communication
that's startlingly like the telepathy you folks are shooting for here.
Oh, there's a social disease rampant in their world with a horrid symptom
called 'flaming' -- but they suffer far less from it than just about
anywhere else in their ficton. First-time visitors are not called the
'n-word' there, for instance, as is customary elsewhere. Just like
here, alt.callahans seems to be a place where it's All Right To Be
Bright, where it's All Right To Be Dull, where it's all right to be any
damn thing at all except a pain in the ass. You know the Invisible
Protective Shield around this place? The magic force field that keeps
out the bikers and dealers and predators and drinking alcoholics and
kids looking to raise hell? Well, they've got one too, called a Sysop.
"And yes, they make exceedingly rotten puns there. And some
splendid music. And they tell toxic jokes. Don't tell anybody, but I've
already pinched a couple."
Doc Webster clears his throat. "Uh...how big a joint are we talking
Spider grins. "Nobody knows. This USENET ficton is a truly weird
universe, a snake's orgy of nodes and channels and webs and threads, and
as far as I know there is no truly accurate census, and alt.callahans
runs all through it like kudzu...and branches off from there to
another ficton called -- you won't believe this one! -- The Web.
But the best guess I heard was, well in excess of 61,000 people are
regular patrons. It's said to be in the top one percent of bars there,
by size, and furthermore to be damn near the only one in the top two
percent that doesn't have topless bottomless waitresses and a live donkey
show. This Callahan's Place probably couldn't be destroyed by
fifty nukes, all going off at once."
(a vast collective intake of breath nearly extinguishes the fire in the
"Put it this way," Spider says. "In January of 1995 --
their 1995 -- these people exchanged more words than I have written about
you bozos in two dozen years of doing so for my living. Six and a half
"What kind of words?" Jake asks.
Spider nods. "Good question. I reached into a pile of their
traffic at random and pulled out a message. Someone I didn't know was
talking to someone else I didn't know, who was in the end stage of
leukemia. He said, 'You are about to go on a wonderful journey through
space and time with Mike Callahan and the gang.' He said, 'I envy you
the trip.' He said, 'Save me a seat by the hearth, my friend...'
Spider falls silent. His jaw muscles ripple, and he pokes around behind
his glasses with a knuckle. "Five deaths, so far," he manages.
"And some births...and God knows how many weddings..." He
shakes his head. "And some of the worst goddam jokes I
"Hully Jesus Christ, we done it!" Fast Eddie cries.
"We broke the membrane," Suzy Maser murmurs, thunderstruck.
"Through the Looking Glass..." her co-wife Suzi breathes.
"Spider's right," Doc Webster rumbles. "We've
"We're loose among the fictons," Long-Drink McGonnigle says
with most uncharacteristic sobriety. "We're literally out of this
"All that pain diminishing," Zoey says softly.
"All dat joy increasin," Fast Eddie adds just as softly.
Jake, with the air of someone quoting scripture, says, "'God,' he
cries, dying on Mars, 'we made it!'..." and everyone in the room
(recognizing the tagline of a Theodore Sturgeon story famous in nearly
every ficton) nods.
Suddenly a spontaneous ovation occurs, a consensual roar of joy and glee
and hope and pride that rocks the rafters, shakes the walls, rattles the
glasses behind the bar and makes a cloud of sawdust rise from the floor.
People fall on each other and hug and laugh and sob and pound each
other's back and pour beer over one another. Jake and Tom were off the
mark the instant it began, from sheer instinct, and barely in time: as
the blizzard of empty glasses begins to fall on the fireplace, they are
busy passing out full ones.
Which reminds everybody that Spider said he has a toast to make. Which
reminds them that maybe Spider has more on his mind than just making
them feel good. Slowly, hesitantly, the noise dwindles, until the room
is more or less silent again.
"So," Zoey says, "how do you feel about all this,
Spider? If you don't mind my asking?"
"Well," Spider says slowly, "I came here tonight because I
didn't know the answer to that myself. I figured one of you would
probably ask me sooner or later, and I know I can't lie to one of you, so
I expected to get my answer here...and I have. The answer is, it beats
the living shit out of me."
"What do you think of the joint?" Long-Drink asks.
"Dunno, Drink. I've never been there in my life."
"Jump back!" the Drink says. "Why not?"
"Well, basically, you need a good Ficton-Twister to get there. A
Ficton-Twister is a highly evolved descendant of the typewriter, and the
one I own after twenty-three years of writing science fiction for a
living just isn't powerful enough to pierce the membrane, as the Doc
puts it. I couldn't get to USENET if I walked all day. The data I was
given about alt.callahans amount to a time-lapse film of a couple of
years that takes half an hour to watch: you can't evaluate a place on
evidence like that."
"But what's your first impression?" Zoey prods. "How does
it make you feel?"
Spider is slow to answer. Slowly it dawns on those present that for the
first time in memory, Spider Robinson is having difficulty finding the
"I feel," he says finally, "like a man who's just learned
that he has a grown son he never knew existed, by a lady
long-forgotten... no, a whole herd of grown children, with grown
grandchildren with kids of their own. He can't claim the privileges of
paternity, because he only meant to entertain the lady, and he wasn't
there when the diapers were full, or the tuition was due -- but
nonetheless he feels warm and proud, whether he has any real right to or
not." Jake and Zoey exchange a glance. "I...put it this way:
I feel less useless than usual, lately."
"Does it bother you that some of them don't seem to know you from
Adam's off ox -- or care?" Merry Moore asks.
Spider grins. "That part delights me. The only kind of
church I'd be willing to duck into to get out of a driving rain would be
one where some of the congregation are a little vague on the Prophet's
actual name, and it's all right to call him an asshole out loud, but the
doctrine itself somehow got preserved. I would rather those
people remember 'Shared pain is lessened; shared joy is increased; thus
do we refute entropy' than remember the name of the first idiot to say
it. My interest in being worshipped approaches zero...from
He looks thoughtful, and sights through his untouched drink at the
dancing flames again. "I admit I do feel just a tad like Moses,
camped outside a suburb of the Promised Land, watching his name get
misspelled in the history books." Suddenly he giggles and lowers
his glass, rescued as always by his sense of humour. "Then again,
that happens in my own books, sometimes."
"Hell, Spider," Jake says, "I got an idea. You say
somebody there hipped you to the place. So you can send them a letter,
"Yeah, sort of. I can e-mail folks who can pass the file through
"So why don't you write and tell them all about your next Tor Books
hardcover about us, Callahan's Legacy? You know, the one
about the night Buck Rogers walked in and started setting hundred dollar
bills on fire. Or tell 'em about the hardcover omnibus of your first
three Callahan books that Tor will bring out shortly after that. Hell,
tell them about the complete list of your books posted in the Compuserve
SFLit Forum. If that many people bought a book or two apiece, you could
afford a better Ficton-Twister, right?"
Spider shrugs. "I'd like to, Jake. For one thing, I hear there's
some confusion over there about the non-Callahanian book that
just came out, the Baen paperback called Deathkiller; I'd
like to tell them it's a combined reissue of 2 related out-of-print
novels called Mindkiller and Time Pressure, slightly
revised and updated; and I'd love to explain to them how the story
"God Is An Iron" originally grew to become the former of those,
and why both books belong together; and I'd like to let them
know that I'm presently working on a third novel in that ficton called
I could mention the computer-game version of Callahan's Place coming soon
for PC and Mac from Legend Entertainment. I might even remind them that
anyone in the world who wants to bother can, for less than the cost of a
single hardcover, become a nonattending member of the World SF
Convention, and nominate and vote for the annual Hugo Award, thereby
strongly influencing the course of modern sf and the income of the
winning writers...and that even a man with three Hugos could always use
a few more.(Ask my friend Harlan.) But there are two problems...
"First, they might take all that for an attempt to 'post a
commercial message on USENET.' This violates a stringent fiction-wide
taboo, roughly equivalent to defecating in public after ingesting a prune
stew, and punishable by 'public flaming' (which I will not describe, but
I hear it's worse than public phlegming) and 'spamming' (enough said).
"And second of all, even if they want to hear about that
stuff...suppose I did clear enough to buy myself a
Ficton-Twister that'll run System 7, and a whole new whack of compatible
software... pardon me, I mean, 'enough magic'...why, if that happened,
I'd feel obliged to visit alt.callahans with my new rig and say thanks,
and then they'd all know my interworld address. Have you ever tried to
answer mail from 61,000 people?"
(a rumble of apprehension as the magnitude of Spider's problem begins to
"Even if one percent of 'em were interested enough to bother,"
he goes on, "that's enough man-hours to eat up all the profit 61,000
sales would bring in, right there. Say I only hear from one
tenth of one percent, and not one of those is a chump: 61
interesting letters a day. The nicest form-response I could design would
disappoint or offend many of them -- and that's not even the problem.
"The problem is that I would love to answer each one
personally and at length, spend every waking minute of every working day
chatting with friendly strangers who believe that shared pain is lessened
and shared joy is increased, who like to swap compassion and villainous
puns, who tolerate the weird, who help each other through real life and
real death...and who in many cases happen to be familiar with and/or
friendly toward my lifework. I had a friend once named Milligram
Mulligan -- surely dead, by now -- who said that the first time he heard
the term 'speed freak,' before he had any idea what that
lifestyle entailed, he knew It Was Him. Well, the drug alt.callahans was
designed to mate perfectly with my own endorphin receptors. I can easily
see myself disappearing up my own anus, (virtually) partying away the
"...and never publishing another word. Not the Callahan/Lady
Sally/Mary's Place stuff, and not the other fifty percent of what I
write, alone and with Jeanne, which is just as good and just as important
to me -- and hopefully to some percentage of the literate public.
"Even worse, the problem is not limited to USENET. My sister-in-law
Dolly tells me another Callahan's Place, smaller but just as
cool, recently coalesced in a ficton called AOL...
"I hear the Siren call, and my heart aches to heed it...but I have a
family to feed, and rent to pay, and debt to service, and a deep
primordial completely eco-irresponsible compulsion not to rest until the
last tree on my earth has been hacked down, sliced into strips, and
stained with graffitti of my composition. Gaea forgive me..."
"I'm a vegetarian, myself," Long-Drink remarks. "I don't
give a damn about animals." He grins sadistically. "But I
Ignoring him magnificently, Jake says, "Then there's only one thing
to do, Spider."
Spider looks alert. (One of his better impressions.)
Zoey says it for her old man. "You gotta write them one long letter,
with no return address. You gotta tell 'em that you love 'em and that
you're grateful to 'em and that you wish 'em all well. Tell 'em they
make you feel proud and humble and awed and gratified all at the same
time, and make sure they know they're never gonna be far from your
thoughts as long as you live...and maybe ask 'em while they're busy
rewriting you to remember that you always tried to be kind to your
(sustained rumble of agreement, at which Spider blushes)
"And you gotta tell them," Tanya Latimer says, "that
we love them, too, and that we thank them for making us all feel
just a little bit less superfluous...for making us feel that all our
struggles and trials have been worth something, have
meant something...even if it's only to people in another world.
I don't know about anybody else here, but I -- " She catches
herself. "No, I do know about everybody else here. We're
all gonna sleep good tonight..."
(louder rumble of agreement)
"You have to tell them everything you just told us," Doc
Webster said, "and make them a quick toast or two...and then
tap-dance out the door and go back to work."
(rumble graduates to table-thumping)
"He's right," Jake calls. "Hell, you don't visit
us more than every other year or so, and you're always gone as
soon as you fill up a floppy. And God knows you're always welcome when
you do show. You're the kind of pal, it's okay if a few years slip
(thumping becomes cheer)
Spider stands a little straighter, and for a moment looks both older and
younger than 47. "Thank you, Jake. Thank you all. As it happens,
your advice is exactly my plan." He produces a tape recorder from
thin air. "All this is going to be transcribed and sent to
alt.callahans, along with a sample chapter from
Callahan's Legacy. I just felt like it was time I connected
you both, this ficton and that one, directly -- if only by proxy. It's a
pity Solace is gone, or she could have put you in realtime contact. She
was a ficton very much like USENET herself...well, anyway, the job is
done, so the only thing left to do is make my toast, and then -- by way
of thanking you and them for letting me pull on your coat-tail so long --
to play you all out with a song."
For the first time, he lifts his glass of Bushmill's,
and every glass, mug, flask and jelly jar in the room
rises in unison with it. The silence is total.
"To all the Callahan's Places there ever were or
ever will be," Spider Robinson says, "whatever
they may be called -- and to all the merry maniacs and
happy fools who are fortunate enough to stumble into
one: may none of them arrive too late!" And he
drains his 1608 in a single draught, and hurls his
glass into the precise center of the hearth, where it
explodes with a sound rather like a Macintosh booting up.
"To all the Callahan's Places!" everyone
in the room choruses, and the fireplace begins to feel
like Jupiter did when Shoemaker-Levy came to visit...
"Wait, one more," Spider calls. "To
the guy who found a manuscript called 'The Guy With
The Eyes' in the Analog slushpile back in 1972, and
decided to buy it, and mentor its author -- to one
of the best sf writers working today: Ben Bova,
without whom all of this would not have been
And another roar goes up from the throng.
"To Ben Bova!"
And Spider, his hands both free now, slings his
guitar back up into combat configuration. "Now
I'll just sing you this quick one and go. Jeanne
was out of town for a few weeks, and I missed her,
so I wanted to write her a love song. The problem
was, we've been married twenty years now: there
just isn't any way to say 'I love you' that
I haven't used already, often. So I produced a
song called 'Belaboring The Obvious.'
He hits a bluesy A6 chord, and begins to sing...
and one can't help but sense the words are more
than a little apropos to Spider's situation in
all three fictons:
Belaboring the Obvious
((C) 1996 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved in all fictons:)
I want to tell you how I feel, love
But it ain't exactly news
Got no secrets to reveal love
But I'm gonna say it anyway,
'cause I'm alone and you're away
I haven't got a blessed thing to lose...
(so here goes:)
Water ain't dry, the sky goes up high,
And a booger makes pretty poor glue
You can't herd cats, bacteria don't wear hats
-- and I love you
Sugar ain't sour, bread's good with flour
And murder's a mean thing to do
Trees got wood, and loving is pretty good
-- and I love you
Yeah, I'm belaboring the obvious:
You will have noticed all the good times
This is as practical an exercise
As taping twenty cents to my transmission
so that any time I want to
I can shift my pair o' dimes...
(but God knows:)
Goats don't vote, and iron don't float
And a hippy don't turn down boo
Dog bites man, the teacher don't understand
-- and I love you
Sickness sucks, it's nice to have bucks
And the player on first base is Who
Kids grow up, most fellows pee standing up
-- and I love you
Guess I didn't need to say it
Just a message that my heart sent
And I kinda like the way it's
More redundant than is absolutely
necessary thanks to the Department
of Redundancy Department...
(Division of Unnecessary Repetition and Pointless Redundancy Division)
(I must close:)
Fun is nice, you can't fry ice,
And the money will always be due
Bullshit stinks, and noone outsits the Sphinx
-- and I love you
Livin' ain't bad, and dyin' is sad
And little we know is true
But that's our karma-- baby, you can bet the farm
On this: I do love you.
And with that, weeping with joy and giggling with
sorrow, Spider vanishes back to what he calls
reality (what a kidder, that guy), and to his best
friend and co-author and oh yes, wife, Jeanne, and
their sweet daughter Terri, and life goes on at
And at alt.callahans, may their shadows be always
bent at the elbow...
-- Vancouver, B.C.
24 March 1996
Spider's home page:
Top of Page -
Book Reviews -
Spider Bytes -