OUR 21st CENTURY WRITERS: Part III
by Allen Varney
[Published in Pirate Jenny #1, Fall 1988]
(EDITOR'S NOTE: In this hundredth-anniversary year of
modern science fiction, 2026, our peripatetic reporter has
visited the leaders of 21st-century sf. Parts I and II told of
his trips to Heinlein Colony in California's Recovery Zone and
Varley Studios in Oregon's Hood River Social Complex. We have not
heard from the author since this final article was smuggled out
Oh readers, I weep at the awful news I bear! Only journalistic
responsibility can force me to reveal my stunning discovery, one
that will devastate the world's billions of science fiction
readers. The agony, the -- but I must start at the beginning.
Part III: The Rocky Mountains, 7/20/26
How eagerly I looked forward to the climax of my trip, my
meeting with the finest, most honored, most beloved writer of our
time. This rare interview would call for all the colossal
resources of The Texas SF Inquirer.
The project appeared endangered when the Inquirer was
seized in a hostile takeover by the Rupert Murdoch Conglomerate;
but after the well-chronicled defection of the entire editorial
staff to the rival publishing empire of Pirate Jenny, I
found that my resources had been multiplied to staggering levels.
I soon secured a Congressional OK, transport to the devastated
Colorado Rockies, a special all-terrain halftrack urbmobile, a
hundred favors from the local satraps, and fares for half a dozen
survivalist toll scams.
On the airship from Seattle to the ruins of Denver, I
reflected upon the great man's work. Who better reflects the
temper of our time? Who so clearly sums up the attitudes that
mark the culture of this third millennium? In short, who embodies
the state of the science fiction art today? To readers of a
hundred languages around the world, the answer is obvious.
The Rockies were barren but beautiful as I approached the spot
designated on my map, its coordinates beamed straight from
Jenny's geostationary satellite. Contrary to rumor, the
radiation here has dropped appreciably in just the last decade.
In my lead suit I was completely safe -- though some rifle shots
from a few starveling squatters gave me a tense moment near my
Such nuisances became irrelevant when I beheld the grandeur of
this goal. NORAD, the North American Defense Command, lies deep
beneath the remains of one of the Rockies' finest peaks. True to
its specifications, it did indeed survive a direct nuclear strike
-- only to fall deserted due to postwar budget cuts. Now the
titanic fortune of our greatest writer supports the complex, the
best-defended private home in the world.
Flashing the prearranged security code with the urbmobile's
headlights, I waited for radio clearance to approach the
entrance. There, before its titanium-plate blast doors, I gazed
upon the motto over the archway: THE MAGNIFICENT CONSPIRACY.
"Who goes there?" said a high female voice from a speaker.
I identified myself, flashing the all-powerful Pirate
Jenny press card. "I want to speak with Mr. Spider
Into the Sanctum
"Come in!" A sharp male voice, slightly cracked with age,
issued from the speaker. "Welcome to my domicile, though I should
mention that the dome missile is out for repair right now." From
the pun I instantly identified the man as Robinson, an inveterate
punster beloved by all connoisseurs of humor.
I quivered with eagerness at the prospect of meeting the
master in person. Imagine: I would be the first to see him since
his retirement from public view, more than two decades ago!
The reader has undoubtedly joined the rest of the world in
mourning Robinson's illness: cancer of the ears, resulting in
their amputation. In their absence his eyeglasses slipped so much
that he could not function in public, and so he withdrew into his
But inside the vault door I did not see him. My lead suit was
taken by a slender woman dressed in a leotard and hobnailed
combat boots. She ran a metal detector over me, scrutinizing the
"You're clean," she said, "at least so far as this thing is
concerned. If you had been carrying a weapon, I would have had to
drive my fingers into your throat and sever your spinal cord,
killing you instantly. I'd have hated it, and I would have
mourned you sincerely, as convenient."
I was impressed by her mixture of courage and sympathetic
tenderness, also shown by the multiple-Hugo-winning author's
"That's Ginny." Robinson's voice issued from many wall
speakers as the woman ushered me through successive screening
tests: loyalty oath, X-rays, strip-search, computerized identity
check, and a knowledge test and psych profile ("How exactly do
you feel about Edgar Pangborn?").
"Ginny is my biggest fan in the world, which comes in handy
when the ventilating system goes down," cracked the unseen
author. "She's read every word I've written, and models herself
on my characters."
"I'd stand on one of them and model my new dress, but none are
available," Ginny snickered. From many speakers came Robinson's
high groaning laughter. Though disappointed that I had not yet
seen the great man himself, I laughed dutifully.
After the tests Ginny led me to twin racks of coveralls. On
one rack hung all sizes of clean white uniforms, fresh and
untouched, labelled with red letters across the front and back:
Any Robinson fan (and who is not?) recognizes the acronym,
proposed in one of the author's earliest book-review columns and
suffusing his every work since then. It is part of his system
dividing all people into two classes, and labelling those of the
first class OOTNO: One Of The Nice Ones. How relieved I was when
Ginny handed me an OOTNO coverall in my size. I had qualified!
The other rack held dingy, ragged, vomit-brown coveralls
labelled NOOTNO. The one in front had bullet holes.
Treasures of the Past
Ginny led me to what I'd supposed to be a large abstract wall
decoration. With a grating clatter its curved slivers pulled
back, revealing a long hallway beyond. I recognized this as a
genuine Futuro Dilating Iris Door!
Older readers may remember the unfortunate Futuro company,
makers of devices introduced in science fiction stories over the
last century. Their dilating doors, based on those in Robert
Heinlein's work, proved uncommercial. The apparatus was bulky,
noisy, and prone to breakdown; users couldn't open the doors a
little way to peek out; and owners' power bills soared.
The Futuro company went under in 2013. Spider Robinson bought
their entire backstock. He has installed many of sf's most
beloved traditional devices in his home, just as he has enshrined
them in his work, preserving these mementos with loving care.
Stepping over the protruding slivers of door ("Sometimes it
doesn't pull back all the way," Ginny remarked), we entered the
corridor. Beneath a high ceiling it stretched into the distance,
short flights of stairs dropping down every hundred yards.
"Walk this way," said Ginny. She paused, as though waiting for
me to offer a reply. Then she said, "No one appreciates a
straight line any more."
We walked down the corridor. The sounds of our footsteps
echoed from the concrete walls, mixing with a background of
20th-century popular music -- Charlie Parker, Frank Zappa, Tom
Waits, and Yes. These are favorites of Robinson, and of every
protagonist of every novel or story he has ever written.
"Glad as a bee in a nectar distillery to have you here," the
famed author said over the public address system. "We're always
recruiting for the Conspiracy."
I recalled the inscription over the entrance. "What conspiracy
is that?" I asked, for the sake of journalistic accuracy. But
like all those familiar with Robinson's work, I thought I already
knew the answer.
"We'll talk about that later," came the reply. "Meanwhile, let
Ginny give you the Tour Du Jour, monsoor."
Beneath machine-gun emplacements and surveillance cameras we
paused to examine the hallway's many shelves and trophy cases.
Lit by humming fluorescents, they held mementos of Spider
Robinson's spectacular career:
his monumental "Callahan's Saloon" series, in a uniform
edition of 80 bound volumes;
his complete collection of Analog and Galaxy
magazines, the defunct organs that gave him his start, preserved
for eternity in bronze;
his Grammy-winning recordings of his own folksongs;
and, most awe-inspiring, his endless rows of Hugo awards.
Robinson has won more of the trophies than any other author. (He
shared one of the earliest with his late wife, Jeanne, for
"Stardance." Since Jeanne did no writing as such on this work,
she remains the only person to win a Hugo for choreography.)
Since the turn of the millennium Robinson's work has gone
undefeated in every Hugo category. Can there be any clearer
indication of his greatness?
His stature in the field was conclusively demonstrated in
2008. As a prank, that year's final ballot included a ringer, a
nonexistent story allegedly written by Robinson. That "story" won
the award by a landslide. Since then the Hugo award committee has
circumvented the great man's monopoly by awarding him a special
Hugo each year, "just for being him." It's the only way anyone
else could hope to win.
No true fan of quality science fiction can behold those
festoons of silver rockets without feeling dizzy. I staggered
back into a convenient chair by the far wall -- and jumped up
again. The chair had grabbed me by the ... well, it grabbed me!
How foolish I felt at not recognizing the Cuddle Chair! The
Futuro company made chairs that, like those in the stories,
mechanically adjusted to the sitter's build and posture. This
product was the specific cause of Futuro's bankruptcy, as any
reader who ever sat in one will understand.
Robinson has devotedly preserved this staple of early sf
stories. I admired his dedication, though I would not sit in the
chair again on a bet.
A Matter of Attitude
Robinson's personal fortune, like that of so many wealthy
characters in dozens of his stories, long since reached the point
where it continues to grow without his attention. With billions
of readers and billions of dollars, nothing exceeds his grasp.
For example, he proposed the remarkable Stellar
Birthdays series of paperback anthologies, edited by 365
big-name pros with Martin Harry Greenberg. Each of these thick
collections, published daily in 2006, contained stories written
by famous sf writers born on that day.
Greenberg devoted the one for Robinson's birthday entirely to
the great man, including many of his classic early stories. As I
took down that bound volume from the shelf, under the watchful
camera eyes of army-surplus guardbots, I felt renewed admiration
for Spider Robinson's matchless ability to plot.
Think of "Melancholy Elephants," the famous Hugo-winning short
story proposing that since there are only a limited number of
musical tones, there must also be a limited number of melodies;
and since we are in danger of running out, it is vitally
important to civilization to change the copyright law. It's a
story no one else could have written.
Or recall his 1986 story "The Gifts of the Magistrate." Here a
humorist, so funny that he helped save civilization, has become
obsessed with Mark Twain and intends to die when Halley's Comet
appears, just as Twain did. His former lover saves him by
knocking the comet out of the Solar system, and so becomes the
most hated woman in history. You just don't find this kind of
plotting in any other writer.
No one before Robinson explored the inner reaches of the heart
in quite his way. In "Antinomy," the protagonist, a famous
surgeon, devotes his life to curing his cryogenically frozen
sweetheart of her disease. Since freezing erases her memory of
him, he longs for her to fall in love with him all over again.
When she does betray that inclination -- what a masterstroke of
character! -- he dumps her with a cool dismissal. (Readers may
also recall from this story how one character draws the attention
of another, in the same room, by firing a gun at the ceiling.)
More examples abound. In the novel Mindkiller a man who
is secretly trying to save the world, using his godlike control
of human memory, wipes the protagonist's memory and, to get him
out of the way of the conspiracy, turns him into the world's
Night of Power, a work of dazzling racial insight,
marks the first time any writer suggested that militant blacks
might take over New York City and secede from the United States.
And who can forget the immortal climax of Stardance?
The heroes, who are superhuman because they live in zero gravity
without orienting themselves to an arbitrary vertical, progress
instantly to the next stage of evolution by inhaling the
atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan.
The ending of Stardance demonstrates the author's vast
love for humanity. He generously allows anyone else to evolve to
the next stage too, as soon as they learn to think just like the
Through all his work Spider Robinson displays that same
attitude. It has brought us into this 21st-century world. But I
had yet to learn how much further he hopes to bring us.
Wall murals depicted beloved traditions of science fiction,
some antiquated (broadcast power, the one-race world), some kept
alive in Robinson's work, if not the real world (marriage
contracts, laws letting children divorce their parents, etc.).
While I basked in the nostalgia these quaint ideas evoked, Ginny
led me further down the endless hallway.
We passed vast underground barracks, their long rows of beds
showing signs of recent habitation. But I had seen no one except
Ginny. "Who else lives here?" I asked.
"The rest of the Conspiracy," Robinson's voice announced.
"Where are they right now?"
"Act like a doctor and have patience."
Ushered Into the Presence
At last we reached a tremendous vault door. "I want you to
know," said Ginny, "that no one has ever been past this door
without first joining the Conspiracy. If you weren't famous for
integrity, unimpeachable accuracy, and freedom from bias, I'd
stop you here. With a kidney punch, I think, and then I'd break
your kneecaps. But I'd hate doing it."
After twiddling four combination dials, submitting to
fingerprint and retina scans, and speaking a voice password
("Only you can prevent florist friars"), Ginny opened the vault
door. She escorted me through. And I saw Spider Robinson!
He is now a long, high bank of supercomputers. His consoles
gleam in the fluorescent light, and his indicator lights blink
with feverish speed. He has attained the purity of artificial
"I was shot on a covert raid into Heinlein Colony," Robinson
explained. "But I set up this unit before the raid, and I managed
to download all the brain-tapes of the Master back here before
they got me, the NOOTNO bastards. Now I live forever in an
endless stream of late Heinlein. It's heaven."
"Marvelous!" I exclaimed. Who does not know Robinson's
veneration for Heinlein? "But if you have all you want, what is
the Magnificent Conspiracy?"
"Using my new brain power, I'm going through census records
for the entire world, dividing everyone into OOTNOs and NOOTNOs.
I'm inviting all the OOTNOs to live here with me. When everyone's
arrived, well, we'll figure out what to do next."
Robinson was adapting the thesis underlying all his work to an
impressive real-world context. Remember his early story "The
Magnificent Conspiracy": A multi-billionaire decides to devote
himself to philanthropy, so he opens a used-car lot to lose
money. The narrator, an assassin sent by a rival used-car lot
owner, sees the beauty of the Magnificent Conspiracy, throws away
his gun (literally), and joins, without even knowing what it
does. Such is the power of Robinson's idea.
So the reader can predict my answer when Robinson asked, "Do
you want to join up?"
"Yes!" I cried.
At that moment all my journeys across America culminated in an
epiphany. I could do nothing better with my life than join this
conspiracy, founded on the principles espoused by all our new
millennium's great writers.
Jerry Pournelle and his disciples, John Varley, George R. R.
Martin, the feminists, and the rest -- all use fiction for the
highest purpose: propagating their ideology!
Lionizing those who think like them, and portraying all who
hold contrary ideals as low, misguided, mean, criminal, retarded,
Retreating to insulated enclaves, among like-minded people,
and rebuilding society in their own images!
Though their beliefs vary and their ends differ, their methods
are the same. It is to them that we owe our modern world.
And Spider Robinson is truly the greatest of them all. For in
a bold stroke he has dispensed with ideology altogether, judging
individuals without resort to menial concepts like doctrine,
objectivity, or that foolish hobgoblin, consistency.
Inspired by his worthy goals, I said, "I agree! When can I
meet my fellow conspirators?"
"Welcome, friend!" Robinson said. "Sorry, but at the moment
it's just us. We've had plenty of folks here in the past --"
"Thousands," said Ginny.
"But ... well, the NOOTNO culture runs deep, not unlike a
sewer. One by one, every conspirator I've trusted has proved to
be Not One Of The Nice Ones. Except for Ginny here, of course,
who's served the Conspiracy loyally ever since she arrived, the
day before yesterday."
"I killed the last one," Ginny said flatly. "I caught his neck
and twisted, killing him cleanly and painlessly. I have mourned
the loss of my friend for the last two days."
"He was reading a Michael Bishop novel," Robinson explained.
"Bishop wrote a fanzine parody of my work decades ago, very
NOOTNO. Mourn the loss of a conspirator, Ginny!"
Ginny wrapped her arms around herself and bent her head. She
walked over to a shelf of computer tapes and, with perfect
self-control, plunged her foot through the metal shelf. Tapes
I recalled the many Robinson characters who displayed their
grief through controlled destruction: "Antinomy," for instance,
where the protagonist drives his fist through a skyscraper
window. And in Mindkiller, when the hero's girlfriend
walks out on him, he takes two tries to mix a pitcher of martinis
dry enough for him to throw into his television set.
Ginny's leg bled profusely. Stoically concealing her pain, she
looked down at the spilled tapes. "I've heard of taping a broken
leg," she said, "but this is the first time I've ever legged a
She reared back her head and laughed hysterically. Robinson
joined in from a dozen speakers. Too shocked, and too concerned
for Ginny's leg, I refrained. They laughed for twenty or thirty
seconds, until they realized I was not laughing.
"You didn't join in and laugh with me," she said coldly.
"We're supposed to laugh together."
"That could have been one of the great laughs," said
Robinson. "You should have laughed."
Too late I remembered the custom among Robinson's characters.
In every one of his stories, two or more friends get together and
laugh uproariously, for minutes at a time, for any reason or no
In breaching the custom I had committed a violation of
etiquette, and no apology could save me. With tight lips Ginny
brought me a dirt-brown NOOTNO coverall. She trained a
slugthrower on me until I put it on, then escorted me to a small
room in the deepest reaches of the complex.
And that is the awful news I bear, reader: I, even I, have
fallen into NOOTNO-hood! Though I cannot hope for forgiveness,
perhaps this final document of confession will help to assuage
the guilt felt by my family and associates.
Do not let my fate fall on you. Go forth and cleave more
closely to the ideals of our great writers! For me this is --