Stephen Robinett’s1 science fiction career2 ran from 1969 to 1983. In that time he produced five novels and twenty-one short stories. He appears to have disappeared from the science fiction world after 1983. Robinett died from complications of Hodgkin’s Disease in 2004, but it took a further five years for that news to filter back to SFdom.
A 1979 collection, Projections, contains nine Robinett stories, stories of which he was particular fond.
Cover • (1979) • Dean Ellis
Normally I relegate discussion of the cover to general comments, but Dean Ellis’ cover, along the framing material, was close to the Platonic ideal of a stimulus that would pry a buck ninety-five out of eighteen-year-old-me’s wallet.
There’s one spaceship zapping another, yeah, but there’s more! This was not just an SF book, it was an Analog book! Edited by Ben Bova, my favourite Analog Editor! And because I had acquired the habit of keeping track of who the editors were at various imprints, I knew “Ace” meant “overseen by Jim Baen”, whose work at Galaxy I had quite admired. The bookseller would have had to shoot me to stop me from buying this.
Introduction • (1979) • essay
A brief discussion of SF in general and of Robinett’s intentions for each story in particular.
What I found interesting about this intro was the complete absence of detail about the author. One can get some hints as to his background from the various expertises he reveals, but he’s careful to keep the spotlight on the stories, not on the author.
Helbent 4 • (1975) • novelette
Mankind’s last guardian, sole survivor of the final battle with the malevolent Spacethings, returns home after an absence of three centuries. A hero’s welcome would be nice. Instead, it’s as though nobody on Earth has ever heard of him.
I hadn’t realized that embittered SF stories about the state of the US space program had been published quite this early. After all, Apollo 17 was only three years in the past when this story came out. The Apollo Applications Program had produced both Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program. But “All The Bridges Rusting,” the story that inspired my Rusting Bridges Rule of Space Exploration — No matter how effective your space program was, one can always imagine how the program could have been much, much better—dates from 1973.
Jenson’s Folly • (1973) • novelette
Captured by Mexican bandits, Jenson is determined to finish his bleeding-edge military device no matter what. Even if the device will empower a violent warlord.
I have a faint, faint memory that this story is a prequel to Robinett’s Stargate. What I didn’t notice back in the 1970s: the antagonists in this are basically the bandits from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The plot reminds me of The Bridge Over the River Kwai. That is, a man insists on doing the job right, even though that will help the enemy.
“Cynthia” • (1973) • short story
A dauntless explorer heads out to earn the fortune he hopes offer his One True Love. After much effort and many years, the explorer returns home to claim her. He finds that no amount of money can restore his aged, battered body, nor make up for the years he lost chasing wealth.
I am reminded of Mark 8:36: For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? For soul, read One True Love.
For a genre that prides itself on being about Competent Men Making Hard Choices, SF sure boasts a lot of sentimental stories. Communication matters. Not only did our hero rush off to the stars without consulting his One True Love, he doesn’t seem to have sent her any letters. Emails. Twitters. Whatever. And he expected her to put her life on hold for as long as it took for him to return.
“The Linguist” • (1975) • short story
Emberly’s knack for picking up languages was a very commodifiable skill in a world where knowledge can be transferred from one brain to another. Until now, he has been happy to sell mastery of language after language to those without his abilities. Now he has a reason to say no.
IMHO, the reason that the process erases the donor’s knowledge is mainly because otherwise the story can’t work. There is a really dark dystopian potential inherent in the technology, but Robinett, with a couple of exceptions, appears to focus on retail rather than wholesale exploitation of future tech. This story is more of a Breaking Bad take on the memory trade rather than something like Never Let Me Go.
Another plot point inserted (kinda gratuitously, I thought) to make the story work: Emberly’s useless wife and her profligate ways. She is the reason that Emberly constantly needs cash.
Just to be fair, I am glad to report that Robinett also wrote female characters who were not nagging leeches.
“The Satyr” • (1978) • short story
A bio-engineer is torn between the money he could make selling his satyr-like creation as a slave and the sense of responsibility he feels towards the little being. In the end the satyr makes up his mind for him.
The satyr is a self-justifying little rapist who is convinced his victim was asking for it and that his creator is just jealous. On the one hand, unreliable narrator — but on the other, risible rape was very much a norm for 1960s and 1970s storytelling So I’m not clear just what the author thought about his premise.
“Tomus” • (1977) • short story
Immortality depends on serial incarnation, minds transferring from body to body. On a whim, Tomus did not extinguish the infant mind that was the original inhabitant of his new body. Now old enough to understand the concept of death, Tomus’s companion also understands the brutal truth of the transfer process: only one mind can make the transfer.
The current custom appears to be to use infant hosts but there’s a passing comment that strongly suggests that in the early days of this practice, hosts were adult. In Tomus’ case, his new body is black. That makes me wonder just how many black bodies were appropriated so that powerful people might survive.
“Pow Wow” • (1975) • short story
Faced with an alien civilization with tech far superior to anything humans have invented, the American President turns to an expert on negotiating from a position of weakness: Apache Chief Longlegs.
I wonder if there are enough Analog stories about Native Americans to fill an anthology? And how far into it could a modern reader get without suffering apoplexy?
In this case, Chief Longlegs arrives wearing a random mishmash of stereotypical Indian garb because his sell-out grandson insists he look authentic for the President. Also because Longlegs knows there’s not the slightest chance that the President will be able to tell Hopi regalia from a Sioux warbonnet.
“The Tax Man” • (1975) • short story
Tired of paying 98% income tax? You can just stop. Of course, the tax man will soon visit you and shoot you in the head.
Angry stories by Analog authors who looked at their most recent tax return is another great idea for a thick anthology. At least this particular tax man seemed to enjoy his job.
Interesting bit: in this story, corporations and a few, select, valuable individuals only pay 7%.
Projections • (1976) • novelette
Tony Wentworth’s election campaign looks to be headed for ignominious defeat. Amoral genius Winthrop decides to use this opportunity to test his new mind-control tech. Tony resists the offer, until Winthrop manages to enlist Tony’s wife Carol in his efforts.
Tony is a moral, upstanding Republican. Yeah, right. Don’t laugh. There are a few. He’s a better man than his opponent, simply because, like other Robinett protagonists, he is fully committed to a profession, and doing a competent and ethical job therein, even if this means closing one’s eye to larger ethical issues. Whereas his opponent, Osborne, is a skirt-chaser, among other things.
It’s best not to think about what will happen once Winthrop loses his monopoly on the convincinator.
It’s always a risk to take a walk down memory lane. My memory of this was a bit shinier than the reality justified. One gets the sense of someone who might have done better under editors a bit more willing to urge him to hone his craft. Still, I don’t regret revisiting this.
Projections is very, very out of print and Robinett has not (so far) benefited from the rise of ebook reprints. Used bookstores are your friend in this matter.
1: Virtually any mention of Robinett alludes to his spectacularly non-euphonious pen-name Tak Hallus, which was taken from the term Islamicate term “takhallus.” SF sources often translate this as pen-name. A takhallus is apparently more like a soubriquet or a Chinese studio name.
2: Robinett also had a brief career as a mystery writer. He published two novels, Final Option and Unfinished Business, in 1990.