When I was much younger, I was a big fan of Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Saloon stories. I also liked some of his other works, but I never really got into them the way I did with the earlier Callahan stories. Telempath is one of the novels I am particularly ambivalent about because I am not sure about the way Robinson handles race in this book. (In other words, there is something bugging me about the way he writes the black protagonist of the story. There is also something bugging me about the set up for the apocalypse that I can’t quite put into words.)
Another reason why I am ambivalent about this book is the odd little side plot where we discover that the plague made it impossible for anyone to be homosexual. There is only one gay character and he only seems to be there to be the only gay character. (For a while, I was toying with the possibility that the implication is that being bisexual is more of a thing instead. But no, if that were true, surely Last Gay Dude Standing would not be single and stiff-upper-lipping about a lack of romance in his life if bi were a thing.)
This is a diary entry! It is oddly detailed, as diary entries written for literary purposes tend to be! Our Hero is a young man named Isham Stone. He is the second best assassin in the world and he is on a mission to execute Wendell Morgan Carlson, the man responsible for releasing a plague that rendered all humans with a sense of smell keener than a wolf’s. This plague is responsible for destroying civilization and attracting the attention of an intelligent species known only as “Muskies.” The author is somewhat heavy handed in presenting the main character as black.
(Compare and contrast with Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books where she kind of gently introduces the concept that Ged is a PoC. Also compare with Tunnel in the Sky by Heinlein where the protagonist is only strongly hinted to maybe possibly being black. At least with this bluntness, if this book had ever been made into a movie, then the producers would have absolutely no excuse to cast Our Hero as white.)
Isham reminisces about his years of training to become an assassin for the purpose of killing Wendell Morgan Carlson. He remembers fleeing from New York as a child and the horrific deaths of his brother and mother. He is also understandably freaked out by being in the city, and has a somewhat obsessive fear of rats, which he refers to as Grey Brother. (We also learn that Isham has recently been attacked by wild rats and his injury is probably septic.)
This is an excerpt from “I Worked With Carlson,” a pamphlet printed and published by Fresh Start, the “Techno” community that Isham Stone’s father founded after fleeing New York.
Jacob Stone was a scientist who worked with Wendell Morgan Carlson until he discovered Carlson’s Dastardly Plan. From Jacob’s account, Carlson was a would-be social activist whose positions on social justice were so extreme that even the most radical groups did not want him as a member. (There is a strong indication that another reason why they did not want him to join was because he was white and a few of the radical groups he attempted to join were black.)
Still, Carlson was still determined to do something to Improve the World so he decided to create a plague that would ensure that people cared about pollution! This had the unintended side effect of causing sentient gas clouds to become aware that humans could now sense them. The gas clouds retaliated by attacking humans via telepathy and causing wide spread hysteria, rioting and mass suicides.
We return to Our Hero who has just had the world’s roughest transition from a flashback/infodump ever. (I’ll give you the specific line: …but the gestalt of the eighteen years that had brought me on an intersecting course with my father’s betrayer was nowhere near as pedantically phrased as the historical accounts Dad had written. I really do not like this kind of transition where we’re in the middle of the scene, but that is just me.) Later he has an encounter in Central Park with an elderly leopard who accepts a handout from Our Hero.
Isham is feeling a little haunted by being in the city, and by the knowledge that others have also attempted to take out Carlson and never returned. Our Hero is expecting a great deal of trouble! He finds a library which Carlson has made his center of operations. He also finds an extremely peculiar looking device. Then Carlson appears.
Isham shoots at Carlson, who immediately seeks cover. Isham attempts to go after Carlson but that is when the Muskies attack. When Carlson comes back out he is wearing a peculiar helmet with wires hanging off of it. Carlson heads for the machine and plugs himself in. Then Isham reports that he was struck behind the ear and blacks out.