Today's book review is Very Bad Deaths by Spider Robinson.
I am pleased to report that Spider has managed to avoid any use of time travel in this book, which means that I am spared the desire to smack him around that most of his books give me. It's short and light (which I was looking for after having finished wading through The System of the World). It starts with a major premise for which I'm more than willing to suspend disbelief, adds a minor premise for which I unfortunately don't need to suspend disbelief at all, and spins a somewhat unlikely, but not (at least while you're reading it) ridiculous story with a breathless enough pace and enough surprises to keep me going. Along the way it manages to throw in a few insights on the human condition. It's surprisingly devoid of puns, though it does have a couple of humorous bits. And we get the distinct impression that Mr. Robinson has a very low opinion of and bad attitude towards the police.
I can't say anything more without a minor spoiler. If you don't want to be clued in on something fairly early in the book that you might not see coming if you were just reading the story and not trying to figure it out, then don't read behind this cut tag.
Much of what's interesting in this book is Spider's take on how a telepath -- specifically, a telepath who couldn't turn his telepathy off, who could not keep himself from hearing what anyone near him was thinking -- would adapt to life. He would have us believe that it's *extremely* unpleasant for the telepath, actually painful, to be exposed to other people's thoughts. I'm not sure I buy that it would really be that way, but it provides an interesting excuse for someone who really wants to keep people at a distance. And he provides an interesting theory of why most people (a) are so messed up, and (b) would hate a telepath so much. It goes something like this: Deep down, everyone realizes that they're an asshole, but most people are convinced that most people are OK and assholes are unusual. So most people spend their lives trying to protect the secret that they're one of the few. Being able to realize that everybody is an asshole is very liberating to the psyche. It's an interesting line of thought.
A word of warning: The bad guy in this book is *really* bad. Somebody so bad that imagining him and what he does makes the whole book uncomfortable. I think this limited my enjoyment of the book. Him being this bad is vital to the plot; it's not gratuitous. And unlike some over-the-top villains I've read, I can actually believe that somebody might think this way -- which doesn't make it better. But if you don't want to think about the schemes someone who was genuinely trying to produce maximum suffering might hatch, you might not want to read this book.
Overall, it was worth reading, and brought up points worth thinking about. It wasn't perfect, and it was unpleasant in places, but it was good. 8 out of 10.