Corrupting Dr. Nice, by John Kessel
a review by Rich Horton
Today is John Kessel's birthday, and in his honor I'm reposting this review I did long ago of his novel Corrupting Dr. Nice. It was posted on SF Reader.
This may mean no more than that I have a Physics degree, and that I’ve always thought that the fine structure constant is a really cool number. But I suspect it also reflects Kessel’s sure touch in giving his SF premise a plausible-sounding (though actually nonsensical) underpinning, even though we don’t really believe in the premise. This sort of thing is one marker, for me, of a "real" SF novel, even if it is, as in this case, a screwball comedy in which the extrapolative element is not central to the theme of the story.
Kessel’s most familiar mode, it seems to me, is satire, often quite savage, as in "The Pure Product" or the well-known Good News outtake "Mrs. Shummel Exits a Winner", but he can also wax lyrical, and passionate (see "Invaders" or "Buffalo", for instance). And lately he has shown a distinct flair for out-and-out comedy, as in his explicit Preston Sturges hommage from 1996, "The Miracle of Ivar Avenue". Corrupting Dr. Nice is in this latter mode, a screwball comedy, also dedicated to Sturges (as well as a host of other screwball directors). It is quite successful on those terms, as well as being successful as SF, with a well-expressed core message (over-simplified, that people in the past are still real people) which is resolved in a satisfactory manner.
The story opens by introducing August and Genevieve Faison, a father-daughter team of time traveling con artists. They have just completed a successful scan in revolutionary Paris, and are escaping into the past, when the canonical "meet-cute" occurs, as the very rich Paleontologist Owen Vannice (nicknamed "Dr. Nice") literally stumbles out of a time-machine in Jerusalem, 41 C.E., and into the arms of Genevieve. Owen is transporting a baby apatosaurus (echoes of Bringing Up Baby strictly intentional, I trust) back to his present (2062), but time travel equipment problems strand everyone for a while in 41.
An appropriately wacky plot ensues, involving August’s plan to steal the apatosaurus, Owen and Genevieve falling in love, and a plot involving Simon the Zealot and a band of Hebrew revolutionaries trying to expel the time travelers. All these threads collide nicely, various disasters occur, and the main action winds up with a courtroom scene featuring two historical heavy-hitters (to say the least).
The novel is very entertaining, a fast and funny read, yet with a core of serious thought about the exploitation of the people in the past by those of the future. The characters are well-realized, particularly Owen and his AI security implant Bill, Genevieve, and Simon the zealot (and his son). The resolution to the plot threads are satisfactory, and honest, though the courtroom scene may have gone a bit over the top. The weaknesses of the novel are to some extent endemic to the screwball comedy form: the characters are well-enough realized that their motivations for the acts that propel the plot sometimes seem thin (and Owen and Genevieve don’t quite convince me as a likely pair: this in particular seems common in screwball comedies), also, things move so fast that not everything quite makes sense. I could quibble, for instance, about some holes in the time-travel setup: though as I said, Kessel talks a good enough game to let us ignore these while reading. I must say, though, that these quibbles and weaknesses are basically excused by the constraints of the form Kessel is working in (that is, screwball comedy). Things aren’t necessarily supposed to make sense.
In summary, highly recommended. A first-rate comedy, and a fine SF novel to boot.