Monday, September 24, 2018

Birthday Review: John Kessel stories

Birthday Review: John Kessel stories

Here's another of my birthday compilations of reviews I've done of stories by some of my favorite writers. In this case of course, John Kessel. Happy Birthday, John!

(From my review of Future on Ice at SF Site)

"The Pure Product" is quite another thing. A man (apparently from the future) goes on a rampage through 80s North America. The story is fast moving and scary. At one level, it's a harder-edged take on the same theme as C.L. Moore's classic "Vintage Season," but at another level, we worry that the empathy-deficient people from the future are us.

(Locus, November 2002)
But the story in this issue that will be remembered most, that will likely be on award ballots next year, that people will talk about, is the longest, John Kessel's "Stories for Men". This is set in the same milieu as his well-received novella of a couple years back, "The Juniper Tree": a colony on the Moon dominated by the Society of Cousins, who have embraced a female-dominated political philosophy. In this society men are mostly (though not exclusively) pampered pets. They have very little political power, very few economic rights, though at the same time they have certain privileged roles: for example, art and science seem reserved mostly to men. (And sex is very available.) Erno is a young man just reaching adulthood, vaguely dissatisfied with his prescribed place in society. He's a talented geneticist who will be allowed to pursue that field; and there's a sexy woman his age very interested in him; but shouldn't men be allowed to vote? Shouldn't they be allowed to inherit property? And what about the men of Earth's history? Or the men in an anthology of early 20th Century short stories he encounters? Were they, somehow, real men (my words) in ways he isn't?

Erno falls to some extent under the spell of an older rabble-rouser. This man urges him to help with some acts of civil disobedience, and before long is facing exile. Erno is pushed further to consider committing an even more radical act, and when in the process things go horribly wrong, his life is completely changed. This is a very thought-provoking story, well-written, with involving characters and an exciting plot. I was bothered by a few things. For one (this is perhaps a fault endemic to the utopian form) Kessel, despite some attempts at presenting contrary views, seems to accept the success of the proposed alternate society too easily.* Two, I did not believe Erno's actions at the crisis. Thirdly, while the story does resolve its main plot successfully, it also ends in a way that strongly suggests it is the opening section of a novel. (To be sure, extension to novel length would give Kessel a chance to flesh out his depiction of the positives and negatives of his imagined society.) Despite these reservations, I think this an excellent story, one of the best of the year.

[*The eventual novel, The Moon and the Other, to a considerable extent resolves these issues.]

(Locus, April 2004)
The other March story in Sci Fiction is John Kessel's "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence". The protagonist is a small-time crook, forever tempted by the sexy Dot (with her red tennis shoes, natch). This time Dot has picked out a rich family's summer home to rob -- but what they find there is not what they expected. It's a sly and sneakily involving story.

(Locus, December 2006)
November at Sci Fiction we are treated to several more first-rate stories. John Kessel's "It's All True" reminded me just a bit of Kage Baker's recent Asimov's novella "Welcome to Olympus, Mr. Hearst" in that both feature Citizen Kane figures and time travel. Baker's story of course featured Kane's original, William Randolph Hearst, while Kessel's features Kane's creator and portrayer, Orson Welles. Detlev Gruber is a near-future failed filmmaker who works for an outfit that sends people back in time to recruit geniuses to come to the future and continue their work. His job is to try to persuade Welles to return with him. Welles is at a low point in his career -- RKO has just butchered his version of The Magnificent Ambersons, and his latest project is foundering as well. Gruber shows Welles his sad future life, and offers him lionization in 2048. Will Welles take it? Can he, and still be Orson Welles?

(Locus, January 2008)
Two substantial novelettes highlight the January F&SF. John Kessel’s "Pride and Prometheus" marries Pride and Prejudice with Frankenstein, very effectively. The main character is Mary Bennet, grown up both physically and in her character in the years since Elizabeth and Darcy married. She is resigned to spinsterhood, but then she meets a mysterious foreigner -- Victor Frankenstein. But despite Victor’s apparent interest in her, any future for them seems hopeless: for Victor is engaged already, and anyway he is convinced that his past moral failures stain him. And there’s the matter of the mysterious hulking stranger... The story seems at first destined to be a fun romp, a mashup, but it darkens and deepens by the end. Notable too is the way the characters are portrayed: quite true to Austen’s vision (allowing for Mary’s considerable personal growth).

(Locus, November 2009)
The New Space Opera 2 is an exceptional anthology, much as its predecessor was. There’s lots of strong work there -- I’ll just mention my two favorites. John Kessel's "Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance" winks at the conventions and pretensions of Space Opera, and tells a neat story anyway. Much is as we might expect: two heroes face dangers, question each other's motivations, and eventually both succeed and fall in love. The furniture of the story is effective as well -- clever tech, exciting action, and hints of a long history preceding the story, including the extinction and restoration of humankind. And the undercutting of the motivations, and the ambiguity of the results, is all effective as well.

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