Thursday, April 11, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of James Patrick Kelly

Today is Jim Kelly's birthday. He's been writing exceptional SF for over four decades, I am shocked to realize. I remember encountering him with his first novel, Planet of Whispers, and the next year with a collaboration with John Kessel, Freedom Beach. Both were intriguing, but it was "Rat", from 1986, that blew me out of the water. One of the best "cyberpunk"-style stories, from a writer who had made his bones on the so-called "Humanist" side of that now all but forgotten quasi-rivalry. Here's a selection of my reviews of his stories for Locus, which represents less than half his career -- but a career still clicking along with exceptional work.

Locus, June 2002

June brings another first-rate issue of Asimov's. As with every June for the past nineteen years, James Patrick Kelly is aboard, this time with "Luck", something of a departure for him. It's the story of Thumb, a man of a prehistoric tribe (Cro-Magnon, I assume), and of his encounter with the last mammoth.

Locus, December 2002

Gardner Dozois generally looks for seasonal-themed stories for the December and/or January issues of Asimov's. This December there are two, and both are quite good. James Patrick Kelly's "Candy Art" is about a woman whose parents come to visit for Christmas – by downloading themselves into a puppet and sharing the time half and half. Meanwhile her commitment-phobic never seems to be home. On the surface this seems a typically sweet piece, reminiscent, say, of Connie Willis in her Christmas mode. But look much deeper and the story is a bit odder – what are we to make of the example of the woman's parents' marriage, in which they occupy the same body such that they literally cannot meet? And what of the somewhat drab relationship of the leads? The story urges us to be happy and hope, yet asks us: why?

Locus, June 2003

James Patrick Kelly's "Bernardo's House" (Asimov's, June) is a fine story as well, about an intelligent "house" (complete with an android "housekeeper"/sex toy) who has been abandoned by her owner. The story echoes a theme of Tom Purdom's story in the same issue ("The Path of the Transgressor"), in considering the house's conditioning to love its owner. This conditioning is tested by the abandonment, and by a homeless young woman who turns up on the house's doorstep.

Locus, May 2004

The novella from the June Asimov's is "Men Are Trouble", by James Patrick Kelly. This is set a few decades in the future, after aliens called "devils" have "disappeared" all the men in the world. The surviving women are trying to build a society, ambiguously helped by the aliens and their robots, who maintain most of the economy, and who enforce childbearing on the women via a "seeding" program. Fay Hardaway is a Private Investigator. Her latest missing person case ended successfully in one sense – she found the missing young woman – but unsuccessfully in that the woman was dead. Now she is hired by the aliens to track down another person, linked to the dead woman. All this ends up touching on the "Christer" faith and on a conspiracy to "seed" women by human means: even perhaps on a plan to bring back men. Kelly portrays a world without men believably and without grinding any axes, and the story works simply because the characters and their concerns are involving.

Locus, June 2004

The May lineup at Sci Fiction is strong. James Patrick Kelly's "The Best Christmas Ever" is an affecting story of the last two people in the world, being maintained by "biops" – androids of some sort. The narrator is a biop, "Aunty Em", trying to keep the last man's spirits up by staging yet another Christmas. But what if the present the man wants most is to die? Can the biops give him something better? Better still is a scary little domestic piece from Kit Reed, who does domestic scariness better than anybody.

Locus, November 2004

James Patrick Kelly's "The Wreck of the Godspeed" is Between Worlds' prize. The artificially intelligent starship Godspeed is one of the oldest of a group of ships taking matter transmitters to new worlds, and it seems to have gone mad. But slowly the secret of why the Godspeed is acting erratically is revealed. The conclusion, which plays a bit with some extrapolations of the matter transmitter tech of Kelly's Hugo-winner "Think Like a Dinosaur", is surprising and moving.

Locus, June 2005

James Patrick Kelly's traditional June appearance in Asimov's is one of his finer stories. "The Edge of Nowhere" is set in an isolated town. Apparently the residents have all been reincarnated by shadowy intelligences from something called the "cognisphere". Rain is the town librarian, and her young friend Will is trying to write a novel. Representatives of the "cognisphere" often ask her for books recreated from the residents' memories. But now they want an unfamiliar novel – and Rain is spooked when that novel seems to be Will's unfinished effort. Kelly takes the story in a slightly unexpected direction – he seems interested, perhaps, in the problem of creating something new in a simulation – and the ending is very nice indeed.

Locus, March 2006

James Patrick Kelly’s Burn is one of the very best novellas of 2005 – almost a novel, at over 39,000 words. There is a conflict on the planet Walden between the original settlers, who pretty much ruined the place, and a later wave who enforce rules of technological simplicity, and who are trying to alter this particular world to a sort of simulacrum of the wooded American Northeast of Henry Thoreau’s time. The original settlers’ tactic of choice is forest fires, in an attempt to halt or reverse the spread of newly engineered trees. This story’s hero is Spur, a volunteer firefighter who as the book opens is recovering not only from terrible injuries suffered in a fire but from the collapse of his marriage. But as he recovers, on a space station, he is perforce confronted with the wonders of the greater human Galaxy – and to make things more interesting, he accidentally engages the interest of a precocious child of a rather strange human culture. This child insists on visiting Walden, against all the rules, and of course in so doing he forces Spur (and Spur’s friends) to learn a great deal about their way of life, and its compromises – not to mention some wrenching personal secrets. I was struck in particular by Kelly’s presentation of the central conflict as one in which both sides are partly right and partly wrong – the reader veers from anger at the evil forest burners to anger at the repressive Waldenites to an understanding that both have at least some good reasons for their stances, if not really for their actions.

Locus, June 2009

June at Asimov’s means a James Patrick Kelly story – this makes 26 Junes in a row, as celebrated by a tribute this issue. Kelly represents himself very well with “Going Deep”, about Mariska, whose mother is genetically fitted to be starship crew – which means so is Mariska. This fact conditions her whole life – her friends, her intended, her contracted father, the AI who helps raise her – and of course Mariska has a rebellious streak. This strikes me as very satisfying pure SF, turning on a plausible and original SF idea, furnished with a variety of believable background details – it’s not a story that could have been told in any other mode.

Locus, December 2010

At the December Asimov’s, James Patrick Kelly’s “Plus or Minus” is a sequel to last year’s “Going Deep”, about Mariska Volochkova, daughter of a famous starship crewmember, indeed her mother’s clone, and as such sharing her capability for deep hibernation. But Mariska wants to be her own person, and so she has run from her mother’s influence – now to the Shining Legend, a ship in the asteroid belt. She’s the lowest person on the crew’s totem pole, and she’s fairly miserable, partly because she doesn’t get along with any of the rest of the crew, for a variety of reasons. Kelly nicely portrays a rather grimy space environment, populated by rather ordinary people. And then disaster strikes, as it will do, it seems. There aren’t any easy solutions, but there is believable, and moving, heroism – ordinary people heroism, perhaps. Pretty fine work.

Locus, March 2011

In print I saw the March/April F&SF. There is also a fine time travel story from James Patrick Kelly, “Happy Ending 2.0”, in which an old married couple, marriage gone rather sour, visit the mountain cabin where they first fell in love, in an attempt to revitalize their relationship. And perhaps they do – or not! – in an unexpected and a bit creepy resolution.

Locus, May 2011

Two strong stories in Eclipse 4 are set on Mars. ... James Patrick Kelly’s “Tourists” is the latest of his pieces about Mariska Volochkova, the cloned daughter of a starship pilot who keeps trying to escape her mother’s legacy. Now she comes to Mars, and ends up involved with a rebellious Martian boy, whose only wish is to escape his culture and go to the stars – the same fate Mariska has been avoiding. The story, with its Martian setting and adolescent characters, could have fit just as well in Strahan’s new YA anthology, Life on Mars. It nicely depicts yet another Martian culture – and seems to close, perhaps, the first set of Mariska stories (the others appeared in Asimov’s) – pointing, though, to further stories, or perhaps a novel.

Locus, July 2013

A shortish set of stories in May at Clarkesworld. My favorite is James Patrick Kelly's “Soulcatcher, a revenge tale about a woman trying to save her clone-sister from the fatal attraction of an alien ambassador. Her means a rather ghoulish rug … things, of course, never go quite as planned in such stories. This one is fine, striking, work.

Locus, December 2013

At the September Clarkesworld James Patrick Kelly's “The Promise of Space” is a subtle and moving variation – or so it struck me – on the space booster sort of story. Stories in the mold, in a way, of Sturgeon's still astonishing “The Man Who Lost the Sea”. This piece is told as a sequence of exchanges between a science fiction writer and her husband, an astronaut. Some terrible happened to the astronaut on a trip to Mars, and what's left of him seems to be mostly an AI-assisted reconstruction, which might remember the writer's famous heroine better than she herself. An interesting and somewhat off-center look at “the promise of space” – and the costs.

Locus, May 2014

Finally, James Patrick Kelly's “Someday” (Asimov's, April-May) is a well-done look at gender roles and relationships on an off-Earth colony. Daya is a brilliant young woman in a small village – surely she will head to the “big city”, as it were, on her perhaps backwater planet. But there is the matter of bearing a child … a responsibility, it seems – and choosing the multiple fathers for the child … and what of the visitors from the stars? Kelly unpacks multiple surprises here … cool stuff in the purest of Sfnal modes.

Locus, December 2016

James Patrick Kelly, in “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three” (Clarkesworld, October) tells of a planet colonized by a religious group and two sisters growing up there, resistant to the wider galactic technology (including “replication” of peoples’ minds as they grow old or sick, and uploading to new bodies). The narrator, Jix, is somewhat jealous of her beautiful sister, Zana; and both miss their mother, who chose replication when she got very sick, to their father’s disgust. When an Upsider tourist seems interested in Zana, the jealousy increases, and result is a tangle of not quite tragedy.

Locus, July 2018’s May offerings are exceptional. James Patrick Kelly’s “Grace’s Family” is set on Grace, a spaceship. As the story opens, Jojin, a young man, is living with his story Qory and their Mom and Dad on Grace. But their Dad is getting old, and his mental functions seem to be degrading. They have entered a new star system, one of many they are surveying – that is their purpose. But instead of continuing their survey, they meet up with another ship – Grace’s sister Mercy – and Mom and Dad leave, in trade for another woman, Orisa. They are to be a new family – but, we begin to ask, what is family here? And what of the mention that Qory, and their Mom, are bots? And what is the purpose of the virtual story environments they all repeatedly enter? This is fascinating original SF, deeply concerned with the purpose of intelligence in the universe.

Locus, December 2019

James Patrick Kelly, in “Selfless” (Asimov's, 11-12), portrays the boss of a pulp museum, who is also the son of an imperious but dying woman, and husband to a fine man, father to a great kid. And none of these are his Selves, really: he seems to have been forced into a scary sort of dissociation as a bullied child, and takes on different personae. One of them is called Hunter, which points to a potential horror story, but then a “hunt” ends unexpectedly, and points to a couple of possibilities – a larger community of people like him, or – something like redemption, maybe.

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