Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review of Burn by James Patrick Kelly

Beyond math, physics, chemistry, etc., there remain numerous philosophies and ideologies underpinning science fiction: existentialism to Cartesian dualism, the eternal return to metaphysics, and many others.  But the transcendentalist ‘manifestos’ of Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, and others of the Club in Concord are something I’ve never seen utilized in science fiction.  That is, until I read James Patrick Kelly’s 2005 Burn.  Fully in dialogue with Thoreau, the novella intelligently examines the juxtaposition of naturalist vs. progressive societies via a thought experiment, sci-fi style.  Though occasionally lacking subtlety, the novella challenges utopian thinking about nature, as well as nihilism that civilization is dying.

An interesting dichotomy, the setting of Burn is the planet Walden.  Initially colonized by a people called the pukpuks, the aggressive usage of resources and impractical implementation of economic and social programs caused their civilization to collapse.  Seeing the potential for a natural utopia, Jack Winter purchased the planet in the aftermath and converted it into the Transcendental State.  Strictly interpreting Thoreau’s views, the Transcendentalists disturb nature as little as possible, keeping their farming to a minimum while allowing the forest to retake the planet.  The problem is, the forests have regrown to the point they encroach upon the land of the remaining pukpuks.  Desiring a return to the ways of their technologically enhanced ancestors, the pukpuks resort to terrorist activity.  They intentionally start fires that re-open land for development and allow them contact with upsiders—people from other planets who have the technology they want to trade for.  Such clearing of land against the principles of the Transcendentalists, not to mention potentially deadly, conflict ensues.

Burn is the story of Prosper Spur, a Transcendentalist farmer living on the planet Walden.  At the outset of the story he is in a hospital, recovering from severe burns after unsuccessfully trying to save his brother-in-law trying to fight a forest fire.  While in the pukpuk hospital, Spur takes advantage of the things he’s not allowed on his farm.  Indulging in unnatural foods, he also uses the hospitals interstellar communications system to randomly call people who have his name. Accidentally contacting a 12 year old boy named High Gregory, the two have a short conversation, but are cut off when Spur says something upsetting and the boy hangs up.  Thinking it was the last he would hear of Gregory, it’s to Spur’s surprise that upon exiting the hospital who should be waiting for him in a hover car but Gregory.  Introducing the technologically enhanced boy to the people in his commune is, however, when Spur’s real problems begin to appear.

Interpreting Thoreau’s vision narrowly, Burn asks questions such as: “We’ve always wondered how isolation and ignorance can be suitable foundations for a human society. Do you really believe in simplicity, Spur, or do you just not know any better?” I will not delve too deeply into the implications of the question here, but suffice to say Kelly tackles interpretations of Thoreau’s worldview that, while contentious, certainly challenge some of the basic assumptions of the philosophy, as depending on place, the characters live out the situations and emotions which result from living in a real, human culture that implements the ideology.

Anti-polar, however, Kelly does a superb job of presenting and integrating opposing viewpoints.  Though a child, High Gregory comes to represent a higher plane of understanding which bridges the gap between the pukpuks and the Transcendentalists, highlighting worthy goals for mankind in the process.  Like Steve Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, Burn also includes children as a symbolic representation of the need to consider where ideologies both in place and possible are, and could, take us.

In the end, Burn is a thought experiment which implements a strict interpretation of Thoreau’s vision of a naturalist state in a ‘real world’ setting, and then sees what becomes of it.  Only partially primitivist or Luddite, Kelly focuses on the social and moral aspects of the ideology, allowing his characters' natural actions and reactions, desires and faults to come leaking through.  Some of the symbolism inherent to the characters is not very subtle and the technology may borderline on fantasy, but these points pale in comparison to the real questions being asked, the whole culminating in an optimistic view of how humanity might better itself.  Not overtly anti-Walden, a return to nature is only part of the answer.


  1. Thanks, Jesse. Some of the best commentary on BURN I've ever seen. It was a pleasure to be read by you!

    1. And I hope my review conveyed the pleasure I had reading your story.