Sunday, October 5, 2014

Review of The Wreck of the Godspeed and Other Stories by James Patrick Kelly

Moving into his third decade of writing, James Patrick Kelly keeps tightening his skills.  The truly original ideas perhaps not appearing with the same consistency, his storytelling and craftsmanship, however, just keep getting better and better. Exemplifying this evolution of talent is Kelly’s 2008 collection The Wreck of the Godspeed and Other Stories—his most recent collection as of the posting of this review (leaving six years' worth of stories waiting to be collected).

The collection is bookended by fine novellas.  Holding up the left side is the title story “The Wreck of the Godspeed”.  The story of a pilgrim who wins a year’s travel aboard the search and colonization vessel the Godspeed, Adle Santos’ arrival aboard ship means big changes.  Raised a religious conservative, his behavior undergoes shock treatment but he eventually joins in with the liberal mindset of his fellow passengers.  It’s the strange anomalies in reality and the subterfuge of the Godspeed’s AI captain, however, that really get him questioning the norms of his life.  The titular wreck more allegorical than actual, the novella ends up a fine voyage of self-discovery and religious commentary.  And Plus and Minus, the virtual demon and angel resting on the shoulders of Adle’s brain?  They are the icing on the science fiction cake.

Singularity perhaps more about technology than humanity, there are two stories in collection which feature sentient non-humans as the main characters—and not androids.  The first is “The Leila Torn Show”.  Leila-as-the-show/the-show-as-Leila is the protagonist.  Though her roots are based in crime drama, the show has become more varied as audience tastes change and the ideas of the show’s writers morph in different directions.  Facing a small crisis in the middle of one particular show, a great deal about the state of television is revealed as virtual reality and reality clash.  The second is “Bernardo’s House”, and again the title doubles as the protagonist.  Bernardo a rich bachelor, he purchased a house with an AI that satisfies his every need.  From food to clothes, sex to companionship, she is always there for him.  But at the start of the story, she is alone, and has been for more than a year, wondering when Bernardo will return.  A thirteen year old girl camping out on her front lawn one day, the realities of what has transpired in the outside world are slowly revealed, while a new bond created.  This is an understated story that not only uses hip neologisms effectively, but pulls, or at least tugs a little, at the heartstrings.

But there are stories that are truly post-human.  “The Best Christmas Ever” is, as the title indicates, a combination of science fiction and the holidays.  Two subjects that would not seem to go hand in hand, Kelly makes it work; when the world’s your post-human oyster, holiday presents take on a whole different meaning.  All manner of personalities are combined, virtual and real, as yuletide becomes extra special for one man—and, apparently, only one man.  “Dividing the Sustain”, originally published in Jonathan Strahan and Gardner Dozois’ The New Space Opera anthology, opens with the line “Been Watanabe decided to become gay two days before his one-hundred-and-thirty-second birthday” and doesn’t take one post-human look back.  Watanabe on an inter-temporal trip to a distant planet, a conspiracy aboard ship hits the operatic notes, while his decision, and the manner in which it affects those around him, occupies the ‘space’.

Escalating the post-human to surreal proportions, “The Edge of Nowhere”, apparently an homage to Darger and Surplus stories, possesses all the Weird zaniness of Swanwick’s canine heroes. Kelly’s story of two magic cookie shop owners who are tasked by three dogs—a bloodhound and two terriers—to look for a book that does not exist, the wackiness is only beginning.  Featuring some of Kelly’s wilder imaginings, there remains an anchor to reality (covered in rainbow polka dots).

And then the surrealness is escalated from the ‘possibly yet possible’ into the complete ‘impossible’.  The first work of paleolithic fantasy I’ve ever read, “Luck” is the story of the caveman Thumb, the horse tribe he lives with, and the strange voices he hears in his head.  Though perhaps the story arc is traditional, the individual elements and the plot’s driving force are not.  The brief but powerful “Serpent” is not only one of the best pieces in the collection, but perhaps one of the best pieces of Kelly’s career.  A work of commentary, satire, and fantasy, it looks at what happened in the garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were kicked out.  Diverging effectively, commenting cleverly and profoundly when need be, and dipping into the lives of mortals, Satan’s perspectives on the Christian god, sin, angels, and the underlying ideology of Christianity is dynamically and intensely portrayed.  Though brief, the story a work of literary art. “The Ice Is Singing” is a paranormal horror story, that, all things being considered, is a rather standard story—well written, but not unique.

An homage to Raymond Chandler in style and James Tiptree Jr. in concept, “Men Are Trouble” is a noir rendering of a earth where all the men have been ‘disappeared’ by an alien group nicknamed the devils by the women who remain.  All manner of social strife unfolding in the chaos of the sudden loss, private eye for hire Fay Hardaway is called in to investigate an apparent suicide. But what she finds is more than just death.  Kelly a true student of writing, his deference to Chandler is spot on.  The similes, the dislocated personality, the world-weary atmosphere—he nails it all.

The bookend to the right, closing the collection, is the fine novella “Burn”.  A thought experiment, Kelly locates a strict interpretation of Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy on a distant planet to examine the relationship between humanity and nature.  The story of a man whose brother was killed by natives fighting the overgrowth of forests with fire, it’s up to an alien child, and his bizarre retinue, to oversee the resolution of the Walden’s ills.  I’m not entirely convinced Kelly pulls off the voice of the children, but the premise remains relevant, thought-provoking, and unlike anything I’ve read in science fiction. 

In the end, The Wreck of the Godspeed and Other Stories is another good, quality collection from one of the genre’s unheralded writers of short fiction.  Its features lack the consistency of the two previous collections, but what is lost in some stories is made up for in others, balancing the whole.  The two novellas, “The Wreck of the Godspeed” and “Burn,” and the shorter “Serpent”, “Bernardo’s House”, and “The Leila Torn Show” are some of the best of Kelly’s career—a career that as of 2014 is creeping toward one hundred published stories.  The quality reflected in award nominations, this, like the previous collections, has its share of recognition from the field at large.  But published nearly six years ago, it’s due time for Kelly’s fifth collection…

All stories published between 2002 and 2007, the following is the collection’s table of contents:

“The Best Christmas Ever”
“The Dark Side of Town”
“The Leila Torn Show”
“Dividing the Sustain”
“The Edge of Nowhere”
“The Ice Is Singing”
“Bernardo's House”

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