Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review of Good News from Outer Space by John Kessel

“Elvis Found Working as Ski Instructor in Alps”  “Family Chat with Santa Claus on Holiday in Caribbean” “Killer Ants on the March from Mexico” and of course: “Astrologists Confirm New Year Alien Apocalypse”  But if they were only harmless supermarket tabloid headlines intended for comedic effect all could be forgiven.  But the fact people exist with professed knowledge of such events is where the reality of humanity takes over.  And for as much as the premise of the Age of Information would seem to dispel such notions, it may only confuse matters further, particularly in the religious context.  Reality so diffuse across available media, religion in post-modern life has taken on its own tabloid ambiguity.

John Kessel’s Good News from Outer Space is a novel existing at the intersection of Christian doctrine, the mysteriously unexplained, and the technical and social sides of modern life (at least as it stood in 1989).  Bouncing off religious fervor, alien encounters, psychoses, and the media, the novel is a darkly humorous snapshot of that quirky, irrational side of humanity that quests for knowledge about the underlying reality of existence, and in the absence of said knowledge, can substitute the thing lying closest to hand with complete conviction.  Witty, coy, and sadly profound, Kessel writes with his finger on the pulse of humanity’s irrational tendencies, as scary as they sometimes are.

The extremes of human behavior in Good News from Outer Space begin with Jimmy-Don Gilray.  A televangelist with his own idiosyncrasies about abstinence and the apocalypse, he has parlayed his anxieties into the nation’s most powerful television ministry, a rise backed by an increasing number of strange alien encounters.  His cause is likewise boosted with the help of HCR, a tabloid magazine.  Headlines and stories by journalists such as George Eberhart go a long way toward bolstering uncertainty in the populace, leaving religion as one seemingly piece of solid ground to stand on.  Eventually spending too long surrounded by the sensationalism, the hazy realities seep into George’s core of belief and he begins to see patterns in HCR’s headlines.  After analyzing the push-pins on a map he made of such encounters, he sets off to where he believes the next will be.  Alien tensions mounting during the chase, it’s only inevitable that a prophesied doomsday will come—and of course Jimmy-Don knows the day and the hour.

Weaving in and out of Jimmy-Don and George’s stories are vignettes of seemingly ordinary citizens and secondary characters who have alien experiences.  Layering and escalating the main plot, their roles, directly and indirectly, build the narrative, providing color, background, and deeper insisght to the pervasiveness of the themes, particularly the manner in which the aliens seem to exploit the biggest moral hole in each person.  As a result, the absurdity of the doomsday scenario never gets too big for its shoes.  Per design, it hits the nail on the head with the full weight of humanity’s anxious existence.

Thus, if there is anything to love about John Kessel, it is his talents as a prose stylist.  A professor of English literature, his skills transcend mere storytelling to craft, resulting in a dynamic yet consistent tone throughout Good News from Outer Space.  Hovering delicately between satire and realism, it keeps the reader in constant wonder. That is, the point of any overtly satirical novel inherently overt, and the point of most realism likewise obvious, by steadily maintaining a point between the two modes Kessel keeps the story’s intent intriguing up to the last pages.  Certainly the religious aspects are intentionally over-the-top, but it is in the underlying humanism that the reader truly engaged with the text will find Kessel dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s. Science fiction novels for which style plays such a strong role in determining the content few and far between, Good News from Outer Space is a unique part of the field.

In the end, Good News from Outer Space is a novel that, with refined humor, looks at religion as a phenomenon and the resulting antics we humans are capable of dreaming up and participating in in the name of belief.  Wild televangelism, alien encounters, and modern life the tools used to examine this phenomenon, Kessel crafts the novel with care—special attention paid to the interaction of tone and premise.  Side vignettes complementing the main storylines, the interleaved plots arrives at a crescendo of absurd yet all too realistic behavior in making its point.  And a great title: it sums the humorous import without understating the humanity.  The result is a novel that is one of the best offerings from science fiction in the 20th century, but due to its intellectual qualities, sophistication, and lack of simplistically presented genre tropes has not been part of mainstream discussion, and therefore largely faded from genre memory.  Thus, I hope this review will do some minor part to raise awareness.  Kessel’s novel is certainly worth wider audience and renewed appraisal. After all, headlines such as “Reverend Heals Twenty-Seven Terminally Ill Cancer Victims in Televised Ceremony” still appear in serious newspapers, not the tabloids.

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