Locus Magazine Review

Strange But Not a Stranger, James Patrick Kelly (Golden Gryphon 1-930846-12-6, $25.95, 300pp, hc) September 2002. Cover by Bob Eggleton.

James Patrick Kelly is a writer whose ambitions . . . are more firmly entrenched in the genre roots of SF. Like his previous collection from Golden Gryphon, Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories (1997), Strange But Not a Stranger is headlined by a stunning and widely popular story, in this case "Undone," which scored the unusual feat of becoming a Hugo and Sturgeon finalist, and appearing on Locus's recommended list and in all three "year's best" anthologies (the current book will give it the rare status of a story anthologized four times in one year). It is indeed a tour de force, but one that draws its energy almost entirely from the resources available in SF tradition, and in particular from the exhilarating era of Alfred Bester and Cordwainer Smith. It opens with a high-energy space battle from which the heroine Mada, escaping into the future, inadvertently travels some twenty million years, followed by an "identity mine" which makes it impossible to return "downwhen" more than five minutes. She discovers a pastoral society on ancient Earth, where her subsequent adventures (and her wildly hubristic plans) lead to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. Kelly makes the most of her ability to undo various cultural and communications problems by periodically shifting two or three minutes in the past, and the shifts are ingeniously presented through typographical tricks easily worthy of Bester. There's something of the same escape-and-reinvention theme in "The Prisoner of Chillon," which actually makes use of Byron's poem and its setting in a tale of a crack software thief who, after a daring space theft, barely escapes capture while delivering the booty to a reclusive billionaire with a shady past now living in the famous castle. The payoff here is relatively tame compared to that of "Undone," but the exuberance and energy of the tale is comparable.

At the opposite end of Kelly's spectrum are the more understated and domesticated stories. "1016 to 1" is an almost Jack Finney-flavored nostalgic tale of a boy visited by a traveler from the future during the Cuban missile crisis, who gives him a crucial assignment that will supposedly save the world from nuclear holocaust. Since the assignment involves committing a major crime (not the one you'd expect), the moral dilemma gives the story an ending that is both touching and quite ominous. Less nostalgic but equally sentimental is "The Cruelest Month," in which a driven, ambitious executive who has recently lost her daughter finds herself haunted by the daughter's belongings and eventually — in a conclusion that is almost courageous in its blunt and unsubtle confrontation with grief — by the daughter herself. Each of these stories makes use of SF and fantasy materials in ways that wouldn't be at all challenging to a Twilight Zone viewer, and this is even more true of "Proof of the Existence of God," which is essentially a foray into the Poe territory of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," but dressed up as a scam time travel experiment in which the subject, a rather flaky young poet, is persuaded to believe that he's traveling forward in time to his own death but who actually proceeds to age, die, decompose, and even transubstantiate in full view of the cynical "researcher."

Only slightly more SF-nal, with its conceit of a kind of nightclub in which the sexual attractiveness of the visitors is artificially enhanced, is "Chemistry," a rather sad love story of another lonely woman and her meeting with a failed salesman. What gives the story its strength is the management of the dual perspective of the enhanced and unenhanced versions of the same people. A somewhat different dual perspective informs "The Propagation of Light in a Vacuum," in which a crew member on board a faster-than-light starship awakes to find himself alone with no way of knowing what happened to the rest of the crew or how long he'll be in isolation. Not too surprisingly given this fairly familiar premise, he concocts an imaginary wife; what is unusual is that the imaginary wife herself narrates portions of the tale, giving us a gloss on the narrator's own version of affairs. A far more comical love story, showing some of the influence of Connie Willis, is "Candy Art," a screwball Christmas tale in which in-laws have downloaded themselves into an artificial body (to save money, it's a timeshare, with the husband and wife alternating control) which they then present to an overweight candy designer and his girlfriend as a Christmas present. In the collection's other Christmas story, "Fruitcake Theory," a simple assignment to take some visiting aliens shopping at the local mall leads to a comic catastrophe through the exploitation of a rather subtle plot point. Like some of Willis's Christmas tales, both stories are conceptually slight but very funny.

Since Kelly has a predilection for isolated, alienated protagonists, it's not surprising that he does very well with aliens as well. The best alien story in the book, and in many ways the book's most ambitious story in general, is "Lovestory," which imagines a society of intelligent marsupials whose family structure requires three parents, a father, a mother, and a "mam," whose task is to raise the children that the mother births. Kelly has worked out the implications of this arrangement and its impact on societal beliefs and gender relations in a manner unusually complex for a novella, and the tale takes on considerable power as it plays out; again, there's a kind of dual perspective at work as we realize that humans are present on this planet as well, and are beginning to influence the behavior of some of the locals — including the mother whose desertion of her family triggers the plot. The aliens in "Glass Cloud" are more familiar, and are viewed from a purely human perspective; the plot involves a disillusioned architect whose life's work is the essentially functionless technological marvel of the title (funded initially by an eccentric billionaire out to create wonders of the world as a means of immortalizing himself), and who is offered an even greater opportunity by visiting aliens, who invite him to construct the tomb of a goddess on a distant planet. His dilemma, of course, is that he won't be able to return to Earth until centuries in the future, because of relativistic effects.

Of the remaining stories, "Unique Visitors" describes a man somehow transported to a distant future where he appears to be on exhibit to an audience of what amounts to a galaxy full of web surfers; as he begins to realize his situation, and his speculations turn into rant, the audience increases exponentially. "Feel the Zaz" is another web story, in which a woman who we eventually learn is dying manages to save a website devoted to interactive encounters with famous simulated figures from history from bankruptcy and failure, using mostly the force of her own desperate personality. "The Pyramid of Amirah" describes a girl whose home is entombed in a huge pyramid for religious reasons that are never made quite clear, and of her coming to terms with a lifetime of isolation before finally being liberated. Finally, "Hubris," the only other real fantasy besides "The Cruelest Month," offers the fairly thin premise of encountering a real muse in a creative writing class; the real purpose of the tale is its voice with its insouciant addresses to the reader, and its offhand ruminations on the nature of story and inspiration. The overall effect of these tales is that, while Kelly is certainly something of a dark romantic with a fondness for getting his characters into tragic circumstances of isolation and alienation, he's also someone in love with the sheer narrative possibilities of SF, and with its old-fashioned capacity for wonder.

— Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, September 2002


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