Locus Magazine Review

In his introduction to James Patrick Kelly's collection Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories, John Kessel bluntly acknowledges that his pal and sometime collaborator has "not produced a novel that ranks with the best of his short fiction" and worries that this may be why the widely-respected Kelly has never quite made it into the pantheon of SF household names. It's an unexceptional observation, and no doubt a true reflection of SF's machinery of reputation, but nonetheless disturbing. It becomes more disturbing when you note the two most salient facts about this retrospective of the past decade or so: first, that of the 14 stories included, three ("Think Like a Dinosaur," "Rat," and "Mr. Boy") have already attained the status of minor classics; and second, the collection comes to us from a new small press, Golden Gryphon (which, not surprisingly given its origins, produces handsome volumes that look a lot like Arkham House books). Golden Gryphon is one of a number of small presses that have taken on story collections that the Big Guys apparently do not want (other recent examples include Patricia Anthony, Jack McDevitt, Richard Lupoff, Ian MacLeod, and Donald Wandrei—not to mention the classic retrospectives of Sturgeon, Kombluth, Cordwainer Smith and others). This despite the fact that the single-author collection has long been a crucial part of the SF landscape, an arena where the real dialogues and interactions among authors and traditions are carried out. It is also how we learn that an author like Kelly, despite the lack of a blockbuster novel, ought to be counted among the top rank of craftsmen in the field today.

The Hugo-winning title story, "Think Like a Dinosaur," is also the best example of how Kelly deals with traditional SF materials: borrowing a teleportation gimmick from Rogue Moon, a moral dilemma from "The Cold Equations," and a race of supercilious aliens from any number of antecedents, he fashions a sharp and edgy tale which is satisfying both as Campbellian hard SF and as humanist revisionism (Kelly was prominent among the "humanists" who provided a counterweight to cyberpunk in the 1980s). "Breakaway, Backdown" explores its topic—the compromises needed to survive in a space colony—in a similar way. Much closer to the cyberpunk-humanist controversy are several tales of decayed or decadent futures, all of which are distinguished by powerful central characters like the drug-smuggling title figure of "Rat" or the surreally transformed Statue-of-Liberty mom in "Mr. Boy." Two stories—"Pogrom" and "Itsy Bitsy Spider"—offer unusual perspectives on what aging might be like in a punk future, the latter offering such wry touches as a Beatle-themed retirement village. "Standing in Line with Mister Jimmy" offers a similar speculation on unemployment. Somewhat more familiar ground is covered in the VR tale "Big Guy" and the post-catastrophe "Crow" (which reads very much like an SF version of one of Ted Hughes's apocalyptics poems under that title), but always there is a distinct voice, a thoroughly convincing way with manners and dialogue, an acute sense of character in relation to environment.

Kelly's mainstream strengths are such, in fact, that he is among the most prominent of those authors who manage to place stories in SF magazines with minimal or debatable SF content. "Monsters," a Bloch-like portrait of a potential mass murderer, is convincingly chilling right up until its lame conclusion. "The First Law of Thermodynamics" is a cluttered tribute to '60s drug culture which, despite the memorable presence of a character claiming to be Roger Maris, strains a bit at its own retro hipness. (It makes you wonder what it would be like to reread Richard Farina after all these years.) And stories like "Heroics," "Faith," and "Dancing with the Chairs," with their hapless, longing protagonists, move us closer to the territory of Updike or Cheever than that of Tom Godwin or Campbell. But they, too, are solid stories in their own ways, and the fact that Kelly can move so easily across the short-story landscape is both a tribute to his talent and a reassurance that the modem SF short story may not be so far removed from the art story as we had once been led to believe.

—Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, August 1997


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