Prince Wen Hui's cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand,
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee,
The ox fell apart
With a whisper,
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
One thing I like about Jim Kelly's stories is that when I read them I forget what I know about writing. Kelly's prose is clean as a well-honed blade, his moves as pure as those of Prince Wen Hui's cook as he cuts up that metaphysical ox. The stories look simple, but reveal depths. They surprise me. They show me things I haven't seen before, and remind me of things I have seen but passed over. Like the cook, Kelly wields his cleaver with humane ruthlessness.
To me, this is the heart of it. Lots of writers are humane. Some are ruthless. Very few are both at once.
For years now I've feared that Kelly might end up as unrecognized as Prince Wen Hui's nameless cook. Part of the problem is that his novels frequently contain portions that earlier appeared as well-regarded short stories, which makes it hard for some people to read them as novels. But the short story is not a warm-up for a novel, or a lesser art form. And of my generation of sf writers, no one writes as wide a range of stories, from sf ("Breakaway, Backdown") to contemporary fantasy ("Dancing With the Chairs"), to grim cautionary tales ("Pogrom") to satire ("Mr. Boy") to romance ("Faith") to horror ("Monsters") to comedy ("Standing in Line With Mr. Jimmy"). He can do hardheaded extrapolation to rival Bruce Sterling, twist a plot as well as Connie Willis, develop characters as convincingly as Kim Stanley Robinson, and fashion a sentence as beautifully as Karen Joy Fowler. It's hard to draw a bead on such a chameleon, especially when he doesn't spend any time shouting from the rooftops what a great writer he is.
Like the cook, if you don't pay attention
you think he's only doing a job. Making dinner. Writing popular
fiction. So beautifully it cuts.
As an example of humane ruthlessness, let's look at the nasty paradoxes of "Think Like a Dinosaur." Those of you who have not read this story yet should read it first, lest I spoil your fun.#
"Think Like a Dinosaur" examines the moral consequences of a commonplace piece of science fiction furniture, the teleporter. After an efficient and sexually suggestive frame detailing Kamala Shastri's return from the stars, Kelly flashes back to her departure three years earlier. He rapidly moves into an edgy conversation between Kamala and Michael Burr, the human who assists the alien Hanen in preparing migrators for teleportation.
This conversation is Kelly at the top of his form. On the most elementary level, it provides a deft incidental description of the hi-tech space station. It contains such offhand cultural surprises as the mention of married male and female Catholic priests, taken for granted in this future world. It shows Michael manipulating events minute by minute to guide Kamala. Michael is hiding something, distracting her from some truth. Why?
Though we don't realize it at the time, Michael's story about Father Tom and Mother Moogoo sets up the theme of the story: What happens to people after they die? Are they just pieces of meat? Or is there something that lingers, like the spirits Michael felt in the graveyard? To the dinos such beliefs are "baby thinking": superstition we must abandon if we are ever to mature. The Hanen ask, if we honor dead bodies, why we don't erect memorials over our shit.
When we get to the teleportation scene, (described with convincing detail, from Planck-Wheeler lengths to nanolenses), we confront what has been lurking in the subtext since the first paragraph: this transporter works like a fax machine. It sends a description of the migrator that is used to create an identical copy at the destination. But the original person remains, and after her description has been transmitted, she is killed.
Suddenly everything we've seen takes on new meaning. Michael's job is to do the killing. He's the concentration camp guard who dispenses the zyklon-B. Kamala knows this. That's why she is so nervous. His friendly hand on her shoulder a while back?—no wonder her muscles were rigid. But Michael is capable of compassion, and this leads to his fatal mistake. When a glitch temporarily calls the information transfer into question, he frees Kamala from the marble rather than let her suffer in darkness expecting death any second.
Then he has to kill Kamala with his own hands. To the Hanen this should make no difference. A person is information, not matter. What remains after transmission has no moral consequence—she's just a dead thing, "a bone or a feather." As long as Michael could dispose of migrators by pushing a button, though he was uncomfortable, he could keep the moral import at bay. But now he must brutally murder a living being.
Or at least it seems that he does. Kelly twists the knife one last time, reinforcing the paradox. Right after showing us Kamala's murder, in graphic detail, he brings her back to life in closing the frame story. Did Michael Burr kill Kamala Shastri, or didn't he? It depends on how you think.
The result is an idea story that pursues its premise to its conclusion with ruthless logic. A gripping horror tale. A story of human characters that raises an ethical question it does not answer.
So what? Such teleporters don't exist, probably never will.
Ah, but we, the habitual readers
of science fiction, accustomed to miraculous technology that has no human
consequences, are like Michael Burr sitting in front of the control panel's
clean white button. Sf encourages us to think like dinosaurs.
To be proud of it. As David Hartwell has pointed out, "Think Like
a Dinosaur" is in dialogue with Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," the
touchstone story of Campbell-era sf. Campbell's Astounding prided
itself on its hard-headed attitude toward conventional pieties, urging
us to deal with "reality" and not sentiment. Kelly pokes a little
fun at the Campbellian hard sf writers, those old-fashioned social darwinist
But are they extinct, or are they the future? The jury is still out.
The exhortation to think like a dinosaur is both sf's virtue, and its vice. The virtue is that we're not used to such ruthlessness. It violates conventional literature's conception of what is humane, shows us a view from which our customs look arbitrary. It makes us think the unthinkable. The vice is sf's temptation to hubris, to think we are something more, or other, than human. Those who dare to think the unthinkable are at risk of committing atrocities, and justifying them as logical.
"Think Like a Dinosaur" doesn't resolve
this opposition, but puts it in the strongest possible terms, and leaves
us to contemplate the consequences. Can we think like Michael Burr?
Is what is gained by such thought worth what is lost? What actions
might that justify? What is the human cost of "progress?"
Some of my favorite Kelly moments:#
In "Rat," the moment when we realize that Rat is literally a rat.
The last line of "Pogrom."
The first paragraph of "Faith," especially, "She folded down in the seat like a Barbie doll in a microwave."
"Big Guy" reaching through his door to touch the delivery girl's hand.
The scene where Henry visits his hospitalized father in "Monsters."
In the astonishing "Mr. Boy" a dozen emotional truths, grace notes, delightful atrocities: The history test. The smash party. The franchise family. The fact that the only thing that kept Mom a 3/4-size (rather than full-scale) replica of the Statue of Liberty was not the absurdity of her ambition, or its impracticality, or public moral outrage—but the zoning laws.
There's the ruthlessness.
And Mr. Boy's memory of when he was really a child, climbing up to his mother's head "to fall asleep against Mom's doorbone, waiting for it to open."
There's the humanity.
But now, I see nothing
With the eye. My whole being
My senses are idle. The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line,
By the secret opening, the hidden space,
My cleaver finds its own way.
I've said enough already, but indulge me.
A story as brilliantly constructed
as "Think Like a Dinosaur" may leave you with the impression that the author
is some kind of dispassionate technician, rather like the dinos themselves.
But Kelly has written that, "without doubt, the most exhilarating moment
in the creation of any story is when what I see on the screen surprises
me. . . . I prefer to send my people out to discover the story. If,
on the road to denouement, they chance across a cave which leads to a secret
empire, I let them climb down for a look."
"The First Law of Thermodynamics" contains such empires.
First off, it is a devastatingly accurate picture of the generation that came of age in the 1960s, with all its self-indulgence, its confusion, its cross of political idealism and adolescent solipsism. Its heartbreaking naiveté. The story offers nostalgia with a cutting accuracy of vision that keeps it from being indulgent. Lance's raps on drugs and politics, for instance, are painfully funny deflations of the arrogant posing of the 60s generation—and of all 20 year olds, for that matter—at the same time they sadly foreshadow all the hard lessons Lance is going to have to learn over the next twenty years.
This is a story about pretense.
Cassie pretends to be hip and carefree when she is scared by her own irresponsibility.
Van pretends to be able to drive when he can't walk. Lance pretends
to be profound when he's a clueless adolescent. Space pretends to
Roger Maris, the tragic baseball-hero acid-dealing wounded-Vietnam-vet farmer, is the story's pivot. As Maris says, "When you're young, there ain't all that much of you, so you pretend there's more." The delicious irony is that this character isn't Roger Maris, it's some anonymity under so many layers of bullshit it's impossible to tell who he "really" is. "Roger Maris" is the apotheosis of someone trying to re-invent himself as superstar. And yet he makes a throw with a stone that only a major leaguer could expect to make. Maris asserts that you can become what you pretend to be.
But what are you? When, alone in the humanities building, away from the distorting influence of his friends and the what the world thinks, Space gets the chance to make his statement, to change the world, to spray paint on the wall the secrets of his inmost soul, all he can come up with are inane clichés. (Kelly being ruthless.) The closest Space comes to originality is the "Maris 61/61"—a completely apolitical assertion. In the end Space realizes he must choose a direction for his life, and sacrifice possibility in that choice. Otherwise you remain a child, a fantasy, never realized.
I love the last scene of this story, as Space walks through a door into the classroom, sees the man at the front, approaches, and in a single vertiginously beautiful 143-word sentence, falls into him. Space becomes Jack Kasten, a middle-aged man with a real life in his wallet—limited, not perfect, not a superstar, but not useless. (Kelly being humane.)
And I especially love the last line,
which justifies the title and transforms it, resonating back to the story's
first sentence ("He . . . had never forgotten his name before"), to Space's
"all life vibrated with a common energy" and "remembering the name on his
student ID card was about as important as remembering the first law of
thermodynamics." The first law of thermodynamics becomes both ruling
metaphor and literal truth. There is a mysterious energy—personality?
character?—that abides in all life. We don't know where it comes
from, where it goes, but, however transformed by our decisions, throughout
our lives it persists.
Wake up, America! What you hold in your hands is as stunning a collection of sf and fantasy stories as has ever been produced. The fact that "Think Like a Dinosaur" won the 1996 Hugo Award for best novelette may indicate Kelly is finding the recognition he deserves. But in the end recognition is not the issue. Although we never learn the name of Prince Wen Hui's brilliant cook, the art remains.
—John KesselThen I withdraw the blade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work
I clean the blade
And put it away.