John Kessel is one of American SF’s finest writers, but the reverse of prolific, so his first book of the current decade, the quirkily titled collection The Baum Plan for Financial Independence, is a welcome event. Occasionally dashing into whimsy, but in general employing a finely calculated combination of realism and satire, Kessel constructs stories of subversive eloquence, their full freight of meaning exploding in the mind a while after reading has ended. That meaning relates to the folly of cynical capitalism and ruthless fundamentalism, the adaptive desperation of individuals left bereft, the chafing perfection of gender utopias, and the difficult reconciliation of sensibility and science; each tale is a shrewd, stylish vehicle for such concerns, never too blatant, never too obscure.
The title story typifies Kessel’s technique. A couple of well-drawn, perfectly naturalistic petty criminals decide to rob a remote country house whose owners are away. The burglary proceeds as one would expect, until a door is discovered leading to an underground railway system, at the end of which is a peculiar emporium where money is disbursed with bizarre prodigality. The windows look out onto Oz, or a place closely resembling it. This surge into the satirical works brilliantly, suggesting that the rich, such as own country houses, are party to an ultimately unworkable financial system, hollow and half secret, as unsustainable as any promise by Baum’s wizard; the robbers find the arrangements disconcerting but alluring, a fair comment on the ethics concerned. Believable characters broach the absurd, but they can as easily reveal darker, more elemental moral truths. In ‘‘Every Angel is Terrifying’’, a dangerous escaped lunatic, on the run in mid-century America, commits horrible murders and then takes refuge in a small town, working as a cook and renting a room in a boarding house; this circumstantial narrative enters the fantastic when an apparently magic cat gives the fugitive a second chance, his crimes expunged, or – well, the precise extent of the amnesty is left cunningly ambiguous. As is the question of any truly bad man’s susceptibility to grace. More directly, ‘‘The Invisible Empire’’, a magnificently ironic alternate history, challengingly puts the case that lethal criminality is ‘‘justified’’ if represented as merited vigilantism. In late 19th century America, women fight back against exploitation and abuse by men, using the disguises and tactics of the Ku Klux Klan; the dreadful resonance with racist pogroms, and the impossibility of any eventual victory, puts a big question mark next to the validity of the movement’s claims. But valid or not, Kessel has cleverly exaggerated the tactical dilemmas of early feminism, putting urgent actual concerns in a memorable satirical light.
Realism and satire continue their fruitful collaboration as the collection proceeds. ‘‘Powerless’’, original to the book, uses a variety of viewpoints to explore Foucaultian axioms concerning power relations. A man tries to build what is effectively a perpetual motion machine in his bathroom, a nerd’s path to fame and potency; but physical weakness in the face of bullies, hopelessness in romance, financial bankruptcy, and pulp fantasy novels exposing the delusion of escapism, as well as the dubious viability of the invention, all point the way to failure. The realities of life are magnified, and sardonically victorious. ‘‘It’s All True’’, a look back to the time-travel milieu of Corrupting Dr. Nice (1997), presents a film director who is wallowing in his own obscurity with a chance to return to the past and there invite Orson Welles to escape his creative oblivion by defecting to the future. Of course, this bit of wish-fulfilment is predictable and ridiculous, and must implode. ‘‘The Red Phone’’ punctures sexual fantasies with similar sharp brio, the coarse reality of phone sex dissipating into welcome normality. As for the vignette ‘‘Downtown’’, with its satire on cyberpunk tropes, its portrayal of posthumans on a bender is a reminder that however we adapt our forms, our core nature remains perversely the same. Anchored yet exuberant, these tales frame what we are with lucid deflating humor.
After ‘‘The Last American’’, a savage deconstruction of the power fantasies of the American Right in the form of the ‘‘biography’’ of a future continental tyrant, and ‘‘The Snake Girl’’, a mainstream allegory of the exodus from Eden and the necessity of compromise with the Serpent, Baum Plan comes to its central project, its science-fictional core, a quartet of stories concerning the ‘‘Society of Cousins’’. This polity is a lunar utopia, occupying a crater on the Moon’s far side a century or two from now. It is utopian in that it seeks to create a fully functioning matriarchy, in which women rule, heading households, making the important political decisions, but without alienating men, who enjoy privileged sexual status as studs and whose creative interests and talents are indulged to the fullest extent possible. By and large, this appears to work; males seem satisfied with a system that yields them so much comfort, such freedom from stress, even though the price is usually deprivation of the right to vote. Kessel emphasizes the habitability of this order of things, its rich practicality; but he recognizes that such reification of feminist theory will be subject to harsh worldly interrogation, and each story acknowledges a major anti-utopian challenge. In ‘‘The Juniper Tree’’, a man expert in arboriculture comes to work in the colony, accompanied by his daughter; he does his best to fit in, but commits a dire crime in a fit of masculine rage. How can such anger be accommodated? The novella ‘‘Stories for Men’’ takes that question further, depicting a revolt by discontented young men against the Cousinly dispensation, revealing thereby the irrepressibility of testosterone-fueled drives; again the Society is under very realistic strain. ‘‘Under the Lunchbox Tree’’ acknowledges that even girls may not accept the strictures the regime imposes on them, as one teenager rebels against indoctrination of sisterhood; and ‘‘Sunlight or Rock’’ describes the exile of the protagonist of ‘‘Stories for Men’’, his privations in a free market culture outside utopian boundaries, a stark revelation of the forces that press on the Society of Cousins from without. All these vicissitudes seem within the power of the utopia to resist, but there is no doubt that by portraying the enclave with such firm realism, and then exposing it to so many subversive gambits, Kessel tests his conception to the limit. Would that all utopian texts were so candid, so open to bracing self-satire.
The closing story in this collection, ‘‘Pride and Prometheus’’, recently published in F&SF, is a splendid exercise in Jane Austen pastiche, a younger Bennet sister meeting Victor Frankenstein and striving to reconcile his cruel Gothicism with scientific ideals. Enlightenment scientism is beautifully burlesqued here, both Austen and Mary Shelley coming in for gentle mockery, the worldliness of the one interweaving mischievously with the emotional extravagance of the other. Each satirizes its counterpart, and the result is a spirit of wry realism. In short, a perfect summary of the complementary contraries within John Kessel, who in The Baum Plan for Financial Independence has produced one of the best collections of the year.
Publishers Weekly, 2/4/2008
This nuanced mostly reprint collection, the first in a decade from Nebula winner Kessel (Good News from Outer Space), plays on the theme of a hapless, down-on-his-luck man thrown into extraordinary circumstances. “The Juniper Tree,” the Tiptree-winning “Stories for Men,” “Sunlight or Rock” and “Under the Lunchbox Tree,” all tied to Kessel's lunar colony sequence, explore the limits placed on a man's life in a beautiful, woman-dominated city on the barren moon. In “Powerless,” the only story original to the volume, a hapless inventor finally perfects a strange new power generator, destroying his relationships along the way. Paying homage to the classics, “Every Angel Is Terrifying” serves as a sequel to Flannery O'Connor's “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” while in “Pride and Prometheus” Mary Bennet meets Victor Frankenstein. These well-crafted stories, full of elegantly drawn characters, deliver a powerful emotional punch.
Booklist, April 15, 2008
Woven into the narrative of every Kessel story is a little bombshell of startling ideas. Kessel never fails to
provide some odd, often surreal angle on a familiar sf theme that few other genre specialists could have
In the title story of this collection, L. Frank Baum’s famous Oz-bound heroine becomes a ruby sneakered vixen who lures her unwitting boyfriend into an Emerald City bank to pull off a swindle. In “It’s
All True,” a film studio agent from the future travels back in time to offer Orson Welles an irresistible
movie contract. “The Last American” presents a mini biography of the last wartime president to occupy the White House before mankind makes the leap into a peaceful, posthuman society.
The volume also
showcases Kessel’s remarkable stylistic versatility in a sequel to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is
Hard to Find” that recounts the further adventures of the killer who appeared at the original story’s end.
Kessel’s blend of dark humor and reality-stretching scenarios is consistently mesmerizing.
— Carl Hays