James Patrick Kelly: The Compleat SF Writer

by John Kessel

My first encounter with Jim Kelly's fiction was in Terry Carr's Best Science Fiction of the Year for 1978, which included Kelly's story "Death Therapy." The story, told from the point of view of a woman physician, is an edgy SF horror story about a project intended to reform criminals by making them undergo execution and revival. I was stunned by the story's characterization, the way the SF plot played off against the story of the doctor's disintegrating marriage, and by the mousetrap ending, which resolved both stories simultaneously, an ending that was both subtle and brutal.

I had never heard of James Patrick Kelly. This was his second published story.

In a properly ordered universe, "Death Therapy" would have won the Nebula Award and Kelly would have been fending off five-figure book advances. Of course we don't live in that universe. So when, at the 1980 Boston WorldCon, I ran into a guy in the elevator whose nametag read "James Patrick Kelly" and asked if he was the author of "Death Therapy," he told me I was the first person ever to recognize him for something he had written.

We spent a lot of time together at that Con, two neo-pros full of ambition and energy, and by the time it was over we had established the beginning of a deep friendship. I came home and read all of his published fiction, and began to wonder how a writer this good could be so unappreciated. It's been my feeling for a long time that Jim is almost too versatile, and too modest, for his own good. Of my generation of SF writers no one writes as wide a range of stories, from SF to contemporary fantasy, from grim cautionary tales to satire to romance to horror to comedy. He is the only writer firmly identified in the "humanist" camp who is included in Mirrorshades, the definitive cyberpunk anthology. 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.

But check out "Rat," "Glass Cloud" (incorporated into his novel Look Into the Sun), "The Empty World," "Home Front," "Mr. Boy," "Faith," "The Cruelest Month," "Dancing With the Chairs," "Pogrom," "Crow," "Standing in Line with Mr. Jimmy," or any of a dozen others. A Kelly story collection is long overdue, and if any imaginative editors happen to see this I urge them to think about the dynamite book this would be. Kelly can do hardheaded extrapolation to rival Bruce Sterling, twist a plot as well as Connie Willis, and develop characters as convincingly as Kim Stanley Robinson. He is the most complete SF writer of my generation.

He's also good-humored, open minded, a perceptive critic, perhaps the best story doctor I know, quick-witted, and not bad-looking for an Irishman. A good man to have in your corner no matter what the situation. I've traveled with Kelly, visited him at his home, critiqued his fiction and had him critique mine, written a novel with him, participated with him in six different writer's workshops, gotten drunk with him at Cons, played basketball against him at 11,000 feet above sea level, eaten meals he's cooked and helped him wash the dishes afterwards. There is not a better man in science fiction. I've been lucky enough to have a number of honors granted me in my SF career, but I count it as one of my greatest accomplishments that Jim Kelly is my best friend.

So come up to him this weekend and ask him about his greenhouse. Get him to tell you about visiting Stonehenge on the summer solstice in 1984. Ask him about the time he knocked me out on the basketball court. Give him a hard time about the Red Sox and the Celtics.

He's worth reading.

And knowing.