James Patrick Kelly (1951-   )

1,470  words
posted:  august  31,  1997

  The best of James Patrick Kelly's short stories verge on the surreal while remaining firmly based in plausible speculations and extrapolations from the present. Kelly depicts a world where the human quest for difference generates a seemingly endless array of gangs, cults, and subcultures, each struggling to distinguish itself through various forms of body modifications. He shows us a place where divorced fathers create androids to make up for the children they have lost, where the design of drugs has become an art and their marketing a big business. He takes us to a frightening time, just a few years from now, where aging baby boomers cower in their apartments, afraid to leave, because the streets belong to the young, who are enraged to have inherited a world of diminished options and depleted resources.

After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, Kelly worked as a proposal writer and P.R. man for a Massachusetts-based architectural firm. Since 1977 he has been a full time science fiction writer. Many science fiction fans first became aware of Kelly's talents when his story, "Solstice," was included in Bruce Sterling's landmark Mirrorshades anthology, the collection which helped to map the parameters of the cyberpunk movement.

"Solstice" was cyberpunk at its best -- a richly detailed, vividly imagined glimpse at the emptiness of experience and identity in a near-future society. His protagonist is a drug designer with a complex aesthetic theory about how hallucinogenic drugs might interact with mediated environments. He comes to Stonehenge for the solstice, along with a colorful array of others, searching for some spiritual truth that has eluded him in a life of extraordinary professional success and numbing loneliness.

Throughout the story, Kelly weaves a history of human attempts to make sense (and often) money from Stonehenge. At the time its writing, Kelly was more closely associated with the humanist side of a raging debate between the cyberpunks, with their focus on hard-edged scientific and technological speculation, and the humanists, who championed more character-centered stories. In "Solstice" Kelly demonstrated that this division was a false dichotomy, generating a story as hard-edged as any in the Sterling collection, yet still vitally involved with its characters and their problems.

Kelly won the 1996 Hugo Award for his novella, "Think Like a Dinosaur," which he has suggested was inspired by late-night speculations about the moral implications of the transporter on Star Trek. As his sometime collaborator John Kessel explains, "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 at home, and after her description has been transmitted, she is killed." Kelly is interested in what happens to human empathy in a world where individuals become information that can be transmitted from point to point.

In "Think Like a Dinosaur," which closely parallels Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations," a young male functionary must make a life-and-death decision about a charming young girl, one whom in another circumstance might have been a lover. He finds it difficult to confront this situation in a business-as-usual fashion, and as a result, prolongs the inevitable, only to increase his own agony. The story vividly illustrates the human dimensions of Kelly's work, his focus on emotion and interpersonal relations, even in the midst of scientific speculations. Kelly cannot discuss the transporter as a technology without thinking about its impact on human life.

In the midst of "Pogrom," a story about inter generational warfare, Kelly stops to describe the closeness between an elderly man and woman, a closeness facilitated by digital technologies:

Matt was napping when Ruth looked in on him. He had sprawled across the bedspread with his clothes on, shoes off. . . . She had never seen him so peaceful before, but then she had never seen him asleep. She had the eye zoom for a closeup. His mouth was slack, and sleep had softened the wrinkles on his brow. . . . She increased the volume of her wall. His breathing was scratchy but regular. They had promised to watch out for one another; there were not many of them left in Durham. Matt had given Ruth a password for his homebrain when they had released him from the hospital. He seemed fine now. She turned out the lights he had left on, but there was nothing else she could do for him. She did not, however, close the electronic window that opened from her apartment on Church Hill onto his house across town. It had been years since she had heard the sounds of a man sleeping. If she shut her eyes, it was almost as if he were next to her. His gentle snoring made a much more soothing background than the gurgle of the mountain cascade she usually kept on the wall.

Far from the horrifying moral ambiguities of "Think Like a Dinosaur," this story sees technology as facilitating a vital human link between two frightened and lonely people.

Many of Kelly's short stories center on technologies which enable people to alter not only their virtual identities but their physical bodies. "Big Guy" opens with the startling sentence: "The last time he linked to Way Out, Murph had deleted his nipples," before offering us a glimpse of a working stiff who squanders his pay-check on on-line time and new personas:

Murph's hardware collection went back eleven years. When he first could afford to link, he had settled for cheap generics. He had a Samson with a cock as thick as a cucumber, a Sir Knight with three add-on armor modules, and a Vampire that could change into a bat or a wolf. Later, as he discovered more sophisticated haunts, he had splurged on the limited-edition Dragon and a homo habilis. Mirrorman, a custom job, had cost him six month's savings. Eventually he'd realized it was all kid's stuff. High fashion in heroware catered mostly to drones who didn't like being who they were. They were afraid they were too ugly, too boring, too ethnic to attract beautiful, exciting people -- and they were right. So they hid in anonymous virtual bodies and played games that kept them from finding out anything important about one another. Fighting games, drug games, sex games.

 
  The heroware of "Big Guy" seems a logical extension of the on-line personas and role-playing Sherry Turkle has described in contemporary cyberculture.

"Mr. Boy," another Kelly story, pushes this idea of body modification even further, depicting a world where parents have stunting operations performed on their children to keep their bodies forever infantile: "Even though it hurts, getting stunted is still the ultimate flash. As I unlived my life, I overdosed on dying feelings and experiences. My body was not big enough to hold them all; I thought I was going to explode...You do not have to worry about laugh lines after they twank your genes and reset your mitotic limits. My face was smooth and I was going to be twelve years old forever, or at least as long as Mom kept paying for my rejuvenation." The aptly named Mr. Boy, whose body is that of a child and whose mind searches constantly for adult stimulations, lives inside his mother, who has had her body transformed into a three-quarter scale replica of the Statue of Liberty and who speaks to her son only through a succession of cybernetic remotes, each of whom reflect one aspect of her core personality. He inhabits a world where physical bodies are transformed according to the latest fashion and the Freedom of Form is protected by the Thirtieth Amendment, where "privacy is twentieth century thinking" because all human experience has become information begging to be free, and where pictures smuggled out of the morgue are the ultimate pornography.

Along the way, Kelly gives us a glimpse of the future of the contemporary shopping mall, where poor families are purchased by franchises, live in the stores, and work around the clock. As with his best writing, "Mr. Boy" combines the elaborate sociological details that make for a plausible future society, with the psychological and emotional insight that results in well-drawn characters. Kelly is still proving that the old divides in science fiction are out-dated.

Many of Kelly's best stories -- ranging in tone from satire to horror, from fantasy to hard science fiction, from romance to post-apocalyptic angst -- have been collected in the recently published Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories. His novels include Planet of Whispers (1984), Freedom Beach (with John Kessel), Look into the Sun (1989), and Wildlife (1994). He lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and is an active force in the Boston area science fiction community.

--H.J.

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