| James Patrick
Kelly (1951- )
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.
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:
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:
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.
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