Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
You’d think that after publishing five story collections I’d have learned what to put into an afterword, but no. My inclination has always been to let the stories speak for themselves. There’s no way I can hover over your shoulder while you read and draw your attention to the foreshadowing or the finer points of the subtext. Besides, you don’t really want to pay attention to this stuff, unless you have ambitions to become a writer yourself. And research, yes, I did my due diligence on Galactic Cosmic Radiation and Hungarian and the George Washington Bridge. However, accuracy in fiction is never as important as verisimilitude. Writers earn far too many rejection slips for plots that narrate events that “really happened.” The trick is to convince you that the make believe is as real as the chair you’re sitting in and keep you rapt in the dream of the story.
One alternative to talking about the stories is to talk about how I came to write them. But then I might stray too far into autobiography. I have my secrets, as do we all, and besides, most of them aren’t that interesting, except to me. So what I would like to do instead is muse about what it feels like to have written a hundred and something short stories. I’ll survey what has come before, acknowledge what is here, and speculate about what comes next.
In 2016, Centipede Press published a massive 2.2 pound, 686 page collection of my work called James Patrick Kelly, Masters of Science Fiction. I am careful to call this a career retrospective rather than the Best of James Patrick Kelly, mindful of the fact that when a rock band puts out its “Best of” compilation, all too often it’s a sign that they’re headed for the oldies circuit. You should know that none of the sixteen stories in this book appear in Masters of Science Fiction. Indeed, my focus going forward is to make that lovely collection obsolete. If you want to be up to date on my fiction, this is the only book for you!
Since the words science fiction appeared in the title of my Not-The-Best-of collection, you would expect that most of the stories would be science fiction. Most are, but not all; I snuck in a couple of fantasies. It may surprise you to learn that fantasy, in its various forms, comprises about a third of what I’ve published over the years. So balance is restored in The Promise of Space with four fantasies on offer: “Don’t Stop,” “Happy Ending 2.0,” “Miss Nobody Never Was,” and “The Rose Witch.” I might argue that the slipstreamish “Crazy Me” is one as well despite its reliance on the slow apocalypse conceit. My reputation, such as it is, was made in science fiction, but if I were to rank the stories of mine I like best, at least four fantasies would appear in the top ten, “The Rose Witch” being one. Three of the fantasies in this book are variations on a ghostly theme, but then the mutability of death and the possibility of transcendence are themes I’ve been worrying at since my first story, which was called “Death Therapy.” The critic John Clute once observed that my dead characters don’t seem to stay dead. “… but nobody in the end really dies (as always, Kelly is very, very adverse to the imposition of anything like permanent death upon his guys and gals)” and he was right, as usual. I’ve been doing my best to kill characters off for good since his review, although in “One Sister, Two Sisters, Three,” I couldn’t resist yet another resurrection.
But of course, two of the ghosts in my “ghost stories” have more in common with doppelgangers than the undead. And there are more doubles in the sf here. I remain fascinated by the way technology has empowered us to create multiple selves, with the promise of more to come. Will whoever or whatever we project into virtual reality be a subset of who we are in meatspace, or something new? Is Sturm in “Declaration” Robby, or someone else? And do we really want to argue that the augmented Kirk Anderson in “The Promise of Space,” desperately trying to recreate his identity from his digital scrapbook, has mistaken priorities? Way back when, I might have said yes. Now I am not so sure. What do you have in common with whoever you were twenty, thirty, or forty years ago? What constancy of cognition ties you to the five-year-old you once were? And if we ever build a truly robust virtual reality, I am convinced that people will send duplicate selves there in droves. I wrote an introduction to “Declaration” when it was first published: “Look, if someone managed to build a virtual world ‘where none suffered, where everyone would be happy’ buyers would be busting down the doors of unreal estate agents. Reality snobs might argue that any simulation would be just a shadow of reality – like The Matrix with its cheapjack 1999 simulation. No! That was just the Wachowskis putting their thumbs on the scale. I know, it’s just a movie, a seventeen-year-old movie. But it is also the culture beginning to think about its future, which is why it’s worth interrogating the assumptions here.”
I try to write as many different kinds of stories as I can. But if there is a theme running through this new collection, it is that I am interrogating assumptions. Often as not this means that I am arguing with my younger self, as I said. For example, I can imagine having written a story in which Innocent from “The Pope of the Chimps” was a heroic figure, recalling an exhausted humanity back to greatness, thus preserving Western culture, an enterprise in which I have a huge investment. Or consider that back in the early 80’s, I was called a humanist by my friends the cyberpunks. The division between the cyberpunks and humanists was more notional than real, as many of us went on to prove. But what would that putative humanist Kelly think of Daya’s decision in “Someday” to renounce her homespun human values to embrace the chilly posthumanity of the scientists from space?
On the other hand, there are at least three stories here which I doubt my younger self could ever have imagined writing. I have not been a particular fan of the superhero genre, but when I was asked to write “The Biggest,” scenes began leaping faster than a speeding bullet onto the screen. I had never written a fairy tale, but giving the genre a feminist tweak led to one of my favorite stories. And the Fay Hardaway series, of which “The Last Judgment” is a part, has led me to confront lifelong prejudices about gender identity.
Speaking of which … can you guess the most obvious difference between the sixteen stories in this book and those I wrote at the start of my career? Twelve of the first sixteen stories I published were from a male point of view. And here? Eleven have female protagonists. Early on I set myself the task of writing more about women, and more persuasively. Here’s a declaration from the introduction to my first collection. “Feminism may well be remembered as the most important contribution of the twentieth century. Yes, more important than all the high tech: cybernetics, space exploration, nuclear physics, or biotechnology. In the next few decades it has the potential to transform the fundamental structure of human behavior.” The title of that 1990 chapbook was Heroines and I chose only stories that had women as main characters, although the poems were all from a male perspective. (Yes, I was a poet once upon a time.)
As I set myself a goal back then, I will do the same now. I’d like to experiment more in the next decade of my career. I realize the risks involved; not all experiments succeed. But I am encouraged by how some of my more recent tries worked out. There’s a story here told completely in dialogue. I prepped for “The Promise of Space” in my occasional but very enjoyable side career as a playwright. In fact, there is a theatrical iteration of this story suitable for a black box theater, if there are any producers in the audience! I began inserting scripts into stories about ten years ago, as I did in “Surprise Party.” Did you catch that the Mick Raven neuro in that story borrows a scene from “The Last Judgement?” I enjoy this kind of playing and intend to do more of it, in this interstitial era of bending form and genre. Sometimes boundary-testing stories are unnecessarily mystifying, but although I can’t explain how there can be two Dr. Ken Takumis in “Crazy Me,” I feel like each had his place. And in “Yukui!” my newest story, I have cast my voice into a register unlike any I’ve tried before.
So I promise there’s more to come, although this is all for now. Thanks for reading and do let me know what you think!