I’ve been enjoying John Kessel’s work ever since I bought my first ever science fiction magazine – a copy of Asimov’s from the mid-1980s that contained his brilliant story “The Pure Product.” A versatile, intelligent writer – and a great teacher – he’s one of those guys that makes me want to write stories. (Read also his fantastic novels Good News from Outer Space and Corrupting Dr. Nice.) His collection The Baum Plan for Financial Indepence and Other Stories (2008), a beautifully packaged volume from Small Beer Press, gathers fourteen of his more recent stories.
This collection started a bit slowly for me with some atmospheric, “interstitial” fantasies before catching fire with his “Lunar Quartet,” a sequence of hard SF tales set on a matriarchal moon colony. Of the four, “Stories for Men” still stands out as the strongest, a thought-provoking and engrossing look at gender issues set in a thoroughly imagined lunar settlement. The other three stories in the sequence (“The Juniper Tree,” “Under the Lunchbox Tree,” and “Sunlight or Rock”) are also rewarding reads.
More effective work follows: “The Snake Girl” is a compellingly written 1970s period piece set in upstate New York, about a misfit college student’s volatile love affair, and “It’s All True” is an enjoyable time travel story about a mid-21st century talent recruiter who journeys back to the early 1940s to recruit Orson Welles.
The collection closes with one of Kessel’s more famous recent works, “Pride and Prometheus,” an effective mash-up of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley that delivers nicely on its premise, although it’s one of those recursive pieces more rewarding for insiders passionate about the source material. Even so, the collection felt back-weighted to me with stronger works, including my two favorites in the collection, “Powerless” and “The Last American.” “Powerless” is an amusing, clever metafiction about a regular schmoe’s attempts to develop an energy-generating Focault machine powered by the movement of the Earth – a funny premise nicely realized (and with a terrific opening sentence).
Easily the most impressive story on offer, for me anyway, was “The Last American.” This compelling future history of the 21st century is written in the form of conventional book review of an “experiential” biography of the last American president, viewed through a decidedly posthuman lens. Probably too politically charged and pessimistic for the mainstream magazines, “The Last American” is one of those powerful, unique stories that left me wondering why I’d never heard of it. It packs a science fictional wallop and resolves with a perfect ending.