I seem to have two reactions to reading a James Patrick Kelly story: to get depressed that I will never write such a great story, and to get inspired and try to write one anyway. Strange But Not a Stranger is his second major collection, and like his first it’s full of great stuff. On style and subject matter alone I think I preferred Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories — I mean, it’s got “Rat” and “Standing in Line with Mr. Jimmy” and “Mr. Boy,” which is formative stuff for me — but on sheer quality this second collection is at least as strong, and perhaps even more adventurous. (It’s also re-readable — I caught many of these stories when they came out, and they were well worth revisiting.)
The title phrase is a Talking Heads lyric, and it’s an apt one for this collection. Many of the fifteen stories here are indeed strange, but not unfamiliar…Kelly is adept at taking SF’s staple ideas and giving them a new spin, and often walks the line nicely between that old-school sense of wonder and the new and forward-looking. “10^16 to 1,” for example, is a nostalgic look back at Cold War nuclear dread, but still resonates with contemporary relevance. Similarly, “Undone” reflects the wild far-futures of some of Kelly’s influences, and manages even to dust off one of SF’s hoariest old tropes for its plot, but its still feels very now. It’s no coincidence that these two stories — among the book’s strongest — open and close the volume; they probably speak the most to its unspoken theme. (Which, uh, hopefully I’m not just imagining…) See also his ghost story (“The Cruelest Month”), his lifeship journey (“The Propagation of Light in a Vacuum”), and a tale examining the future of VR entertainment (“Feel the Zaz”)…maybe this is years of reading slush talking, but these are fairly common core SF story ideas. At his best, Kelly executes them brilliantly with an inventive spin, but usually, at the least, he pulls them off solidly.
Only a few of the stories here didn’t work for me entirely — specifically, the short-shorts, which struck me as either a bit too twee (“Unique Visitors”) or perhaps opaque (“Hubris” and “The Pyramid of Amirah”). Even so, these three are written with verve and class. Meanwhile, some of the stories are downright brilliant. “Lovestory,” which examines an alien society with three gender roles, is a wonderfully executed tale of otherworldly culture shock (and maybe the single most impressive story on offer); “The Prisoner of Chillon” is a classic cyberpunk, proto-futurismic tale involving corporate espionage and the early stages of AI; and “Chemistry” is a terrifically engaging tale of pharmaceutically enhanced speed-dating in the near future.
It’s easy to see why Asimov’s turned publishing a Kelly story into an annual event; his stories feel like events, and in light of the short form’s increasing lack of impact, this is refreshing to see. Overall it’s a very satisfying collection; I’m very much looking forward to his third.