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Corrupting Dr Nice by John Kessel
(Orion Millennium, £6.99, 287 pages, paperback; first published 1997, this edition 30 September 1999.)

This deft, sharp, knowing, and very witty moral comedy is only John Kessel's second solo novel, after Good News from Outer Space (1989); but it is a very mature work all the same, in two respects. First, there is Kessel's own maturity: he has been writing excellent short stories for a long time, and these feed directly into his novels. Second, there is the sense in which Corrupting Dr Nice is representative of the maturity of SF itself: the book is a compendium of concepts and stylistic gestures culled from the genre's past and directed on to the literary stage, where they perform to Kessel's hilarious but critical choreography. But while they show off the virtuosity that comes with age, they combine with the spontaneity of youth...

Overtly, Corrupting Dr Nice is a homage to the Hollywood screwball comedies of fifty years ago, especially those of Preston Sturges; and elements of those movies, such as Bringing up Baby (1938), are insistently present. There is the satire on the feckless wealthy and their ostentatious eccentricities; there is the zany but strangely competent heroine; there is the clumsy introverted hero; and there is the succession of bizarre coincidences and daft slapstick interludes that brings the two together in an unlikely romance. But Kessel lends this material the further dimension of time travel, giving the formula additional pace and scope: with the characters hopping about in time, anachronism and paradox deliver new momentum to the humour of chaos, and the more sinister implications of interference in the past allow a complex moral thesis to stand implicit in the silliness of the plot.

Corrupting Dr Nice thus has a very unusual texture for an SF novel of the 1990s, an acute mingling of past decades: it recalls the Robert Silverberg of Up the Line (1969) in its presentation of oddballs blundering about in the corridors of time; James Blish haunts the text's moral metaphysics; there is more Blish, as well as Moorcock, in the interactions of abducted historical figures mingling in a posthistoric age; Robert Sheckley in his prime might have written this sort of satire, in which physics, forced to abide by human logic, rebounds comically on its manipulators. And Kessel, by turning the mid-Twenty First Century into a revived Victorian era (a la Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (1994)), creates the sort of formal, decorous context that is perfect for social comedy, where characters, constrained by ritual politeness, employ clever verbal barbs when they are not being tripped up by their milieu's infinite potential for the double entendre. There is a consistent, polished brilliance here, played skilfully against the anarchy of fools and rogues adrift in time.

In Kessel's scheme, time travellers can happily plunder and exploit any historical era they choose, as every instant is discrete from every other, and the appearance of a modern hotel industry in ancient Athens generates a separate, alternate "moment universe" instead of annihilating the future from which the tourists spring. Capitalism rides rampant on this opportunity, setting up Hiltons in every attractive epoch and carrying off Voltaire to be a talk show host and Freud and Jung to man a college psychiatry department.

An awkward son of privilege, Owen Vannice, fixated on palaeontology, ignores the ethical and practical dilemmas inherent in transporting a young female apatosaur from the Cretaceous to his own time; and when a fault in the mechanism of time travel maroons him temporarily in First Century Jerusalem, utter farce ensues. He tries to hide his dinosaur in his hotel room; confidence tricksters target him as an ideal mark, and their plans, like his, are disrupted when armed Zealots try to storm the hotel. While Owen and the beautiful young confidence woman, Genevieve Faison, dance rings of infatuation and confusion around each other in the 40s and the 2060s AD, the Zealots, including Jesus' disciple Simon, face trial before a future court presided over by an AI whose chief concern is to create the most lucrative media circus possible…. Corrupting Dr Nice is extremely entertaining on this level.

But there is a serious side as well. Owen, known mockingly as "Dr Nice", is very well meaning, without being conscious that to do good he must distance himself from the plutocracy represented by his domineering trillionaire parents. It is the paradoxical responsibility of Genevieve to "corrupt" Owen by drawing him out of this corruption, by converting his ineffectual niceness into something far more radical and real; but as she is a criminal with her own perverse agenda, this is far from simple. The First Century setting of much of the book points to where she will acquire help: from a chastened and undivine, but still cogently charismatic Christ, whose rhetorical contest with Abraham Lincoln at the climax of Simon's trial is superbly contrived. With his challenging, disconcerting wit, Kessel makes his comedy pull the individual, and thus the world, away from complicity in the ultimate of greed.

Corrupting Dr Nice is a masterful exercise in everything that SF typically now is not. It is concise, with not a wasted word; it is deeply considered, a constant, probing intellectual delight; its wit is genuine, the points it scores all well earned. And so, although and because it ambitiously defies contemporary genre norms, it is one of the best SF novels of the 1990s.

Review by Nick Gevers.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.

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© Nick Gevers 16 October 1999