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The Pure Product by John Kessel
(Tor, $14.95, trade paperback; first published 1997, this edition August 1999.)

This collection of stories -- stories articulate, polished, dazzlingly ingenious, thoroughly varied but essentially of a piece -- represents the best of John Kessel's twenty-year career, and thus (as reading it makes clear) stands as a systematic demonstration of just what, in serious and ambitious hands, contemporary literary SF can do. Whether writing an allohistorical baseball story, an allegory of the rat race at its ultimate, a screwball comedy of Relativity, or an amoral road story, Kessel is stylishly and penetratingly thoughtful, as in his novels, producing philosophical entertainments of a very high calibre.

The Pure Product overlaps with Kessel's earlier collection Meeting in Infinity (1992), but that was a small press volume of lesser scope; this is the definitive article, assembling sixteen stories, two poems, and one play. Considered together, these tales can be seen as an impassioned defense of the middle ground in SF, of speculative fiction that avoids both the technophilic excesses of libertarian Hard SF and the ideological rigidities of left-wing utopianism. Kessel's basic concern is the tempering of idealism with realism, the recognition that human free will has sharp inherent limitations, and that any quest for absolute virtue is an exercise in barren extremism. Repeatedly in these stories, some tempting Absolute beckons, only to be exposed as empty, or a thing of horror. But the guises the Absolutes can adopt are innumerable, and Kessel's narratives spring existential traps that are appropriately various.

Three entries -- "Some Like It Cold", "The Pure Product", and ‘The Miracle of Ivar Avenue" -- occur in the same time travel-centred context as Corrupting Dr Nice (1997 - reviewed elsewhere on this site), but are written in a far grimmer vein, exploring the personal and economic implications of a future society's exploitation of the past. If Marilyn Monroe and Preston Sturges are merely media fodder for the mid-Twenty First Century, then how will ordinary people of the past be treated by wanderers in time, predators who despise them for their so unideal, "common" humanity? In "Man", a run-of-the-mill professional Everyman discovers that he can assert himself in modest ways by embracing a more ideal self; and "Animals" shows a conceited philosopher, enslaved by aliens, losing everything because he fails to live up to a more generous nature. But that qualified optimism is qualified further by "Herman Melville, Space Opera Virtuoso" and "The Franchise", in which famous historical figures are given different courses to follow, but remain persistently and frustratingly the same.

Kessel repeatedly employs SF to question the genre's own hubris; and this technique is particularly impressive when SF itself, and its practitioners, are made into protagonists. In "Buffalo", Kessel's own father, working in an American labour corps at the height of the Depression, meets H. G. Wells, whose elitist utopianism is found sadly wanting even as it inspires some modest hope. "Gulliver At Home", returning to a major work of proto-SF, shows Gulliver rendered mad by Swift's scabrous misanthropy. And a particularly devastating novelette, "Invaders", diagnoses a like insanity in SF as a whole, a heedless infantile restlessness like that that drove the most destructive conquerors of history to their depredations.

Kessel's inventiveness, however, gives SF a preferable role: commentary by concept. "Not Responsible! Park and Lock It!" is a superb visualization of life as a perpetual road race, from which escape is impossible; "A Clean Escape" turns the aftermath of nuclear war into a study of just how thoroughly Responsibility can be denied. "The Lecturer" is a fount of wisdom who is omniscient but without discrimination; "Hearts Do Not in Eyes Shine" describes a technology of amnesia that leaves the essentials of the self forlornly intact. These stories are elegant genre storytelling even as they veer from genre reassurances.

And now and then, Kessel makes his critiques exuberantly amusing, writing SF comedy as well as he has in his novels. "The Einstein Express" details the physics of Relativistic train travelling; the play "Faustfeathers: A Comedy" retells the story of Faust as a Marx Brothers extravaganza. And "Buddha Nostril Bird" brilliantly transforms the conceits of Platonic philosophy into a bizarre metamorphic landscape, in which Change brings enlightenment to a blundering metaphysical bigot.

Perhaps SF likewise blunders. But it can be forgiven.

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

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© Nick Gevers 22 January 2000