Doctor Nice

Baum Plan coverI just this morning finished John Kessel’s recent collection The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories, a mere three and a half years after the kind doctor mailed it to me (although it only took me four days to read it). I’ve been a fan of Kessel’s since around 1993, when I discovered that North Carolina State University (which I’d just started attending) boasted a science fiction writer in their English faculty. As an undergrad, I sought out his survey classes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, as well as his writing workshops. In my callow enthusiasm, I bothered him mercilessly with questions about SF and writing and publishing, and he largely tolerated my many intrusions, and encouraged me in my pursuits.

When I decided to go for graduate school in creative writing, he was the only person I wanted as my mentor and thesis advisor. During those two years, I learned more than I would think possible about pushing my writing from competent to good (although a writer’s measure of his own writing is always suspect). He also invited me to his house when hosting get-togethers for visiting writers, talked to me seriously about where my career was heading, and made me feel as if what I was doing was valid and worthwhile. Somewhere in there, I stopped referring to him as “Dr Kessel” and started calling him “John.”

When The Baum Plan was published by the always awesome Small Beer Press in 2008, he very kindly sent me a copy of the hardcover (with reversible alternate-reality dustjacket!), and although I pledged that I would dive right in, it sat on my shelf for years. So last week, finally, I pulled it down. I’d read about half the stories already when they were originally published, but I was surprised to find that the other half were delightfully unknown.

The meta-literary sequel to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (“Every Angel is Terrifying), the exploitative relationship of Oz’s working and elite classes (“The Baum Plan for Financial Independence”), and the ingenius Jane Austen/Mary Shelley mashup that sees Victor Frankenstein wooing Mary Bennet (“Pride and Prometheus”) all reinforce Kessel’s dual loves of science fiction and classic literature found previously in stories like Another Orphan (a man transported from the present day to Captain Ahab’s whaling ship in Moby Dick) and “Gulliver at Home” (told from the POV of Gulliver’s wife, left behind while he travels).

His Lunar Quartet (“The Juniper Tree,” “Stories for Men,” “Under the Lunchbox Tree,” and “Sunlight or Rock”) explore his examination of gender roles with the matriarchal Society of Cousins ensconced on the moon. I still hope that one day he’ll write a novel in this universe, one that he’d begun years ago and called Soft Upset (a wonderful working title that refers to the physical disturbance caused by a lunar landing), but if not, these four stories are exemplars of the imagination of alternate societies. “The Invisible Empire” also sheds a fascinating alternate light on feminist enforcement squads who have assassinated President Grover Cleveland, and inflict punishment on men proven to be abusive towards their wives and children.

I was greatly excited to see the return of Detlev Gruber in “It’s All True,” the time-traveling media recruiter encountered previously in “Some Like It Cold,” “The Miracle of Ivar Avenue” and the fantastic novel Corrupting Dr. Nice. Even if we don’t see Detlev again, I hope Kessel returns to this “Moment-Universe” milieu, as it’s always a fun way to explore exploitation, media, and economic politics, although he may have said all he wants to on this score.

“The Snake Girl” (Kessel’s only explicitly mainstream piece, written thanks to a wager with Wilton Barnhardt) and “Powerless” (which is also very light on fantastical elements) don’t have quite the same punch and enthusiasm of his speculative work, but are still skillfully written. And the short short pieces “The Red Phone” and “Downtown” provide an element of wacky absurdity quite fitting for the “story grenade” form.

The only story that left me feeling “meh” was “The Last American,” which follows the life of an influential man who is at times a bully, an abusive soldier, a successful filmmaker, a religious leader, and a politician. Written in the style of a review of a far-future documentary, it is an interesting exercise in direct speculation, but any narrative elements fell flat to me. Still, only one dud among thirteen glorious stories ain’t bad.

The Baum Plan can be ordered in hardcover or paperback from fine bookstores everywhere (though I encourage you to support your indies), or directly from Small Beer Press (which is also great, as the money goes straight to the publisher). The Creative Common-licensed DRM-free ebook version can be downloaded for free (which comes with a great reading group guide).

Last year, Kessel was invited to Fractal ’11, an annual event “held in Medellín, Colombia that seeks to help bridge the gap between the speed of scientific and technological changes, and the ability of people to adapt.” He gave a fascinating plenary talk titled, “The Future as Mirror: How SF Uses the Tomorrow to Understand Today,” and I just discovered the video for this event today. Enjoy.

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2 Comments

Filed under Books, Reviewing, Writing

2 responses to “Doctor Nice

  1. John Kessel

    Thanks, Jason. Long time, no see. Sorry I gave you such a hard time when you were my student, but then again, I usually reserve my severest scrutiny for stories in the genres closest to my heart, and writers ambitious enough to take them seriously.

    • Hi John! At that point in my life (graduate school), I had already been to Clarion, and actually yearned for the type of honest feedback you provided in your critiques. It was exactly what I needed to push my writing further and I’m forever grateful for that. It was an honor to learn under you, John.

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