19 August 2003

"Mother" by James Patrick Kelly

I've been friends with Jim Kelly for many years, and have even been declared by him his "most deranged fan", since I have a nearly-complete collection of his works, including all of his books and all of his earliest stories (the ones he'd like to forget). To be fair, he has lots of my early work, too, things I wrote when I was in grade school, and which he vows to keep as blackmail material should I ever decide to show anyone his early publications.

"Mother" is the only story I've read so far in what looks to be a particularly strong original anthology, The Silver Gryphon, which commemorates the twenty-fifth publication from Golden Gryphon Press. I have a special love for Golden Gryphon, as they published the first large collection of Jim's stories, Think Like a Dinosaur (now, finally, reprinted as a trade paperback).

The qualities that make Jim Kelly special are his sensitivity and virtuosity. Many writers have one or the other, but few combine depth of humanity with an open willingness to try new forms, new themes, new ideas. The risks are great, particularly for short story writers. If you invest months of work on a story, stretching your own boundaries while maintaining your own integrity as an artist, you aren't likely to see a huge pay-off. There is a devoted group of readers for short fiction, but it's a small group, and within that group, the fraction which appreciates the amount of work that has gone into the story can be tiny. Not every Kelly story works for me -- there are times when I think his humanity and compassion veer into sentimentality, or times when I think his virtuosity makes him cut corners on the humanity -- but when he gets the tricky balance right, the result is as good as anything published under the labels of "science fiction" or "fantasy" at any time.

2003 has been a particularly good year for Kelly, in that he's published two stories which seem to me to be among his best: "Bernardo's House" in the June 2003 Asimov's and "Mother".

"Bernardo's House" is, for me, the stronger story, mostly because it is longer and slower-paced, and so the development of the characters and situation is more affecting. This is not to slight "Mother", however, because here Kelly's particular achievement is to cram an entire world into eight and a half pages, and to create many resonances for the reader. It is the story of a girl named Les who has just come back to Earth after escaping from ostensibly benevolent aliens on the Moon, aliens who, she thinks, intend to destroy humanity by promises of immortality for people who give up the ability to produce children. Les has come to Earth to have as many children as possible, and thus to save the world (she thinks). The social system for people who want to be parents is somewhat different from our own, with a Birth Control center (love that name!) which helps train people on how to take care of babies. Similarly, there are many differences in classes of people on Earth, and in a few careful strokes Kelly evokes a vivid world which is similar to ours, but different enough to be both fascinating and unsettling. The resolution of the story is a particular triumph, leaving the reader to wonder if Les's perceptions are at all accurate, and letting the story grow in the imagination like a small seed growing into an immense, mysterious tree.