Silver Kelly and My Golden Age

Though it is April, Asimov's Science Fiction magazine likes to stick to the future, and so the June 2009 issue is now available. This is a particularly special issue, as it includes James Patrick Kelly's 25th annual June story -- the first was the June 1984 "Saint Theresa of the Aliens".

Last summer, Jim was the guest of honor at Readercon, where he was interviewed by John Kessel, and where I had the privilege of being on a panel about his work -- and of writing a little bit about him in the program book.

In honor of Jim's June feats, here is what I wrote about him last year:

by Matthew Cheney
originally published in the Readercon 19 souvenir book, 2008

I'm not alone in having a golden age, a time when science fiction was the brightest star shining in the galaxy of my life, but I may be alone in being able to tie that golden age to specific issues of a magazine and to a specific byline in those issues.

Yes, this is my golden age: Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, June 1985 to June 1990. And the hero of my golden age is James Patrick Kelly.

I was not quite ten years old in June of '85. I wouldn't even begin reading SF for a few months yet, but that doesn't matter (time travel has long been a fascination of mine). I didn't discover 1985 until the far end of 1986, when I got a copy of Gardner Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction, Third Annual Collection. A year later, one of the teachers at my school told me a science fiction writer was coming to visit for six weeks, some guy named Jim Kelly. Nobody at the school had heard of him.

Rural New Hampshire in the mid-80s was not a haven of science fiction fans. I only knew a couple, and they were all associated with the local college where my mother worked. I didn't know anybody who'd published a book. Writers were gods to me -- all I wanted to do in the world was become one, and anybody who published in the places I read (primarily Asimov's and Dozois's anthologies) was more impressive to me than movie stars or presidents.

The school librarian, who had also been my third grade teacher and had fostered my love of writing, showed me some photocopied stories that had been sent along by the writer who would be coming to our school. They were copies of stories from Asimov's. "James Patrick Kelly!" I screamed.

"You've heard of him?"

"He's great! He's a real writer!"

(I had been made cynical by previous artists-in-the-schools visitors, because the writers always tended to be people who had published a couple of pieces of filler in mimeographed gardening newsletters.)

The moments of the first visit are deeply etched into my memory. My class was one of the last ones to arrive in the library, where Mr. Kelly was to give a presentation to a large group of us. I sat in the back, angling for a view. I think I expected him to glow.

He didn't glow. He looked like a relatively normal human being. (This was not disappointing so much as it was beguiling. Normal human beings publish in Asimov's? How is that possible?!) He talked about science fiction, about books, about writing. All I remember thinking is: When is he going to tell us the secrets? Writers, I thought, were people who had figured out secret ways to make perfect stories, and that's why they were published and the rest of us weren't.

The real fun began later, though, when I was part of a small group of students chosen to participate in a weekly series of workshops led by Mr. Kelly. In the first, we did some writing about school in the future, and then he asked if we had any questions about writing, science fiction, or anything, really. I was determined to ask some sort of question, but was so excited, so overwhelmed that coming up with one question threatened to fry my already addled mind. After somebody asked a question I considered idiotic, though, I couldn't resist -- I couldn't let this Great Man go home thinking we were all ignoramuses. I thrust my hand into the air. "This might be," I said, "a question nobody else really understands, because it is necessary to read Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in order to truly understand it, but if you will permit me, I will ask it anyway." If anyone in the room had previously doubted that I was the biggest nerd in the school, those doubts immediately disappeared.

"Go ahead," Mr. Kelly said, doing his best, I'm sure, to repress a giggle.

"Why," I said, "do you keep publishing stories in the June issue of the magazine?"

He explained that it had begun by chance, but then became a pattern, and now he was stuck with it.

Afterward, I brought him my treasured copy of Dozois's Third and asked if he would be willing to sign it. I told him it contained my favorite story of his, "Solstice". He smiled and wrote with a blue felt-tipped pen: To Matt -- My friend in Plymouth.

The workshops were the highlight of my life that year, and I wrote thousands of words of stories for them. On the last day, Mr. Kelly gave me his home address and told me to send him things when I wrote them. I don't think he quite knew what he was offering. Over the years, he received hundreds of pages of letters and stories printed by a dot-matrix printer on track-feed paper, all of it amounting to what is, I expect, a better blackmail file than the FBI could ever assemble for me. I treasured his letters to me more than any other object. He made suggestions about my stories, told me about books to read, and let me know what he was working on. He gave me various details about a story that eventually he told me he'd decided to call "Mr. Boy".

"Solstice" appeared in the June 1985 issue of Asimov's. "Mr. Boy" was the cover story of the June 1990 issue. They remain stories I return to with pure and utter joy.

My literary tastes broadened in high school, and my experience of life and the world became much different from what it had been when I first met Jim Kelly (yes, eventually I was able to bring myself to call him "Jim", as he told me to, but it was tough). We continued corresponding long after "Mr. Boy" was published, and I continued reading SF, though with occasional breaks for other things. Jim gave me my best high school graduation present, in fact: a copy of The Norton Book of Science Fiction signed by all the contributors who had been at the Sycamore Hill conference that year (Bruce Sterling included his email address, but I'd never seen one before and thought it was some sort of strange code for how to hack into a government mainframe).

Jim is one of the most generous and thoughtful people I've ever been lucky enough to have as a friend, and the story I have told here is, I know, not unique. He has been a mentor to entire generations of science fiction writers and fans. This was particularly valuable in the days before the Internet, when connectivity was difficult for those of us who lived away from major metropolitan centers. I was a kid besotted with Asimov's and science fiction in general, and having someone like Jim as a friend during those years deeply affected the adult I grew to be, and nothing I could say or do for him would be an adequate thank you.

The publication of "Mr. Boy", though, brought my golden age to its end. I'd known about that story from the time of its inception, and Jim had told me of his various struggles with it, his excitement when he sold it, his further excitement when he learned it would be the cover story. Getting to peek behind the curtains of the workshop like that, thrilling as it was, destroyed a certain innocence. I have no regrets about that -- golden ages should be shed, because they open us to other sorts of wonder, a plethora of more complex pleasures, and once we have moved beyond them, we can look back on our golden age as something perfect, something complete and pure, in a way we can look at nothing else in the world.

It's a risk to go back to things you loved when young, but I recently reread a lot of Jim's fiction from the first part of his career, before he started winning Hugos and Nebulas, before he became the King of Podcasting, before he edited marvelous anthologies with his partner-in-crime John Kessel.

His early fiction is far more varied in quality than his more recent work -- he has become a reliable master craftsman of the short story -- but it possesses a different energy, and when the stories are good they are good in different ways from what the more mature, and perhaps wiser, JPK writes now. (Even his first-published story, "Dea Ex Machina" [Galaxy, April 1975], at least has an intriguing first sentence: "An educated man among philistines is like a nymphomaniac among impotents; both are victims of inadequacy.") Stories such as "Still Time", "Saint Theresa of the Aliens", "Crow", "Solstice", "Rat", "The Prisoner of Chillon", "Glass Cloud", "Heroics", and "Home Front" mix solid and emotionally affecting character development with cultural and technological speculation that seldom feels particularly dated even twenty years after the stories' first publications. The stories benefit from a classical sense of balance and form that brings to mind Maupassant, O. Henry, and Shirley Jackson.

Rereading them, I realized that there are stories I wish were better known, stories I wish had gained the attention and respect that Jim's more recent work has. "Home Front" is a particular favorite of mine, a perfect example of an entire world being fit into a short story -- in this case, a world of war as televised entertainment. What is remarkable about the story is its mix of the global and the personal, a scope plenty of writers aim for but few are able to achieve in as satisfactory a manner. It is a story suffused with suppressed terror, and it manages an emotionally complex ending where the surface is one of sentimental patriotism and triumph, and yet an astute reader will pick up on the nightmare at the story's heart, the nightmare of children being pushed to revel in violence and war. The future in "Home Front" is bleak and desperate, but the tone and structure of the story urges us toward empathy, not scorn. We can understand what the kids feel, and we can be appalled by the forces that have legitimized those feelings.

I could go on and on about these stories -- I could rattle off vast theories about why "Solstice", "The Prisoner of Chillon", and "Mr. Boy" are more impressive as separate entities than as parts of the novel Wildlife (although I could also defend that novel against anyone who dared defame it!); I could tell you that "Heroics" and a letter from an Asimov's reader complaining that it didn't belong in a science fiction magazine are the twin items that launched me on a career of defending fiction against labels and definitions; I could exhort you to seek out the very different metafictional stories "The F&SF Diet" and "Daemon"; I could speculate about why "Death Therapy" is the only one of Jim's first seven or eight stories to possess the craftsmanship and imagination that would soon appear in every story; I could tell you how fond I am of the stories that make up the book he wrote with John Kessel, Freedom Beach; I could go on and on about the covers of Planet of Whispers (gasp! ack!) and Look Into the Sun (not bad!). But I won't. Because I've already said what I want to say, and what matters most, and I said it in the seventh grade, when even as the biggest nerd in my school, I knew one of the truths of the world:

James Patrick Kelly is great. He's a real writer.