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Kelly, James Patrick

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1951-    ) US author who began to publish after attending the Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop in 1974. With "Dea Ex Machina" in Galaxy for April 1975 (as by James Kelly), he began very quickly to establish himself as an author whose work contained, within a sometimes sober demeanour, considerable pyrotechnical charge. In the selfconscious 1980s controversy between Cyberpunk and "Humanist" modes of sf discourse, he was located with the latter, but like most "Humanists" he has disavowed the distinction – and indeed published a story, "Solstice" (June 1985 Asimov's), in Bruce Sterling's Mirrorshades (anth 1986).

Kelly achieved prominence through Freedom Beach (fixup 1985) with John Kessel – an author with whom he has also collaborated on separate stories and on anthologies (see below). In the book several characters find themselves in an interzone in which "reality" and dreamwork wed surreally (see Perception), and must make sense of their surroundings. The control they exercise can be seen as allegorical of the creative act.

Of greater interest are Kelly's solo novels, Planet of Whispers (1984) and Look into the Sun (1989), which start the open-ended (or simply incomplete) Messengers Chronicles. Whatever message is carried by the various species who link the Galaxy into a Communications network has not been revealed in the volumes published so far. The first tale, set on the planet Aseneshesh, explores in voluminous detail the native race of near-Immortal bearlike beings whose mental workings are derived from the attractive hypotheses developed by Julian Jaynes (1920-1997) in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). In Jaynes's book, and in Kelly's novel, pre-conscious sentients – i.e. preliterate humans, including the Homer responsible for the Iliad – "hear" right-brain "whispers" which they understand to be the voices of the gods, and in this fashion hallucinate normative diktats which shape their culture. No humans appear in the novel. In the second volume, set partly on a depleted Earth, a young architect is recruited by Messengers to travel to Aseneshesh, being engineered en route into the semblance of an Asenesheshian, complete with a Computer-implant that substitutes for the right-brain voice of God. Aseneshesh is vividly depicted in the two books, in a Planetary-Romance style reminiscent at times of Jack Vance; but the plotting has a slow rigour typical of all Kelly's work, an incremental power which transcends the Fixup structure of the later Wildlife (June 1990 Asimov's as "Mr. Boy"; fixup 1994), a complex and – at points – singularly cruel analysis of the relationship between a child artificially re-engineered each time he nears puberty and his extraordinary mother.

Since the mid-1990s, though, Kelly's greatest prominence has been as an author at shorter lengths. He won Hugo Awards for "Think Like a Dinosaur" (June 1995 Asimov's) and "1016 to 1" (June 1999 Asimov's), and a Nebula for his novella Burn (2005). These three works are contained, respectively, in the first three of Kelly's four major collections: Think Like a Dinosaur and Other Stories (coll 1997), Strange but not a Stranger (coll 2001), The Wreck of the Godspeed (coll 2008) and The Promise of Space and Other Stories (coll 2018). "Think Like a Dinosaur" has in particular elicited comment, being an update and revision of the moral dilemma at the heart of "The Cold Equations" (August 1954 Astounding) by Tom Godwin. Similarly, "Undone" (June 2001 Asimov's) is a joyously kinetic tribute to the pyrotechnic innovations of Alfred Bester. Burn more complexly marries ideas of Ecology, as derived from Henry David Thoreau, and a humane portrait of a protagonist recovering from trauma. Two of the novellas in The Wreck of the Godspeed – the title story (in Between Worlds, anth 2004, ed Robert Silverberg) and "Dividing the Sustain" (in The New Space Opera, anth 2007, ed Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan) – are set in Spaceships whose AI captains both manifest themselves as Avatars, underlining the baroque complexity of Kelly's ironized but romantic take on humanity's possible future in the galaxy. His stories only rarely breach the edges of Genre SF forms, but almost without exception they find new ways of enriching those forms, a strong example of this being "The Biggest" (January 2012 Worldbuilder), whose Superhero protagonist, fatally immured in 1931 New York, encounters the corpse of King Kong and turns himself to stone, saving the George Washington Bridge from another superhero whose powers have gone awry. At a time when short sf has been seen as a declining mode – certainly in narrowly commercial terms – he has shown consistent loyalty to it: as of 2010, he had contributed a piece to the June edition of Asimov's for twenty-six consecutive years.

Again with Kessel, Kelly has edited a series of anthologies beginning with Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (anth 2006), each surveying with balance and care a potentially disputed territory within the field. He has also been prolific as a teacher, and helped to steer the Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop through the difficulties caused by the withdrawal of its support from Michigan State University. In this as in his writing, he is a central part of the community of sf. [JC/GS]

see also: Children in SF; Gods and Demons; Mothership Zeta.

James Patrick Kelly

born Mineola, New York: 11 April 1951



Messenger Chronicles

individual titles

collections and stories


  • Writers' Workshops (Eugene, Oregon: Pulphouse Publishing, 1991) [nonfiction: chap: first appeared Winter 1987 Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America: in the publisher's Pulphouse Writer's Chapbook series: pb/nonpictorial]

works as editor


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