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Kessel, John

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Author.

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(1950-    ) US academic and author who began publishing sf with "The Silver Man" for Galileo in May 1978, and whose short fiction rapidly established him as an author of cunningly pastiche-heavy, erudite stories. His two best known early tales – both assembled with other work in Meeting in Infinity: Allegories & Extrapolations (coll 1992) – are probably "Not Responsible! Park and Lock It!" (September 1981 F&SF) and Another Orphan (September 1982 F&SF; 1989 chap dos), which won a Nebula; in both, an urgent extremism of metaphor tends to enforce allegorical readings. Kessel's better stories, as also collected in The Pure Product (coll 1997) and The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories (coll 2008), tend to subject generic materials and the furniture of popular culture to scathing moral examination. For instance, "The Big Dream" (April 1984 Asimov's) has a detective out of Raymond Chandler spy on Chandler's infidelities and lies. The four stories collected as "A Lunar Quartet" in The Baum Plan for Financial Independence depict a matriarchal lunar colony and mark a sustained engagement with issues of Gender; of them, "Stories for Men" (October/November 2002 Asimov's) won a Tiptree Award. Two summatory collections are The Collected Kessel (coll 2012 ebook) and The Dark Ride: The Best Short Fiction of John Kessel (coll 2022); the latter selection includes some recent stories, among them the title novella, "The Dark Ride" (January/February 2021 F&SF).

Kessel's extremism with the materials of genre sf also dominates much of his first novel, Freedom Beach (1985) with James Patrick Kelly, a tale whose characters find themselves occupying allegorical venues construed according to the styles of various authors, from Aristophanes to Groucho Marx. Of greater interest is his first solo novel, Good News From Outer Space (fixup 1989), a sustained but dizzying look at the human animal as the millennium approaches – Identity crises eat into men and women, the dead are medically reawoken, and dreams of redeeming Aliens raddle the large cast. There are echoes of Philip K Dick, but a gonzo Dick, and of Barry N Malzberg's allegorized urban desolation (and black wit) – but Kessel's desolation, very frighteningly and very movingly, is populous with human faces, however fractured. After such a formidable work, Corrupting Dr Nice (1997) may seem a slighter endeavour, attempting to marry Time Travel with the gestures of the screwball comedy. But it too becomes an examination of the "givens" of history and what it might cost to believe in them. The Moon and the Other (2017), which shares some backstory with "Stories for Men" (2002) [see above], is an exceedingly ambitious and complexly told multi-strand tale set primarily on the colonized Moon about a century hence, focusing on two constructed societies, each simultaneously exhibiting characteristics of the Utopia and the Dystopia. Persepolis, created by Iranians, is secular and patriarchal, with infractions, financial and other, treated savagely, in line with several other lunar colonies similarly impelled (as are most ideal communities) to rigorously enforce the rules that distinguish them (see Crime and Punishment). The Society of Cousins is a matriarchy whose disenfranchisement of males, and of those who have transitioned from female to male (see Transgender SF), are challenged as the narrative progresses (see Gender). The Hard SF substrate to the long tale surfaces variously, through the significant Invention of a duplicator (see Matter Transmission), and the presence of Uplifted canines and other "animals" (see Genetic Engineering).

In the new century Kessel, again with James Patrick Kelly, began editing anthologies such as Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (anth 2006) and The Secret History of Science Fiction (anth 2009). They all provide an overview of a phenomenon of recent speculative fiction such as Slipstream through a meticulously chosen array of stories and expository material. In this work, as in his fiction – he won a novelette Nebula for "Pride and Prometheus" (January 2008 F&SF) – Kessel seems one of science fiction's most necessary critics. [JC/GS]

see also: End of the World; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

John Joseph Vincent Kessel

born Buffalo, New York: 24 September 1950




works as editor


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