Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Wreck of the Godspeed and Other Stories, by James Patrick Kelly

The Wreck of the Godspeed and Other Stories
James Patrick Kelly
Golden Gryphon Press: 2008

The Wreck of the Godspeed is the first fiction I have read from James Patrick Kelly, so I had no expectations coming into this collection. Coming on the heels of the Nancy Kress collection Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and being published by Golden Gryphon, I had hopes that this collection would be something outstanding. Outstanding was probably a bit much to hope for, but solid is reasonable. The stories here were published between June 2002 and June 2007.

"The Wreck of the Godspeed": The title story to open the collection gets us off to a peculiar start. Nothing is as it seems on the Godspeed, a interstellar ship which seeds colonies before moving on to the next colony to seed. It searches for habitable worlds. There is an eccentric mix of young adults who have been somehow selected to crew the ship and they begin to suspect something is wrong with the Godspeed (a ship with a personality) and this suspicion really begins the story. What came before was prologue. It' interesting story. A well written story, but it isn't necessarily a compelling story. "The Wreck of the Godspeed" is a bit overlong and it could have used some tightening. But, hey, what do I know? Even so, not a bad start to the collection.

"The Best Christmas Ever": There's something about a "last man on Earth" story and few of the ones I've read ever really address the difficulty that last man might have in coping with being the last man after years and years. The Last Man, Albert Hopkins, is tended to be a group of android / robot / artificial creatures who seem to exist solely to keep him sane. After the not quite disappointment but dissatisfaction of "The Wreck of the Godspeed", "The Best Christmas Ever" is a solid story. A strange one, but a good one.

"Men are Trouble": This is an interesting hardboiled detective story on an Earth where men no longer exist, having been removed / killed somehow by the aliens. Some women alive still remember men, but they are few. So, we have a detective story in which the detective is a woman but plays the role just like a man in the classic mold. This is really the whole point of the story, though I'm sure the author would disagree. Doesn't really matter what the case is, or the situation with the aliens (not really). Because of the removal of men from world Kelly doesn't so much play with expectations of gender as he simply takes a man and changes the gender. The world looks just like ours where women have stepped into all roles assumed by men. "Men Are Trouble" is fine for what it is, but not at all memorable.

"Luck": I'll admit it, I struggled with this story. It didn't work for me and as such, I don't know that I had a chance to really appreciate whatever Kelly might have attempted to do here. There's cavemen, a hunt for a mammoth, and I really didn't get much more from it. I gave up midway through.

"The Dark Side of Town": A wife knows her husband is spending more time on a sexual virtual reality game than he is with her and spends the story investigating the game. The subject of the story isn't something I would seek out to read, but Kelly pulls this one off quite well and delivers a bit of a surprise ending.

"The Leila Torn Show": A future police / detective procedural show has issues. Ratings. Creative decisions. The cast. The same issues any show would have, except "The Leila Torn Show" is narrated by The Leila Torn Show. Seriously. The story is narrated by the show itself. This is a great little story. There's all sorts of little television drama and Kelly gives the reader a look which is not usually seen in stories. "The Leila Torn Show" is something different and original and is one of the best stories in this collection. There are a couple other stories up to this level of quality and freshness, but "The Leila Torn Show" is a standout.

"Mother": "Mother" feels like a post-apocalyptic story, though it isn't. Maybe a Western. A woman wants to have a baby, but she doesn't want a baby the way the new alien overlords dictate to humans, she wants to have one her way without the strictures. The atmopshere of the story is of rebellion and frontier, and it works.

"Dividing the Sustain": As with most of the stories that were published in The New Space Opera, I am at a loss to talk about "Dividing the Sustain". It's a story of Been Watanabe changing his sexuality and alienating the other members of his small group on a colony ship, but in doing so seems to get involved in something bigger with the captain of the ship. It's a baffling story and one which I can't say I either enjoyed or really understood.

"The Edge of Nowhere": Here's a story I liked and liked a lot. The entire world seems to be confined to one small town, as if this was the end and the edge of existence where things pop in and out of reality, and there are these talking dogs looking for a book out of the library except the book hasn't been written yet. Weird, I know, but the human element of the story comes across well in the character of Lorraine Carraway. This drives the story and makes it work.

"The Ice is Singing": One of the shorter stories in this collection, "The Ice is Singing" opens with an ice skater seeing a body frozen underneath him in the lake. The story goes into the depression and sadness of the skater before looping back for an interesting revelation. For being such a short story, "The Ice is Singing" is still stronger than other stories here ten times its length. Which just goes to say, of course, that size isn't everything.

"Serpent": So, after Adam and Eve fell from grace and left the Garden of Eden the Garden didn't just disappear. Now, legend has the Archangel Michael standing outside the Gardn with a flaming sword, but that legend doesn't quite apply here. The Garden still exists and after humans were a disappointment, God started over again with new creation. Better made, one might argue. The Devil, the Serpent, still tempts. "Serpent" is an absolute pleasure to read. One can't get enough tempting in fiction. How Kelly deals with the serpent, the innocents, and humanity is fascinating and well done.

"Bernardo's House": This story could have been in a post-apocalyptic collection, though what happened is never made explicit. The focus of the story is the AI of the house of a rich man named Bernardo, a man who has many houses. Bernardo has not been home in years and the house wonders where he is. A young woman happens by and Bernardo's house must choose how to receive her and what that means for the house's loyalty. Not sure why I'm surprised, but this story was better than I expected. The character of the house was a compelling character.

"Burn": This is a tough story to get a read on. Initially the issue is that Kelly's language is difficult to grasp. What is a pukpuk? What is up with the burnings? This planet of Walden which seems to try to model after the Thoreau is a weird bit of naming conventions, living in harmony with an idealized version of the land, and it has its detractors. "Burn" is worth pushing through for, but it is not exactly a fully satisfying read. "Burn" is a bit too much work, and not to the extent that the intellectual concepts are difficult. Mostly just because it is difficult to understand what's going on. Or, it was for me.

The Wreck of the Godspeed is a mixed bag of fiction. Some stories are outstanding ("Serpent", "The Edge of Nowhere", "The Leila Torn Show") and some failed to engage with this reader on nearly any level ("Dividing the Sustain", "Luck"), but most of the stories had some interesting ideas with executions which failed to deliver on the promise of the story. This could be a failing of James Patrick Kelly or a failing of the reader. Perhaps another reader would find that The Wreck of the Godspeed is an exceptionally strong collection, but this one did not. There is excellence here and the collection is worth checking out just to read those three stories, but as a whole The Wreck of the Godspeed is not wholly up to the level one has come to expect from Golden Gryphon. They have put out stronger books and I'm sure they will again. The Wreck of the Godspeed is simply not that book.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Golden Gryphon Press.

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