John Kessel

16566454I have had this collection on my electronic TBR shelf since… well, the info at the start says it was being given away free when it first came out in 2008, so I guess for six years. And I have had no recollection as to why I might have wanted to grab it; I vaguely knew Kessel’s name but couldn’t associate anything with it. Until I got to the last story.

This is the author of “Pride and Prometheus,” which I read in 2008 (when it was published) and must absolutely have been the reason for me wanting more of his stuff. Because I really, really liked “Pride.”

The collection is an interesting assortment of stories. Some riff off others – Austen, obviously, and Orson Welles, and The Wizard of Oz, and just possibly Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s series, at least for part of one story, and maybe X-Men too. Other stories are straight “lit’ratyoor” with nary a scrap of speculative about them; “The Snake Girl” is a bittersweet undergraduate tale, for instance. Some I really didn’t connect with; “Every Angel is Terrifying” drags you in but it’s the sort of horrified fascination where you can’t look away. Others…

“The Last American” is one of those stories that is genuinely post-apocalyptic – there’s been gross climate change and massive die-offs due to disease – and dystopic; it’s the story of a man who was the president of America for 33 years, whose life spanned the 21st century. It’s told, though, as a review of someone’s new biography of the man, which has been constructed both as a sensory experience (normal) and with these odd inclusions of text – which is so not normal that you have to download a patch to allow you to experience it. This is the one with the Scott Card and X-Men resonances.

The centre of the collection (just about literally, perhaps metaphorically) is the “Lunar Quartet,” described somewhere in the opening as a ‘modern classic… about life on the moon.’ But it’s not life everywhere on the moon; it’s life in the Society of Cousins, which is run as a matriarchy. You are surnamed for your mother, fathers are largely irrelevant, men have the option of living on centrally provided subsistence which means they don’t get to vote… as a feminist I can tell you it sounds absolutely horrendous. It comes out that this is intended to curb men’s propensity for violence and domination, but it just ends up sounding like an incredibly restrictive society where you almost don’t blame some of the men for acting out. One of the stories is focussed on that, and I was also incredibly uncomfortable with the words coming out of the rebel’s mouth – it was horrid, repellant, appalling. So Kessel takes the opportunity to start a new human society and imagines its possibilities, and is pretty damned ruthless in the process. It’s almost enough to make you despair of hoping for real change. But I don’t think that’s what Kessel wants. I think he’s just being honest about how hard it’s going to be – and that crushing the spirit of half the population is never going to be the answer.

A good eclectic collection. Another one I can finally tick off my TBR list, which is very exciting, and all because I thought I was running out…

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