Reading for Fun: John Kessel

The Baum Plan for Financial IndependenceBack in 2002, John Kessel won the Tiptree award for “Stories for Men.” I hadn’t read the story at the time, and my main memory of the award ceremony is that the person placing the tiara on his head (who I think was previous year’s winner, Hiromi Goto) was very short, while John is very tall. I think this problem was solved by him kneeling, which provided great amusement to the WisCon audience.

There were two Tiptree winners that year, both male; the other was British writer M. John Harrison for Light. There was a certain amount of unrest about the award that year, but most of it was directed at Harrison. I don’t recall anyone saying that Kessel didn’t deserve it.

“Stories for Men” appears in his recent collection, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence, and now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, I can say without reservation that it definitely deserved the Tiptree. It’s a disturbing story that provides deft criticism of the kind of stories for men popularly associated with Ernest Hemingway, while still leaving me with questions about whether the women running the Lunar colony in which the story takes place are doing things the way they should be done.

And the rest of the stories in the collection are worth reading, too. It would be easy to admire John Kessel’s writing just for the beauty of his sentences alone. Every word seems carefully chosen, every phrase is artfully done. You don’t stumble across the odd sentence that seems awkward, as if he was rushed on a deadline and just tossed it in.

But his stories aren’t just beautifully written; they’re also complex and thought-provoking. Read this collection, and you’ll find yourself thinking about what he had to say for a long time.

Which isn’t to say that he isn’t playful — Dorothy Gale makes an appearance in the title story, “The Baum Plan for Financial Independence,” and the final story is called “Pride and Prometheus” (and why shouldn’t someone merge Jane Austen and Mary Shelley?).

These stories are clearly science fiction, but they’re science fiction for grownups, meant for people who want more from their SF than just a cool idea or action adventure. They remind me of why I started reading SF seriously in the first place, which was because it was in good science fiction that I found writers struggling with the complex ideas that interested me. (I got hooked on SF reading Le Guin and Delany, not Asimov and Heinlein.)

It’s published by Small Beer Press, and according to their website, you can get a free download of the ebook version.

BTW, I also got around to reading Harrison’s Light a few years ago, and must say that I’m not sure why the Tiptree jury picked it for an award. Although the book played with gender issues in its characters, that all seemed like window dressing, not an in-depth examination like that found in Kessel’s story.
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Breaking WavesMy story “Emergency” is part of Breaking Waves, an anthology benefitting the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund. I also have two essays in the lastest Book View Cafe anthology, Brewing Fine Fiction.

My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are available on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s. The free, chapter-by-chapter version of Changeling starts here. And check out my stories in the Book View Cafe anthologies The Shadow Conspiracy, Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, and Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.

You can also read my latest story — “Or We Will All Hang Separately” — on Futurismic.

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Reading for Fun: John Kessel — 2 Comments

  1. The only reason that I haven’t read Kessel yet is too many books, too much living to do. I guess it’s time to seek his work out. Thanks for the recommendation. By the way, you’ve got the Tiptree ceremony right. Hiromi Goto — brilliant writer, tiny woman — crowned the towering Kessel who knelt and bowed his head like a knight before a queen. It was quite delightful!

  2. Thanks for letting me know my memory was correct. I recall John walking around in the tiara, enjoying himself. As for reading his books: they’re very worthwhile, but as the saying goes, “so many books, so little time.”