The Short of It: “The Dark Ride: The Best Short Fiction of John Kessel” (2022, Subterranean Press) is a great collection. My average rating for the collection is a “Great” 3.82/5. Strongly recommended.
The Full Story: I have been a fan of John Kessel and his speculative fiction for a while, but certainly I’m not an early fan of his or completist of his work.
I read and enjoyed “Corrupting Dr. Nice” when it came out in 1997. I read his 1997 collection “The Pure Product” with a rather schizophrenic response; my book database notes had “Great collection!” and rated it “Great”, but I did not really remember the stories in it.
Over the last few years, I have read, or reread, a number of his stories and really enjoyed them, including:
- “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance“, a 2009 novelette originally read in “The New Space Opera 2” (2009, Gardner Dozois/Jonathan Strahan editors, Eos/HarperCollins).
- “Buffalo“, a 1991 short story read in “Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction” (2011, Leigh Grossman editor, Wildside Press).
- “Some Like It Cold“, a 1995 short story read in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirteenth Annual Collection” (1996, Gardner Dozois editor, St. Martin’s Press).
- “Judgment Call“, a 1987 novelette read in “The Best from Fantasy & Science Fiction: A 40th Anniversary Anthology” (1989, Edward L. Ferman editor, St. Martin’s Press).
- “Invaders“, a 1990 novelette read in “The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction” (2010, Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Evans, Gordon, Hollinger, Latham, & McGuirk editors, Wesleyan University Press).
- “Fix That House“, a 2019 short story read in “The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2020” (2020, Rich Horton editor, Prime Books).
I had noticed the publication of “The Dark Ride: The Best Short Fiction of John Kessel” (Subterranean Press) this spring. Then, one of my book club group reads announced that we would be reading Nebula and Sturgeon Award short fiction. John Kessel’s “The Dark Ride” was one of those stories I had not read, and included in “The Dark Ride: The Best….”.
ISFDB lists only the paper version of “The Dark Ride: The Best Short Fiction of John Kessel”, but there is both a paper and ebook version available. I was happy to be able to borrow it from my regional library consortium.
John Kessel is a very interesting writer for several reasons to me. First, his writing lives a lot at the intersection of genre and literature. Second, it also is commonly very hard to categorize. I find this appealing, but not all will share my feelings.
In addition to many of the stories I listed above, there were a number of stories that I really liked but had not read before, including:
- “Pride and Prometheus“, the 2008 novelette in The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy (F&SF) that Kessel later expanded to book length. I had first read the 2018 novel, not knowing there had been a novelette. I think I prefer the novel, but this is very, very good.
- The Miracle of Ivar Avenue“, a 1996 novelette first published in “Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology” (1996, Richard Butner, John Kessel, Mark L. Van Name editors, Tor).
- “Gulliver at Home“, a 1998 novelette first published in Kessel’s collection “The Pure Product” (1997, Tor).
- “The Lecturer“, a 1984 short story, first published in “Light Years and Dark: Science Fiction and Fantasy of and for Our Time” (1984, Michael Bishop, Berkley Books).
- “Clean“, a 2011 novelette first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction (Asimov’s).
- “Another Orphan“, a 1982 novelette first published in F&SF.
- “The Baum Plan for Financial Independence“, a 2004 short story first published in Sci Fiction.
- “The Dark Ride“, a 2021 novella first published in F&SF.
I had an average overall rating for “The Dark Ride: The Best Short Fiction of John Kessel” at 3.82/5, or “Great”. I strongly recommend this collection.
Other features that I really liked in this Subterranean Press edition are a) the Introduction by Kim Stanley Robinson, and b) the Story Notes by John Kessel. For me, regardless of the stories included, omission of any added discussion that places the author and the stories into context is a real strike against a “Best Of” collection. I’m glad to see that did not happen here.
Detailed Comments (SPOILERS FOLLOW!!) in same order as the table of contents:
- “Not Responsible! Park and Lock It!“, a novelette, by John Kessel, F&SF September 1981. My Book Database say that I read the Kessel collection “The Pure Product”, which contains this story. I assume I have read it, but do not remember. A story based on an idea/story by a friend of Kessel’s, who burned it in the context of personal trauma. Kessel had his friend’s blessing on writing his own version, in his honor. This is physically a story of humans in cars on a giant freeway that live their lives driving yet never seem to get anywhere. They are aided and supervised by robots, who can be quite irate if you go out of bounds. The story takes place at mile 1.375 x 1025. Regardless of days, months and years driving, that mile location never changes. I assume there is some significance to 1.375 x 1025, but not I did not figure it out. Rated 3.6/5, or “Very good”.
- “Events Preceding the Helvetican Renaissance“, a novelette, first published in “The New Space Opera 2” (2009, Gardner Dozois/Jonathan Strahan editors, Eos/HarperCollins). A great story, enjoyed the monk and soldier, plot, etc. 2010 Locus Best Novelette nomination. Rated 3.9/5, or “Great”.
- “Pride and Prometheus“, a novelette, F&SF January 2008. Loved it! Great, affectionate intersection of Jane Austen and Mary Shelly. The novelette seems very different from the novel. I can see the inclusion of the novelette, but I think I prefer the novel. Nebula and Shirley Jackson winner, Hugo and Locus finalist, Tiptree and World Fantasy nomination. Rated 4.1/5, or “Superlative”.
- “The Motorman’s Coat“, a short story, F&SF June-July 2009. A man runs a shop of expensive antiquities several centuries after the Die-Off. He has a chance to sell an expensive early 20th century motorman’s coat to hopefully revitalize his failing fortune and perhaps get his wife back. Things go badly. I don’t think this is a great story, but I would like to have found out more about this world. Rated 3.7/5, or “Very good”.
- “The Closet“, a short story, first published in “80! Memories & Reflections on Ursula K. Le Guin” (2010, Karen Joy Fowler, Debbie Notkin editors, Aqueduct Press). An entity keeps their bodies in the closet, and gets them out and puts them on. Definitely another twist ending, but the lack of anything more makes this short short a bit of a let down for me. Rated 3.7/5.
- “Some Like It Cold“, a short story, first published in the Fall 1995 Omni. Great time travel story, about retrieving people from the past for entertainment. Marilyn Monroe this time. Rated 4/5, or “Great”.
- “The Miracle of Ivar Avenue“, a novelette, first published in “Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology” (1996, Richard Butner, John Kessel, Mark L. Van Name editors, Tor). I might have already read this in Kessel’s “The Pure Product” collection, but I don’t remember. A great story about time travel and different timelines, and the resurrection of a Hollywood wunderkind (Preston Sturges) who both dies and survives. Sidewise and Nebula nomination. Rated 3.9/5.
- “Spirit Level“, a novelette, F&SF July-August 2020. A great story of a man who is drifting a little, divorced, estranged from his son, and perhaps haunted by his father’s spirit level. I suspect I missed some of the point. He is occasionally haunted by figures in his life, living and dead. I loved this story, but my incomprehension tells me it could have been better, or maybe it’s just me. Rated 3.8/5.
- “Stories for Men”, a novella, Asimov’s October-November 2002. There are times when I am reading fiction, and I just decide to take a break from reading the novel or story. This is less common with short fiction. Sometimes I return and finish it later, and sometimes I never do. My reasons for doing this vary a lot, from not being interested in the characters or plot, to needing a change of pace, or deciding I don’t have the energy to continue. This story is one of those. I was beginning to wonder if I was just not interested in the characters, and put this aside for a few days. After finishing up the rest of “The Dark Ride”, I regrouped and read this story. This is a coming of age story in a matriarchal colony on the moon, started by people horrified by a probably gender related massacre in California. A young man, a promising gene hacker, is dissatisfied and involved with an older man who is fighting the matriarchy. Things go badly for him. I understand that there are more stories of this character, which I would like to read. Tiptree winner, Locus, Sturgeon & Nebula finalist. Rated 3.7/5.
- “The Pure Product“, a novelette, Asimov’s March 1986. Perhaps previously read in “The Pure Product”, but not remembered. A man from the future has lived in the 20th century for a long time. He is drifting and full of nihilism. He encounters a young woman also from future, who abandons him. Rated 3.7/5.
- “Gulliver at Home“, a novelette, first published in Kessel’s 1997 collection “The Pure Product”. Perhaps previously read in “The Pure Product”, but not remembered. The story of Lemuel Gulliver’s wife, Mary, and her life with and mostly without him. She loves him anyway. Very well wrought. Rated 3.9/5.
- “Buddha Nostril Bird“, a novelette, Asimov’s March 1990. I may have read this before in “The Pure Product” collection, but did not remember it. A tragic yet hilarious story of a philosopher attempting to deal with his life. I suspect this would mean more to a student of philosophy. Rated 3.7/5.
- “Invaders“, a novelette, F&SF October 1990. Rather postmodern story involving the Pizarro conquest of the Inca’s, an alien visit by very trashy aliens (Krel) looking for thrills, and a “current space/time” person talking about writing SF, etc. A man uses a Krel time machine to go back in time and warn the Inca’s, to a very different result in that timeline. I really liked this. Locus nominee, Dozois Best of. Rated 3.8/5.
- “The Lecturer“, a 1984 short story, first published in “Light Years and Dark: Science Fiction and Fantasy of and for Our Time” (1984, Michael Bishop, Berkley Books). A great story of a newly hired professor at a second rate college, and the Lecturer. You can interpret this as SF or fantasy, but central to the story is the mystery of a Lecturer on a pedestal in the quad who never stops lecturing, ever, and has been there at least since the 1890s. Rated 3.8/5.
- “Buffalo“, a short story, F&SF January 1991. Sturgeon/Locus winner, Hugo/Nebula nominee. Great, possible alternate history involving Kessel’s father in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, and H. G. Wells. Rated 4.1/5.
- “Clean“, a novelette, Asimov’s March 2011. Although I have substantial doubts about the possibility of rolling back Alzheimer’s/dementia by erasing memories, this is a great story with well wrought characters. My emotional response is certainly colored by my lived experience, with multiple elderly family members now and in the past with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Rated 3.9.
- “Another Orphan“, a novelette, F&SF September 1982. I am not a fan of Herman Melville, but I have never given him a chance, and I have not heard anything about him or his fiction to make me want to change my mind. This story is clearly about Captain Ahab in some way. There is also a duality of existence – the protagonist may be a sailor on the Pequod dreaming he is a 20th century commodities trader, or he may be a commodities trader dreaming of being a sailor on the Pequod. I am sure there are subtleties about this story I don’t get in the context of Melville and Ahab. Even though I don’t want to do the hard work to figure some of those things out, it’s still a great story. Nebula winner and Hugo and Locus finalist. Rated 3.8/5.
- “Consolation“, a short story, first published in “Twelve Tomorrows” (2015, Bruce Sterling editor, Technology Review, Inc.). A very good story, a slice of life in the post breakup of the US in the Northeast. The common element to the story characters and scenes is an assassination by an anti-immigrant group. Rated 3.7/5.
- “The Baum Plan for Financial Independence“, a short story, Sci Fiction, March 2004. I love this story of a ne’r do well and a woman he knows, and their mysterious journey to a place that benefits both of them. It’s not clear if she knew about it beforehand, or was just lucky. Some correlation with the Wizard of Oz, although Kessel notes in the Story Notes that this was unconscious until he chose the story title after the fact. Rated 3.8/5.
- “The Dark Ride“, a novella, F&SF January-February 2021. A great story of a young, rather isolated anarchist who kills President McKinley, partly in opposition to the elites and industrialists and businessmen he believes McKinley supports and partly out of hope of impressing Emma Goldman. A separate plot thread is intertwined with a story of how his “dark ride” at the Buffalo Exposition to the moon has real experiences, perhaps. Very well done! Sturgeon finalist. Rated 4/5.
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