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Corrupting Dr. Nice
John Kessel
Tor Books, 316 pages

Corrupting Dr. Nice
John Kessel
Multiple-award-winning writer and scholar John Kessel is the author of Another Orphan, Freedom Beach (with James Patrick Kelly) Good News From Outer Space, Meeting In Infinity, and The Pure Product, as well as many short stories, articles and plays.

ISFDB Bibliography
An Interview with John Kessel

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

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Anyone who read John Kessel's previous novel Good News From Outer Space and enjoyed its unique blend of humor and satire won't be disappointed by Kessel's latest, Corrupting Dr. Nice.

Imagine a world in which time travel is not only possible, but has been extensively commercially exploited. It's a world in which tourists can vacation in luxurious resorts located at various points along the time stream, and take trips to crucial historical moments to eavesdrop on important events. It's a world in which natural resources are mined in the past and sold in the present by profiteering industrial giants. It's a world populated by famous figures from history, snatched from their own historical period by time entrepreneurs.

All of this is possible because time is "quantized": each instant of time is connected to an entirely separate universe, from which stems an entirely different time continuum. So if, say, Mozart is kidnapped from one time instant and brought into the present, he will still exist in all the millions of other instants in which he was not kidnapped, and the cumulative time stream leading to the present day won't be altered.

The story of Corrupting Dr. Nice revolves around the collision -- literally -- between the innocent and somewhat nerdy Dr. Owen Vannice (the Dr. Nice of the title), a wealthy paleontologist, and Genevieve Faison, a time-traveling con artist. Girl cons boy, girl and boy fall in love, boy finds out about girl and subsequently ditches her, girl returns for revenge, girl and boy fall in love all over again -- if this sounds like the plot of a 1930s screwball comedy, it's not accidental. The novel is dedicated to a number of famous Hollywood directors of that era, and many of the chapter headings are also famous movie titles.

The manic pace of the book's action recalls screwball films like Bringing Up Baby, as do some of its story elements. (Kessel doesn't neglect the SF references either, the cleverest of which involves Ray Bradbury's classic time-travel story "A Sound of Thunder.") As in screwball comedies, the plot is less important than the set dressing, which in this case include a baby aptasaur, a dysfunctional AI, a revolt in first-century Palestine, a celebrity trial in twenty-first century New York, and a host of displaced historical figures, including St. Augustine, Gandhi, Freud, Marx, John Coltrane, James Dean, Abraham Lincoln, and several versions of Jesus. There is, naturally, a happy ending.

Kessel deftly blends comedy with social satire. He lampoons our own media-crazed culture, and doesn't lose the chance to comment on the negative aspects of time travel. The book's most sympathetic character is Simon, a Palestinian revolutionary, through whose eyes we see the callousness of the twenty-first century time profiteers and the havoc they have wreaked upon the past and its people. Mostly, however, Corrupting Dr. Nice doesn't dip that deep. Kessel's clever vision of the social transformations worked by time travel are meant to amuse rather than to educate -- he's satirizing, but not darkly. It's a confection of a book, and one of the most enjoyable reads I've had in some time.

Copyright © 1998 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. For an excerpt of her Avon EOS novel, The Arm of the Stone, visit her Web site.


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