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The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories
John Kessel
Small Beer Press, 336 pages

The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories
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
SF Site Review: Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology
SF Site Review: Feeling Very Strange
SF Site Review: Feeling Very Strange
SF Site Review: Corrupting Dr. Nice
SF Site Review: The Pure Product

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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In a genre like science fiction, where magazines and anthologies have played such a significant part in the development of the literature, it is inevitable that some writers will make their greatest impression in the short story. John Kessel is one such writer. His novels have been well received but not groundbreaking; it is as a short story writer that he has proved most impressive.

So it is strange, to say the least, that so few of his stories have been brought together in collections. In fact, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence is the first collection to appear in ten years, and I am aware of several fine stories in the interim that have not been gathered here.

What makes Kessel the sort of writer we should pay more attention to is not a particular quality of style. Like many fine writers he adapts his style to the story he has to tell. Nor is it that he is an especially innovative writer. You do find fresh ideas in his work, but rarely of the kind or scale that blow you away. Kessel is not a writer you turn to if you are looking for the old fashioned astonishments of science fiction.

No, what makes John Kessel so interesting is that he is one of the most reflexive, one of the most self-aware writers around. He is acutely conscious of the fictionality of the genre, and plays with it. He reacts to stories with new stories, with new perspectives. This isn't just a postmodern game letting the characters know that they are in a story, rather it is recognising how much story shapes our understanding of the world and putting that at the core of his fiction. Virtually every piece in this collection either picks up on other fictions -- there are references to writers as varied as Mary Shelley, Flannery O'Connor, L. Frank Baum and Karen Joy Fowler in this book -- or else uses the reading or telling of story as a key to the plot.

Perhaps the most telling expression of this awareness of story is in "Stories for Men," one of five pieces gathered here that is set in or around a matriarchal lunar colony. All five present a fairly simple reversal scenario: the social and cultural roles of men and women have been reversed, so this is rule according to the feminist agenda not the masculinist. Kessel presents such role reversal scenarios in other stories also, for example in "The Invisible Empire," a response to Karen Joy Fowler's "Game Night at the Fox and Goose" which I'll come back to later. These stories can be too simply structured to make anything other than an obvious point, and obvious points don't make for good stories. But in "Stories for Men," he allows himself the space to make something more of the situation, and the key to this extra lies in an old anthology called "Stories for Men" that the protagonist, Erno, comes across.

The matriarchal society we discover in this lunar colony effectively denies men any rights and responsibilities in the running of the colony, but does so under the guise of giving them greater freedom. How limited this freedom is we learn when Erno starts to follow a stand-up comedian/philosopher called Tyler Durden whose shtick, through his stand-up routines and through daring practical jokes, is to undermine the self-righteousness of the ruling class. Kessel presents the leading voices in the matriarchy as both humourless and authoritarian, as if this is a natural consequence of anyone, male or female, ascending to positions of power. Certainly there is enough to make us cheer Durden's anarchistic escapades, which is precisely what Erno does. But in his first encounter with Durden, Erno comes across the book, and in reading these mid-twentieth century tales of boxers and petty criminals and adventurers he gets a very different picture of the role and character of men than he sees around him. The aggression that is common in those stories is something he doesn't understand, but that lack of understanding in turn leads to questions and doubts about the society in which he finds himself. These come to the fore when Durden is arraigned before a court of all the colony's women, and Erno witnesses a sort of social aggression employed against his friend that he had not recognised in his society before. By the end of the story, still assailed by doubts and uncertainties, Erno finds himself standing beside Durden in the dock, awaiting the ultimate sanction of expulsion from the colony. A later and considerably inferior story in the sequence, "Sunlight or Rock," picks up Erno living a pathetic hand-to-mouth existence in another lunar colony, and by contrast suggest that freedom from want, as he had enjoyed it in his earlier life, was indeed utopian compared to the other freedoms he now possesses. Unfortunately, because it is a weaker story, less complex in both structure and argument, this conclusion remains unconvincing.

"Stories for Men," understandably, won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, but the issue of gender roles is something Kessel comes back to again and again. In "The Invisible Empire," for instance, we glimpse a puritanical alternate world in which women are very much the underclass. In response, a group of women have banded together as a sort of Ku Klux Klan, riding out disguised in robes to avenge attacks upon their sex. It is a neat if rather simplistic scenario, but it would only really work as an inverted mirror held up to our own world if, in reality, the Ku Klux Klan had been made up of the black underclass defending their rights rather than, in reality, the white overclass defending their authority.

Fortunately, most of the stories that touch upon gender politics do so far more subtly. Men in Kessel's stories are forever finding themselves at odds with their society, uncertain of their role and function and hence of their own identity. Railroad, in "Every Angel is Terrifying" (perhaps the best story in the collection), "had always imagined that the world was slightly unreal, that he was meant to be a citizen of some other place." Instead he is trapped as an escaped prisoner trying to merge invisibly into a depression-era small town, even if it turns out no-one else believes in the crimes he feels compelled to confess. Similarly, Ben in "The Snake Girl," "felt like he was from another planet," which may be why he can never quite understand the girl he falls in love with at university. Sid, in "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence," literally crosses into another world, one in which he is no longer a small-time loser but has access to as much wealth as he could desire. Yet he feels as uncomfortable in that glimpse of Oz as he does in our world, and though he returns to our world a multi-millionaire, there is a sense that he will always feel out of place. It is not comfortable to be a man in a John Kessel story.

Generally there are two types of men in Kessel's stories. In those last three stories, and in others like "Powerless" which follows an obsessive and self-destructive quest to invent an engine powered by the rotation of the earth, men tend to be hapless, never entirely easy in any of the roles society tries to cast them into. They usually lose the woman because that would entail commitment, and that, in turn, would mean accepting something about the world and their place within it. They may be losers, but at least they come through in the end. In contrast there is the subject of "The Last American," Andrew Steele, the last President of the United States. Cast in the form of a review of a multi-media biography (another instance of the influence that story has on Kessel's view of the world), it presents someone who is the opposite of every other male in these stories, aggressive, aggrandizing, arrogant, comfortable in his rough, rude masculinity. And it is a story of achievement against the odds, an ascent to power and the wielding of that power in a tough uncompromising manner. Yet at the end there is a sense that this, alone of all these stories, is a tale where we are required to look askance at its subject.

Not that the women necessarily fare that much better. Other than the hard-riding heroines of "The Invisible Empire" or the rather fearsome autocrats of the lunar stories, the strongest character is probably Miss Mary Bennet in "Pride and Prometheus," in which the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice encounter Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creature. It is becoming impossible to keep count of the number of novels and short stories that revisit Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, though this is certainly one of the better examples. This is at least in part because of the novelty of including Jane Austen in the mix, and even more because of the consistent way in which Kessel views the action from the point of view of Mary Bennet. Rather than the horror of monstrosity, therefore, this becomes a story about the constrictions of society. Kessel's women are as trapped by perceptions of what they should be and how they should live their lives as his men.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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