Casual Readers Welcome: An Interview with James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel

by Matthew Cheney

James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel have spent the last few years exploring the borderlands of the realms known, for lack of better terms, as science fiction and literary fiction. Their explorations are chronicled in three surprising and provocative anthologies: Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (2006), Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology (2007), and, most recently, The Secret History of Science Fiction (2009, Tachyon Publications, $14.95).

In 1998, the Village Voice published an essay by Jonathan Lethem, "The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction," in which he speculated about an alternative history of the genre beginning in 1973, if Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow had won the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award (for which it was, in fact, nominated) instead of Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. Clarke's novel's triumph over Pynchon's in reality was, Lethem said, "a tombstone marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream."

It is from Lethem's speculations and provocations that Kelly and Kessel begin:

We understand why some might say that, after the mid-1970s, sf went back to the playroom, never to be taken seriously again. But they do a vast disservice to the writers and readers of the next thirty years. What we hope to present in this anthology is an alternative vision of sf from the early 1970s to the present, one in which it becomes evident that the literary potential of sf was not squandered. We offer evidence that the developments of the 1960s and early ‘70s have been carried forth, if mostly outside the public eye. For years they have been overshadowed by popular media sf and best-selling books that cater to the media audience. And at the same time that, on one side of the genre divide, sf was being written at the highest levels of ambition, on the other side, writers came to use the materials of sf for their own purposes, writing fiction that is clearly science fiction, but not identified by that name.

This is the secret history of science fiction.

Kelly and Kessel are well qualified to explore this secret history. Both have been publishing science fiction stories and novels since the late 1970s, including a collaborative novel in 1985, Freedom Beach. Both Kessel and Kelly have won the Nebula Award for their short fiction, Kelly has twice won the Hugo Award, Kessel has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and both writers have frequently had their work reprinted in various annual best-of-the-year anthologies.

James Patrick Kelly currently lives in New Hampshire and teaches at the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Maine. John Kessel lives in North Carolina, where he is a professor at North Carolina State University and was the first director of NCSU's Creative Writing MFA. We conducted this interview in the fall of 2009.


Matthew Cheney: I was excited to see what stories you ended up choosing for the anthology, because when I first heard the premise, I thought it could easily fill five books. How did you narrow your choices enough for a single volume?

John Kessel: I wish we had had five books. Our initial list of authors we thought could or should be in the book was at least twice as long as the final list. Barry Malzberg, James Tiptree, Jr., Robert Silverberg, Kurt Vonnegut, Jim Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates, Joanna Russ, Michael Swanwick, Richard Powers, Kevin Brockmeier, Samuel Delany, Michael Bishop, Terry Bisson, Angela Carter, Doris Lessing, John Crowley, Scott Russell Sanders, Lew Shiner, Kim Stanley Robinson, and a dozen others were on our list, some with specific stories picked out.

Many considerations entered into our settling on the final contents page. Gender balance. Distribution over the time period of 1973–2008. The amount of money we had to spend. The ease or difficulty of obtaining rights. Story length. The degree to which the stories we could find were plausibly definable as science fiction, rather than fantasy or some other form of non-mimetic fiction. Whether the writers had strong work at short story length (many of the best examples to fit our thesis were novels).

MC: When you were choosing stories, how did you decide what was or wasn't a "science fiction" story?

Kessel: This was a tough question in some cases. One of the assertions behind this collection is that “science fiction” is not just one thing. Individual stories in the book match up with different (and not necessarily compatible) definitions of science fiction. Many stories—the Shepard, the McHugh, the Wilhelm, the Disch, the Gloss—are easily placed within conventional SF, presenting social extrapolations or the human consequences of technological change. Fowler’s “Standing Room Only,” Wolfe’s “The Ziggurat,” and Kelly’s “1016 to 1” all use time travel to different purposes. My own “Buddha Nostril Bird” plays games with SF pulp adventure.

Others are SF in less conventional ways. For instance. Boyle’s “Descent of Man” may be read as SF because it sets its absurdist love triangle between a man, his scientist girlfriend, and a great ape against the background of primatology research. Connie Willis’s “Schwarzschild Radius,” which can be read as a piece of historical fiction about the man who invented the concept of the black hole, uses the physics of black holes as a literalized metaphor. The structure of the story is dictated by a scientific theory. Similarly, Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” constructs a utopian city as a metaphor for the human condition. Chabon’s “The Martian Agent,” which has been seen as steampunk, falls under the associational-to-SF category of alternate history, bringing airships to a New Orleans in a U.S. still under British control. Saunders’s “93990” is written in the form of a scientific report on drug testing on apes, and concerns the ethics of research. All of these stories have “science” as a fundamental element in their construction, though they are not the science fiction one would have found in Galaxy or Astounding in 1952.

I suppose one of the reactions to the anthology will be arguments about whether all of these stories are truly science fiction. Our introduction makes the case that science fiction has never been as coherent a genre as it seemed to be in the ‘30s through the ‘50s when magazine SF at least appeared to dominate. Science fiction—by Huxley, by Čapek, by Stapledon, by Vonnegut—was always being written outside of the genre magazines, to different standards.

MC: I'm still a little perplexed about "Omelas" as a science fiction story—is a utopian story inherently science fiction?

Kessel: The Venn diagrams of utopian and science fiction have historically overlapped. And Le Guin makes a point of saying that Omelas is not some anti-technological "back to nature" fantasy—it is a modern, even futuristic city, with all the amenities we expect from a technological civilization.

James Patrick Kelly: I agree with John that the literature of utopian societies more often than not can and should be read as science fiction, although this is not inherently the case. Certainly if one were to write a story set in one of the American utopian experiments, say the Oneida Community or the Hog Farm, it need not be science fiction. But since most literary utopias are in the tradition of Thomas More’s “'No place'land”—and I think that Le Guin is checking in with that tradition with her either/or descriptions of the mores and technology of Omelas—I’m not sure what other term fits.

MC: You each have a story in the book. Why? How did you happen to choose these particular stories of your own?

Kelly: This was mostly John’s idea. It was entirely conceivable that we could have had stories in either or both of our other two books for Tachyon. I think a strong case could be made for putting a story of John’s in Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. I might just have squeaked in as well. I probably belonged in the Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology, and I can think of a couple of stories of John’s that would have fit. But we were too circumspect to include ourselves for the obvious reason. So why did we change our minds?

John will have to answer for himself, but in my case it was to pay my respects to the writer I was when I broke into the field and to honor that young man’s perseverance, however wrongheaded, in following his literary ambitions. Both John and I have a kind of dual citizenship: as kids and teens we loved science fiction in all its incarnations and consumed mass quantities of it with little regard for the quality of what we were reading. But we are also English majors—and John has a Ph.D.!—and in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s we reached intellectual maturity under the influence of the academy with its many prejudices against genre. When I started to find my voice as a writer, I believed that my main chance was to try to marry the intellectual excitement and narrative drive of SF with the emotional complexity and dense characterization of literary fiction. This despite the fact that at the time my models for this kind of career, Robert Silverberg and Barry Malzberg, seemed to be despairing that such a synthesis was sustainable in genre. If I could travel back in time and tell idealistic young Jim that a book like The Secret History would be published someday and that he would be in it, I think that it would have meant as much to him as all the other honors I have received. And so “1016 to 1” is an exemplar of what I hoped to achieve. It is a kid’s ecstatic vision of sci-fi forced to come to terms with an adult’s moral quandary over making an impossible science-fictional choice.

Kessel: Jim is right; putting stories by us into the book was, for better or worse, entirely my idea. As a general practice I question whether editors should include any of their own work in an anthology, and I would not blame anyone who accused us of self-aggrandizing by including our work in this one.

I had tried to get Jim to let us put one of his stories into the cyberpunk book—he really needed to be in there. But the initial bright idea I had to include our stories in The Secret History was a purely practical one—our initial advance was small, and we were negotiating with some writers who wanted higher payments than we had given in the earlier books. It looked like either the contents page was going to be short, or Jim and I would have to take much less of a payment for editing the book. I thought one way to make the book longer was to include stories by him and me, for which we would not be paid. In the end we also decided to each take less for editing the book so that we could include more stories by others. That’s how the book ended up being as long as it is.

So blame me for this lapse of editorial judgment. But I really don’t think we are out of place in the book. I chose “Buddha Nostril Bird” because it borrows the form of a pulp adventure in order to assault Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. I don’t know if that’s literature, but you can’t get more esoteric than that.

MC: I expect you had a few conversations about using the words "science fiction" in your title—it feels in some ways a little mischievous, maybe even a shot across some bows. From whom is this secret history a secret? And who needs to know the secret?

Kelly: The fact of the matter is that the title was more or less handed to us by our publisher, Jacob Weisman, and his intrepid accomplice, Bernie Goodman. They actually talked us into doing this book at the International Conference on the Fantastic in Fort Lauderdale in 2008. The title fit their original conceit of the book, which, once we signed on, we altered to fit our own vision. It occurs to me now that putting “science fiction” in the title may have been a marketing mistake, in that it immediately renders the book invisible to many of the folks we hoped to reach. However, since our argument is that the distinction between literary fiction that engages with science fiction and literary science fiction is more apparent than real, it seemed like a no-brainer to put “science fiction” on the cover. I suppose we could have put a more ambiguous title on the book that might not have been so off-putting to the literary fiction audience, say World Enough and Time or A Blink of the Mind’s Eye, in the hopes that had they pulled it off the shelf and noticed that the table of contents included not only science fiction types but also “real” writers whom they had heard of, they might have been intrigued enough to buy it. However, since we splashed the names of all the contributors on the front cover, we thought we would be all right in that regard. Time will tell.

It would be a mistake to think that what is secret about this book will be a revelation to the mainstream audience only. In our experience, the genre audience can be every bit as provincial as their literary counterparts, ready to dismiss what is happening in the mainstream as irrelevant and self-indulgent, based not on close reading but on rumor and hearsay. We hope that subscribers to Asimov’s Science Fiction will be tempted to sample more of Steven Millhauser or George Saunders after encountering them in our book, just as much as we hope that subscribers to the New Yorker might give Maureen McHugh or Lucius Shepard a look.

MC: For a reader who wanted to understand the tradition you're trying to highlight, what are some good precursors to your book?

Kessel: In some ways the yearly Judith Merril Best SF anthologies of the late 1950s and early 1960s were an attempt to do what we are doing. The early Merrill books are more conventional science fiction anthologies, but as she went along Merril reached out, changing “SF” to mean “speculative fiction,” and sometimes stretching even that term to the breaking point. For a while there in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was an attempt to merge SF with the mainstream, in original anthologies like Samuel Delany’s Quark, for instance. I don’t know how successful these experiments were. Michael Bishop’s Light Years and Dark from 1984, a combination of reprints and originals, was also heavily informed by the New Wave vision. Aside from Merril, however, I don’t think these editors reached out very much to writers not associated with the genre. And by the mid-1980s there had already been a strong reaction to the New Wave. The cyberpunks (at least the Bruce Sterling wing) did not think much of the attempt to make SF literary, which is ironic, since cyberpunk was probably the only flavor of 1980s SF that did attract at least some serious literary attention.

MC: What do you think motivated the cyberpunk disavowal of what they identified as "literature"? Is that impulse one this anthology pushes against?

Kessel: I'm not sure all of the cyberpunks disavowed "literature," but Sterling, the chief theorist of CP, definitely distanced himself from traditional humanist values. And Greg Bear (who was dragooned into the movement) enjoyed violating certain pieties of "unchanging human nature" and others were self-consciously antiestablishment. The assumption was that literary fiction was traditionalist and backward-looking.

This was not true of all literary fiction, and most certainly not of the various postmodern schools of fiction that had grown since the 1960s. Writers like DeLillo and Pynchon and Boyle, and later Saunders and Lethem, were not tied to any vision of eternal human verities or traditional forms of fiction. They rather mocked such pieties.

MC: How does The Secret History relate to your previous anthologies? It feels to me like a particularly good companion to Feeling Very Strange, which has a bit of overlap in terms of authors and techniques, though I can also see overlaps and extended arguments with Rewired.

Kelly: We definitely see it as a companion to Feeling Very Strange, since that book examines the convergence of genres that make up slipstream and features many writers not identified with science fiction. We cast as wide a net when we selected a table of contents for Feeling Very Strange as we did with The Secret History.

I see another, more subtle similarity in all three books. Stories labeled “science fiction,” alas, are seen in some quarters as hackwork, formula driven. This book argues that this perception is not only false but pernicious, but we would be foolish to say that it doesn’t exist. Slipstream, on the other hand, is something different—yes, more slippery—for many readers, certainly not “science fiction.” Thus people are more likely to judge it by what they see on the page, rather than what they’ve heard from secondary sources. I have no way to prove this, but I suspect that, to some extent, cyberpunk also escapes the taint of being traditional “science fiction.” It is also newish, a twenty-something genre (it still has all its hair and doesn’t look foolish on the dance floor), and seemingly set in a day-after-tomorrow future that might actually come to pass. There are no starship captains in cyberpunk, no aliens, no time travelers. It is more accessible since it demands less suspension of disbelief. Of course, cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk are clearly science fiction by any reasonable definition, but of the many varieties of science fiction, they are the ones that are easiest to map onto the world that we see churning around us. Most of the stories in The Secret History are similarly close to what we laughingly call reality. By juxtaposing genre and literary writers, we hope to make the book less threatening to those who are convinced that they don’t like science fiction.

So all three of our anthologies are filled with stories that do not require a lifetime of specialized reading in the genre—casual readers welcome!

MC: In some responses to the book from within the SF community, I've seen people working very hard to try to support what seems to me a fairly rigid interpretation of Samuel Delany's idea that science fiction is a language of its own that requires different reading protocols from other types of fiction. There seems to be an idea that people who are not regular SF readers cannot understand SF stories because there is something so inherently different in SF that you have to be a special breed to be able to make sense of it, and that stories such as those of Gene Wolfe can only be understood by people who are members of the sci-fi cult. But plenty of SF readers can't make any sense of Gene Wolfe stories and plenty of people who don't read SF regularly actually really love Gene Wolfe and have done wonderful close readings of his work. Have your ideas about readers and texts changed from putting the books together and seeing the reaction to them out in the world?

Kessel: I don't think Delany and others who have followed his reasoning are wrong about the different reading protocols of science fiction. But that definition of SF applies primarily to SF that takes the future for granted. The kind of immersive SF that Heinlein wrote and others followed.

But the argument we make is that (1) lots of SF isn't that sort, and (2), as you say, these protocols are learnable, and too much can be made of them. Historical fiction, for instance, also involves immersion in a strange background whose understanding comes from picking up cues set by the author. Any fiction set in a culture alien to the reader (a novel set in Heian Japan, for instance, as read by someone from 21st-century Iowa) also presents difficulties of reading. Yet we don't hear many claims that historical fiction cannot be understood by non-historical fiction readers.

Many of the difficulties that a writer like Wolfe presents to readers are actually more familiar to non-genre readers. The Wolfe story we chose, "The Ziggurat," revolves, at least in part, around the question of the reliability of the viewpoint character's perceptions and judgments. Such situations are familiar to readers of literary fiction, whereas the unreliable narrator is, until recently, less common in SF. Many SF readers do not read Emery Bainbridge in that story as unreliable. I think it is essential to understanding the story.

As for whether casual readers have taken up our welcome, I would hope that they have done so, and of the three anthologies, I would guess that Feeling Very Strange is the one that has been read the most by non-SF readers—but that’s just a guess. The Secret History is the one that I had hoped would be most noted and read by non-SF readers, but so far I have been disappointed by the rather deafening silence the book has gotten from reviewers and readers not associated with SF. It’s depressing, but I think putting the term “science fiction” in the title is enough to drive certain readers toward the exits, despite our arguments and our table of contents. The walls are strong, and the secret history is still a secret to those outside the genre who do not want to know, or worse, those who think they already know what SF is.

Kelly: John has gotten into it online with some of those who argue that there is a kind of pharmaceutical-quality science fiction, untainted by ironic, satiric, or metafictional impurities, and that this alone deserves the seal of approval. Perhaps if the term speculative fiction had ever gotten any real traction, we might concede that the term science fiction has the kind of definitional rigor that some claim for it.

But it didn’t and it doesn’t.

To insist that if Delany’s reading protocols are not invoked then we aren’t talking about true science fiction is to cast out not only the mainstream writers in our table of contents but also any number of writers who have been happily publishing in genre for years. Kelly Link believes that she is a science fiction writer. Is she mistaken? Should we ask Karen Joy Fowler to return her Nebulas? Must we renounce John Sladek? Thomas Disch? Or to put it another way, if a reader unfamiliar with the protocols reads one of the “suspect” stories in this book and decides that maybe she likes science fiction after all, will the keepers of the flame swoop down and correct her misapprehension of the genre?

The definition of science fiction has never been clear-cut. This book may in fact contribute to the erosion of its dubious rigor, but we believe that expanding its horizons is worth the trade-off.

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