Gary K. Wolfe Reviews The First Law of Thermodynamics by James Patrick Kelly

The First Law of Thermodynamics, James Pat­rick Kelly (PM Press 978-1629638850, $14.00, 128pp, tp) August 2021.

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, PM Press’s Outspoken Authors series, which began in 2009 with titles by Kim Stanley Robinson and series editor Terry Bisson, has become a reliable literary loot box, now up to its 27th volume with James Patrick Kelly’s The First Law of Ther­modynamics. My immediate thought was, it’s about time – not only because Kelly is clearly outspoken (what author wouldn’t want to claim that?), but because his body of work, dominated by short fiction and the occasional provocative essay or argumentative anthology co-edited with his pal John Kessel, seems ideally suited to the mixed-appetizer format of these short collec­tions. In this volume, we get three short stories, two one-act plays, the customary waggish but insightful interview with Bisson, and a truncated bibliography of Kelly’s work (which sends you to his website for more detailed lists). While it is not nearly as much an overview of Kelly’s fiction as his three early Golden Gryphon collections or the more recent The Promise of Space and Other Stories, it’s not supposed to be. Much of the appeal of these PM volumes is that they con­vey something of the feel of meeting up at a bar with a favorite author (or even one new to you) and getting a sense of what they’re about, both in and out of their fiction.

Of the three stories included, the most famous is probably the Locus Award winning ‘‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’’, in which a middle-aged woman in 2038 visits her long-estranged actor father in a Beatles-themed care facility, where she is greeted by four-year-old version of herself. This turns out to be a caretaker bot, who also the father’s legal guardian. Initially furious at the situation, the narrator even­tually comes to realize the extent of her father’s dementia–dwelling in a past where he’d never quite made the A-list. She’s surprised to learn of her late mother’s generosity toward the old man, and begins to come to terms with her own past. Bot caretakers also play a central role in ‘‘The Best Christmas Ever’’, in which a ‘‘biot’’ named Auntie Em tries heroically to sustain a rapidly fading last man on Earth, largely by inundating him with cookies and pop-culture memories of his past, ranging from Ronald McDonald and the Jolly Green Giant to It’s a Wonderful Life. In both of these stories, Kelly skillfully evokes the role of the past – our present – in sustaining his rather sad male figures, but ‘‘The First Law of Thermodynamics’’ is positively drenched in 1960s counterculture, beginning with an extended acid trip on the part of a student calling himself Space Cowboy in 1970 and ending with a surpris­ing and sobering view of his future.

The two short plays are both really blackout sketches. ‘‘Someone Else’s Problem’’ offers a still-timely satire of middle-class complacency, as a married couple dealing with an alien invasion (their alien is named Tweel, in a nod to Stanley Weinbaum) fall back on their faith that ‘‘Someone who isn’t us will figure whatever needs figuring out… out.’’ ‘‘Donut Hole’’ is a kind of Franken­stein sitcom with two techs in a ‘‘re-bodying lab’’ putting the finishing touches on a new body for the recently deceased Manny, but with mixed results that lead to an identity conundrum. Kelly’s essay ‘‘Who Owns Cyberpunk?’’, originally published in 2012, now seems like more of an excursion into literary history than a contribution to an ongoing debate, but his insights into the origins and evo­lution of cyberpunk are still valuable, as are his reminders of the important but less widely cited contributions of writers like Lewis Shiner, Pat Cadigan, and George Alec Effinger. As always, the chat with Bisson is entertaining, with Kelly ex­plaining how he finagled to attend Clarion twice, his work on the New Hampshire Arts Council, and the important polemical anthologies he edited with John Kessel in 2006-2012.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the October 2021 issue of Locus.

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