The Pure Product by John Kessel


You can read this story for free, courtesy of Clarkesworld Magazine.

In this story we follow the antics of the mysterious narrator as he inflicts a trail of nihilistic violence across the backwater states of America. While it’s a little ambiguous regarding exactly what’s going on her – he could be a psychotic, or maybe the title hints at drugs or some other artificial stimulant – there’s the strong implication of something fantastical going. When he meets another wandering psycho murderer, he deduces she’s like him from her voice, ‘the accent of my own time. Later he reminisces about a life in sixteenth century England and scans the paper looking for evidence of others like him, causing mayhem.

An analogy is drawn between the past and the third world, with the people from the future using their economic power to exploit the natives. It reminds me It’s a little like Mozart in Mirrorshades by Bruce Sterling and John Shirley in its use of time travel as a political metaphor.

This kind of colonialist thinking is deeply embedded in science fiction as we’ve seen many times before, even where it’s been criticised as here: critique or praise, there’s an underlying assumption that this relationship is the inevitable one. There’s an interesting underlying consideration that these stories equate the developing world with our own past: in the future, they’ll become like us if left to develop according to their own devices. It’s even embedded in the language of the developing and developed world.

This story doesn’t take on the economic argument directly, as ‘Mozart in Mirrorshades’ does, but looks instead at the moral hazard that this kind of power relationship generates. Rather than an economic exploiter, the narrator in this story is a bored and jaded tourist, loaded with self-loathing that he’s acting out on a world that’s unequipped to restrain him.

The ultra-violence has a reasonable pedigree. It makes me think of 70s Ballard and Ballard-influenced bad boys like Brett Easton Ellis and Martin Amis in the 80s, and Chuck Palahniuk and Will Self in the 90s. It’s the fiction of shock: it shocks the reader with it’s amoral view on the violence of its protagonists. It tries to show, perhaps, that only shock tactics can shake the quiescent classes from their stupor or, as here, that not even the most violent changes really make a difference to the world.

I am reminded of something I read by John Gray:

Even at its most pessimistic, science fiction has always been a humanist genre. The consoling assumption has been that while civilisation may be flawed and fragile, it can always be rebuilt, perhaps on a better model, if only humans have the will to do it.

This story – and others of its type – suggest the opposite. There’s no way to change the world, nothing that can be done. It is, as Gray points out, the antithesis of what we understood to be the genre’s key value – that humanity could change the world for the world for the better.

It ties in as well to Paul Kincaid’s assertion that writers seem currently unable to imagine the future, here expressed as a nihilistic denial of the possibility of change at all, for better or worse. Like Kincaid, though, one has to ask whether this is because the nihilistic view is a true depiction of the world or lack of vision on the part of the writer.

A clue to answer perhaps comes from the foreward to the story. ‘John Kessel … is a professor of American Literature and the director of the creative writing program at North Carolina State University.’

Remember when science fiction writers were engineers, chemists and mathematicians? Men of, you know, science? These types of writers are still engaged with the genre, I suppose, but there’s scant evidence of them here. The other writers with an academic career we’ve encountered so far include John Crowley who teaches English and creative writing at Yale, Greg Bear who teaches (or taught) creative writing at San Diego University and Bruce Sterling, who has held a number of academic posts in futurology and design which is closest we get to a technical discipline for writers in the volume so far, at least.

Now just to be clear, I have a BA in English literature and an MA in creative writing. If this is a crisis in science fiction – fiction as a whole, even, then I guess I am part of it in my small way. I am just evidence, I suppose, to that extent that literature has become institutionalised, and science fiction no less than the rest. As a result we get these sorts of finely executed stories and novels that don’t really have much to say.

Posted in reading log, science fiction is dead, short stories, The Best of the Best

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