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by James Patrick Kelly

What makes a short story memorable? Some might point to vivid characters, others might prefer a well-paced and possibly twisty plot. Hard SF types might insist on the primacy of the idea, or perhaps the elegance of the worldbuilding. Of course, all of these are important. However, for me what matters most is whether a story has something to say. Understand that I do not mean to denigrate pure storytelling. But often when a writer is truly passionate about his subject, that passion energizes the characters, plot and setting in discernable — although mysterious — ways. After I’ve read a memorable story, I imagine that the writer spent all those weeks, or even months, laboring to get a vision out of his head and onto the page because he had to, not because he’d signed a contract and was up against the deadline or because he just happened to have finished one story and it was time to start a new one.

After you have read some of these memorable stories, I think you will agree that Jim Van Pelt has something important to say. But let’s come back to that, shall we?

By the way, excuse me if I call Mr. Van Pelt Jim from now on. Some wag once warned that you should avoid meeting your favorite writer since he will almost certainly disappoint you. That may well be true in many cases, but I am here to tell you that my friend Jim is the sweetest and most unassuming writer of talent I have ever met. Not only is he a nimble conversationalist, he is also a great listener. Maybe this comes from all those years in the trenches as a gifted high school English teacher; just this year his school in Colorado recognized him with its teacher of the year award. In any event if you spot Jim across the room, don’t hang back. You’re in for a treat!

Meanwhile, here’s my problem. I need to introduce you to Jim’s stories without spoiling them for you. Now if only you would promise to read “The Last of the O-Forms” first, I could point out how wonderfully creepy the ending is. Or else I might discuss what it might mean for humanity when Carson identifies the species of the flock in “A Flock of Birds.” Or perhaps I might revel in the irony of what happens to that nasty little bully Bates when Müller opens his mouth in “Once They Were Monarchs.”

But then you’d know far too much, so I must necessarily tread lightly here. To avoid giving away all the best bits, I’m going to limit myself to mentioning just a couple stories. For a start, here is one reader’s take on Jim’s most memorable character, plot, idea and world.

My favorite character in this collection is Vice Principal Welch, the protagonist of “Do Good,” who may be at the end of a long — possibly too long — career at Lincoln High. He’s having a crisis of confidence as his retirement looms. You know this guy; he’s the one whose office you get sent to if you cut too many classes or are caught smoking out by the dumpster behind the cafeteria. Welch is convinced that students and faculty regard him as a kind of authoritarian pariah. In fact, just to drive the point home, Jim doesn’t even give Welch a first name or much of a home life. He is either Welch, or Vice-Principal Welch. What he does at school defines him as a character.

But Welch is way too hard on himself, because in his own way he truly cares about his community of students and faculty. For example, for years he has been opening student lockers after hours with his master key and has been taping $5 and $10 dollar bills to the doors with the admonition “DO GOOD.” Like so many of us, he is blind to how others see him, which is where the fantastic enters the story. Welch has been seeing ghosts at school, although Jim puts a clever spin on this conceit. The ghosts are not necessarily people who have passed away but rather those who have passed out of the halls of Lincoln High and Welch’s life. And at the end ….

Oops. Almost gave that one away.

There’s some excellent worldbuilding in “Perceptual Set,” although I also enjoyed this story for its plucky cartographer protagonist Janet. Jim does a convincing job writing from a woman’s point of view here, an accomplishment not all male writers can claim. In fact, the story begins with a witty conversation between two women, Janet and her friend Margo, who are trying to assess the personalities of the men in the crew of their mining ship by the way these men eat cheesecake. Jim effortlessly introduces romantic comedy tropes into a hard SF problem-solver. Janet is aboard a mining ship which has been diverted to examine the Gargoyle, a spherical asteroid which seems to have a face carved onto it. Can it be a natural phenomenon, or is it an alien artifact? Before too long it’s clear that Janet and Alec, whom we first see in the cheesecake scene and who has previously saved Janet’s life, will have to explore the Gargoyle.

Of course, things do not go entirely according to plan after they land and before long Janet finds herself …

Never mind. We’re almost done here. You can read it for yourself soon enough.

Jim is a talented writer who you are catching in the midst of a very promising career indeed. The Best of the Year nods have begun to roll in over the past few years for him and of course the title story was a Nebula finalist in 2004. I expect it won’t be his only nomination; people are paying attention now, as well they should. The stories collected herein are in the mainstream of our genre — or I should say genres, since you’ll be meeting up with ghosts and time travelers, spacemen and dragons. There are stops along the way in the late nineteenth century, 1942, 2005 and the far future. And some of these stories are in dialogue with classics by such genre giants as H. P. Lovecraft, Walter Miller Jr. and Ray Bradbury. Always Ray Bradbury. Jim tells a funny story on himself:

“I remember telling my mom once that I was going to be Ray Bradbury when I grew up. This was when I was really young, like seven or eight or six. I was really disappointed a couple of years later when I found out that Ray Bradbury was a person, not a job title. I wanted to be Ray Bradbury like some kids want to be firemen, like some kids want to be policemen.”

I mentioned early on that I wanted to come back to that quality which sets Jim apart from lesser writers: the man has something to say. On occasion what he has to say is not easy to hear. Jim has a definite apocalyptic streak; things aren’t going very well for homo sapiens in some of these stories. However, I don’t read them as expressions of an innate pessimism so much as they are cautionary tales. Because even in their darkest hour, many of Jim’s most memorable characters cling to a scrap of honor, or make a final gallant gesture. Many of them remain touchingly kind in the face of overwhelming adversity. They accept their fate without being crushed by it.

In “The Long Way Home” the apocalypse does happen — don’t worry, it’s over early and the plot goes on from there. Toward the end of this inspiring story, Matsui, a professor of astronomy, muses over the debate between recovering what was lost in the cataclysm and striking out to make new discoveries. He has been on the losing side in that argument and his career is now over. Nevertheless, Jim brings him to a lyrical moment:

“…when Matsui reached the faculty housing, he didn’t stop. He kept going until he reached the bluff that overlooked the sea. Condensation dampened the rail protecting the edge of the low bluff, and it felt cold beneath his hands. Moonlight painted the surf’s spray a glowing white. He thought about moonlight on water, about starlight on water. Each wave pounding against the cliff shook the rail, and for a moment, he felt connected to it all, to the larger story that was mankind on the planet and the planet in the galaxy. It seemed as if he was feeling the universal pulse.

“Much later, he returned to his cottage and his books. He was right. Chesnutt replaced him on the committees, but Matsui wasn’t unhappy. He remembered his hands on the rail, the moon like a distant searchlight, and the grander story that he was a part of.”

My friends, turn the page. It’s time for you to take part in that grander story.

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