Have you ever heard the theory that giving away content can encourage people to buy? Well, it worked on me. After I listened to James Patrick Kelly read “Burn” on Free Reads, I bought a copy. In hard-cover. And a collection of his short stories, Strange But Not A Stranger, also in hard-cover. In “Burn,” Prosper Gregory Leung (you can call him “Spur)” is a firefighter on a world called Walden. It’s supposed to be one big Simplicity movement, but Spur has been hurt badly enough to need Upsider healing. When his docbot gets too condescending, Spur says:
“We’re not simple here, Dr. Niss.” He could feel the blood rushing in his cheeks. “We practice simplicity.”
“Which complicates things.”
Things are complicated, no matter what Chairman Winter wants the people of The Transcendant State on Walden to think. Spur knows that, but he also knows that the hospital offers him a glimpse of the Thousand Worlds. So he dials up people with his name, and The High Gregory of Kenning answers. The High Gregory is a kid who makes luck for his clan, whatever that means. Since he’s a kid, his real job is to make trouble for everyone, and generally liven things up. When he comes to Walden, all the complexities hatch out.
But the reader is never left in the dust. The worldbuilding is ever so gracefully clued in for you, as new truths unfold from the Thousand Worlds, from Walden, from Spur’s family, from Spur himself. The characters are all remarkably human, even the upsiders. As you explore Spur’s world, you are engaged by wonderful detail, from firefighting to arrays of pie to the local rules for baseball. Once you start reading, it’s hard to stop, as every chapter is a classic pageturner, ending in a question, a revelation, or sudden peril.
Under the surface of this story all sorts of implications lurk–colonialism, truth, terrorism, being human–all left for the reader to ponder. This understated quality gives a sense of darker depths, which I wish had been explored a little more. The ending wraps things up with a powerful climax, but I was left wishing for a bit more of a denouement. In short, the worst thing I can say is I wanted more.
3 thoughts on “Re: Burn”
I should pick this up. I should read more Kelly. It’s been some time, and Jim’s good.
I wonder if “niss” is a nod to Brin’s “niss machine,” consciously or unconsciously, or if there’s and even earlier source?
What’s a niss machine?
In Brin’s universe, the niss machine is an AI on loan from a race friendly to humanity. He keeps things vague about how sentient and alive it may or may not be, but it’s an important character in the story in ‘Startide Rising.’ I think it also pops up in ‘The Uplift War’ and probably comes back for some appearances in the second trilogy.
The niss machine is presented as kind of too clever by half, because it’s clearly at least as intelligent (if not more so) than all but one or two members of the ship’s crew, and it’s probably just as capable of commanding the mission. In fact, I think the commander leaves it in charge when she has to do something else. The niss is also put in an interesting position, because it’s mission is both to aid the humans but also to report on them to it’s masters, and to manipulate them toward it’s owners ends. It winds up having split loyalties and having to choose who it’s really working for. It’s an interesting piece of writing, especially for a minor character, and one of those touches of detail that puts Brin high on my list of sci-fi authors.
That’s where I know it from. But I wonder if both Brin and Kelly pulled the name from an earlier source.
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