Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Tue Jun 19 01:00:46 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #71

%T Good News From Outer Space
%A John Kessel
%D July 1990
%O paperback, US$5.95
%P 402
%G 0-812-50905-6

In the first 108 pages of Good News From Outer Space, one character goes paranoidally mad, another self-destructs after bungling an arson attempt, and a third is told that he has cancer of the testicles and must have them removed or become a zombie. All these events are fraught with symbolic comment on how doomed any attempts by humans to control their own destinies are.

Yes, it's another one of those novels. Comparisons to Kafka on the back cover. Lots of interior monologue from the characters. Hopelessness enough to open a branch office. A dubious salvation attained through the whim of fate and/or the embrace of irrationality (with everything left "artistically" vague at the denoument).

Kessel has obvious gifts as a prose stylist; I kept reading looking for the next clever bit. On the macro level, though, the book manages to be both boring and painful, an example of the sort of facile "safe" satire that breathes outrage at the human condition but in the end has no ethical solutions or even worthwhile insights to offer.

Kessel isn't quite as far gone in the literatus-disease syndrome as, say, Brian Aldiss (see RR#36); he's still actually capable of generating interesting science-fictional ideas (the Han virus and some aspects of his future society, for example). The trouble is that these remain just clever bits, chrome ornaments on a book that has a vacuum at its core.

Why vacuum? Because it pretends engagement but avoids ever taking a stand -- indeed, its message is that any stance other than a bemused embrace of one's own ineffectuality is futile. Logic is poison. Faith has no power. Courage is a joke. Everybody is crazy, but that's OK because only the idealistically anti-rational can really know what's going on. No center is possible. The only thing you can do is cling to the frightened monkey next to you and hope the sky won't fall today.

If you're impressed by tricky prose, academic in-jokes and pot-shots at easy targets, though, you'll have a good time. There's one merciless reductio done on structuralism and its sequelae that is so clever and savage and funny that I can almost forgive its self-indulgence. It segues into a mocking parable of failure at the end, though, and fails to connect with anything else in the book.

I suppose I'd've found all this more interesting if I hadn't read so many like it before. I wasn't at all surprised when I flipped to the inside back cover and discovered that Kessel has a PhD in English, because the book reads just like your typical 20th-century PhD-Lit's parochial notion of what "serious" literature ought to be. What amazes me is that mainstream reviewers and other writers keep falling for the same old cliched, dreary nonsense. Readers certainly don't; they ignore this kind of thing in droves.

Indeed, I think the saddest thing about Good News is that it's a perfect reflection of contemporary literary values. In the 20th-century mainstream this sort of thing is exactly what passes for great art. And that is why English-language "serious" literature today is in such sterile and desperate shape, why what used to be its mass audience has fled to genre books and trash "popfic". Ah, well. This, too, shall pass.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Tue Jun 19 01:00:46 EDT 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>