Cover Image: Burn


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Burn by James Patrick Kelly- Winner of the 2006 Nebula Award, this novella takes place on an already settled planet in a recreated utopia called Walden, where the latest arrivals have decided to cover the planet in dense foliage and seek a simpler, gentler sort of life.( see Thoreau).  The original settlers don't agree and decide to rebel by burning great swatches of forest. The main character is a fireman, who's job is to stop the burning but is becoming weary to the task.  He contacts an alien prince of another world and before he knows it aliens have arrived to help the Utopian settlers. after that things move along at a sedate pace up to a somewhat convincing conclusion.  This just didn't dazzle me as much as some of James Patrick Kelly's previous stories.  Not to say it was bad, no, the ideas and the structure were very interesting, but the whole didn't satisfy.  Maybe too obvious
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On the Upside, no one will take your calls.

Prosper Gregory "Spur" Leung wakes up in a hospital. All he can remember is the fire and his skin burning. After the docbot patches him up he makes a few calls and heads home to his farm on the utopia of Walden - a planet being gradually terraformed to forest, orchards, and farms. Those few calls make the homecoming... interesting.

Every time I put this book down I made the same comment, 'I don't know what this book is about.' Even now that I've finished I'm still at a loss as to what the point of it all was. In the background, there are some ideas. In the foreground, there is a naive protagonist you could use to explore those ideas, but I'm not sure the ground overlapped at any point.

That isn't to say that this book isn't well paced, exciting, and entertaining; it is. There are some interesting themes as well, like environmentalism and competing interests. I breezed through and enjoyed reading the book, but can't help but feel that the story was missing something.

I received an advanced review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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James Patrick Kelly is an excellent craftsman of the short story, but this novella introduced too much while resolving too little. I found the behaviour of the protagonist's wife inexplicable, and it was unclear what anyone wanted or was trying to achieve - nor did anyone seem to achieve much. 

It seems to have been primarily intended as a (excuse the pun) burn on Thoreau, but there was no real substantive critique of the utopia built on Thoreau's ideas, and not much exploration of its ideology, despite plenty of opportunity. Missing the chance to be a novel of ideas, it also failed to have much of a plot or explore character in any depth, and I was left wondering what the point of it was.
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James Patrick Kelly has given us a tightly written novella centered on ecological warfare and the clash of cultures. I happen to have read it the same week I was reading "Hippie Food" by Jonathan Kauffman and I found some resonance between them. I'm from Pennsylvania so William Penn is scooting around here somewhere too, and the Amish.

Spur's grandparents were back-to-the-landers, [lander as in hippies not as in spacecraft]. Somewhere around 2400, Chairman Jack Winter bought a planet, named it Walden, and invited homesteaders to join him in his quest to preserve traditional humankind. Chairman Winter and successive waves of settlers arrived on Walden, which already had the remnants of the original human settlers, nicknamed pukpuks, and went about setting up an agrarian society that turned its back on the ways of the outer worlds.

Chairman Winter has untold wealth (and an extraordinary long life, it seems) and has built railroads and continent-wide communications networks to build his civilization. Yet, as in all communities everywhere, children and grandchildren are bitter about the choices their families made that compel them now to be farmers. The pukpuks too, are angry at the encroachment of the settlers on what they consider to be their land. Chairman Winter has declared that the world should be forest and, in one of those unethical things that dictators do, decided to break his own rules and plant enhanced trees to cover the planet and strangle the pukpuks. (This is only a novella so Mr. Kelly doesn't have time to go point to these new trees as invasive species that will cause big trouble to farmers down the line.)

The pukpuks retaliate, supported by sympathizers from the communities, and start setting massive forest fires. The novella opens with Spur in the hospital recovering from burns he received as a firefighter. He's being treated by a medibot operated by a doctor on a far planet – another of Chairman Winter's compromises.

Part of it was my background but most of it is Mr. Kelly's tight controlled writing. I was quickly caught up in Spur's story and the way it unfolds. I think that you will enjoy it too and recommend you give it a try.

I received a review copy of "Burn" by James Patrick Kelly (Tachyon) through It was originally published by Tachyon in 2005. It one the Nebula award for Best Novella in 2006, and has been reissued by Tachyon in June 2018 with a new afterword by the author.
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Burn by James Patrick Kelly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was perfectly willing to suspend judgment on this book... and I did, refusing to look up any reviews until long after I was thinking about what I read.

I wanted to like this a lot more than I did. I don't mind pastoral-type SF all that much, but it has to be rich in the internal life and lots of great ideas being bandied about. The fact this was a reaction to Walden, a perfect Luddite if there ever was one, was also fine by me. I had problems with the guy, too, but not all the way. I like nature, I like technology. I do not want to simplify my life so much that I lose out on the necessities. At all. James Patrick Kelly basically makes the same argument in this novella.

Firefighting on this regressive world. If only there hadn't been such restrictions, more could have been saved. 

I don't think there's any kind of counter-argument. Not realistically. Or at least, not in this century.

So what do we have to fall back on within the story? Characterization, a little worldbuilding, a kinda meandering live-your-life-tale that fits more in FAVOR of Walden than the counterargument, and then the big action and the reveals after the fire.

Of course, that's where I'm most interested. The many worlds and post-near-singularity galactic civilization. You know, uploaded minds. That kind of thing.

As a mirror to all that happened on the planet before, it kinda hammers a nail in the coffin. 

There are some open-ended questions that make me squirm, too, regarding his wife, but that kinda detracts from the rest of the novella rather than adding a new dimension. I did kinda like the MC before that. A memory wipe is a total PKD issue and it might have been better explored in much greater detail throughout the tale or left out of the end entirely. It just raises way too many questions and concerns regarding all these Walden people.

Such as the idea that they might all be in a zoo.

Maybe that's the point. I WANTED to like this more, but the ideas are kinda all over the place and I'd like to come away from this story chewing on a single good idea rather than a number of unsatisfyingly explored ones.
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