The ED SF Project

The Ellen Datlow/SCI FICTION Project, that is. We're showing the love for five and a half years of great short fiction, and we need your help! We've got over 300 stories to cover, so if you're a person who loves short speculative fiction, we want you. Go here to read the list and add your voice.

Friday, November 18, 2005

"The Best Christmas Ever" by James Patrick Kelly: An Appreciation by Deb Coates

James Patrick Kelly's prose always strikes me as clean and accessible, while at the same time rich and textured and descriptive. In "The Best Christmas Ever" he tackles one of the hoary cliches of science fiction--the last man on earth. And as if that's not enough, he brings Christmas into the mix, a holiday loaded with overdone emotional and cultural resonances, which are often exploited for cheap effect in mediocre stories.

It's tempting to say that if Ellen Datlow had received this story from you or me, she would have tossed it back to us right after this passage here, which comes rather early in the story:

...she beamed an alert to all of her biops and assigned roles. She warned them that if this wasn't the best Christmas ever, they might lose the last man on earth.

But I have more faith in Ellen than that. Her ability to pick out the appealing uniquenesses of a particular story is one of the reasons she has been a successful editor in general and one of the ways she was successful at SCI FICTION. "The Best Christmas Ever" both undermines and reinforces the hoary cliche and the overdone emotional and cultural cues. Even before the "last man on earth" line, there are telling details generously seeded throughout the narrative that tell us that this story is, in fact, unique in its own ways and can be enjoyed for its writing and its sympathetic characters and even for the story itself which eventually gives us both the bleakness of unforgiving end times and traces of hope that life, though perhaps not as we've known it, may continue and that living a particular life, rather than drowning in, even understandable, despair, can be worthwhile.

From the beginning, we encounter details--specific and telling--which neatly illustrate a world that is both like and utterly unlike our own:

Aunty Em spent three days baking cookies. She dumped eight sticks of fatty acid triglycerides, four cups of C12H22O11, four vat-grown ova, four teaspoons of flavor potentiator, twelve cups of milled grain endosperm, and five teaspoons each of NaHCO3 and KHC4H4O6 into the bathtub and then trod on the mixture with her best baking boots. She rolled the dough and then pulled cookie cutters off the top shelf of the pantry: the mitten and the dollar sign and the snake and the double-bladed ax. She dusted the cookies with red nutriceutical sprinkles, baked them at 190°C, and brought a plate to the man while they were still warm.

I like this story because it is about hoary cliches and emotional resonance, because it makes promises to me, the reader, at the beginning that there will be things both expected and unexpected, that it is a Christmas story and a "last man on earth" story and yet not, that the emotion I expect to be there will be there and that there will be something else, something I don't yet know. "The Best Christmas Ever" delivers on its promises and gives me fresh insight on things I thought I knew.

Link to story.


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