By Cheryl Morgan
The new book by James Patrick Kelly, Burn, from Tachyon Publications, reads more like a novella than a novel. It is very short — a mere 178 pages — and it has none of the subplots and sidetracks that form such an important part of the novel-writer’s toolkit. Also it has the sort of sting in the tail that normally works well for shorter fiction but falls flat in a novel. I was not surprised, therefore, when Kelly told me it was only 39,000 words, and therefore definitely a novella by the Hugo rules. Short though it may be, however, it certainly does not lack for punch.
The world of Walden has not always been so known. The original settlers called it Morobe’s Pea, because it was so small. They worked it hard, and when Jack Winter purchased the planet it was on the verge of environmental collapse. That suited Winter perfectly, because he wanted somewhere cheap where no one would mind his building a paradise.
The world according to Chairman Winter is to be a paen to simplicity. Settlers must agree to abandon their past lives and commit to a regime of agricultural life that forswears most technological aids, and absolutely forbids body enhancements. Walden is to be the last refuge in the universe for the purebred human being. Unfortunately, some of the original settlers, despite generous inducements, refuse to leave. These "pukpuks" insist that Walden is their home, they are staying, and they are not going to change their way of life. This proved very useful to the colonists when they were struggling to gain a foothold on the wasted world they had purchased, but as time went on they found that the pukpuks were a constant source of Temptation. The next generation, rather than following their parents in committing to Winter’s Transcendent State, were asking to leave. Something had to be done.
So Winter and his people accelerated the terraforming. They brought in a type of tree that grew phenomenally quickly, and soon began to encroach upon the barren areas where the pukpuks lived. The pukupks, naturally, fought back. They burned the forest. For the most part they did not deliberately attack people, but a forest fire is not easy to control, and in any case the Waldenese did their best to put the fires out. People died. And the pukpuks died too, because some of them were so desperate to keep their homeland that they would immolate themselves during their fire-raising raids. They were, Chairman Winter pointed out, terrorist fanatics.
Prosper Gregory Leung is a successful farmer, a well-respected grower of apple trees. He lives in the aptly named Littleton, has married the sister of his best friend from childhood, and ought to be able to look forward to a long, happy, and very simple life. But reality has a habit of spoiling such dreams. To start with, his beloved Comfort appears to have been rather too aptly named. She’s not cut out to be a farmer’s wife. Bedsides, someone has to fight the fires. Spur, as he is known to his friends, and Vic, Comfort’s brother, volunteer for the fire brigades. Which is where Spur discovers that Vic is a pukpuk sympathizer, and that neither of them are very good soldiers. When Spur next wakes up, Vic is dead, and Spur is in a very high tech hospital recovering from serious burns.
Suddenly having access to sophisticated communications gear, Spur tries to trace his ancestry, which is how he manages to make accidental contact with The High Gregory of Kenning (Gregory L’ung to his friends). What is clear to Spur is that he has mistakenly phoned a rather intelligent 10-year-old boy. What isn’t clear to him is that this kid has sufficient political clout to demand to be taken to Walden to meet Spur in person so as to learn more about that sorry world. Everything goes downhill from there.
There are two important lessons to be found in the book. The first concerns the nature of isolated communities and human curiosity. As the High Gregory’s guardian puts it:
"We’ve always wondered how isolation and ignorance can be suitable foundations for a human society. Do you really believe in simplicity, Spur, or do you just not know any better?"
The other lesson is all about wars and fires. A forest fire is a truly devastating event. It kills just about everything in its path: trees, other plants, animals, birds, even fish boiled in the streams. But when it is over, nature rebuilds. The forest takes life again, and after a few generations there is no sign of its passage. Wars are devastating too, but unlike the forest, humans remember. Indeed, they build memorials. In part, of course, those are to remember the dead, but they also serve to preserve hatred. In the wrong hands they can be used to ensure that the sins of the enemy are visited upon their sons, and on the sons of their sons, yea, even unto the utmost generation. Trees can’t talk. Humans can, but sometimes it takes a lot to get them started. Then again, if you get the right group of humans, all it takes is a game of baseball.
All of which is to say that Kelly has produced a very thoughtful book in Burn, and one that I am sure you can see has particular relevance today.