Burn

Burn

James Patrick Kelly

2007 Nebula Award winner
2007 Hugo Award nominee

The tiny planet of Morobe’s Pea has been sold and renamed Walden. Voluntary simplicity is now the rule, and Walden will become a rural paradise for everyone who embraces Thoreau’s philosophy. But some residents are willing to set themselves on fire to defend their own ideas.

$19.95

Burn

by James Patrick Kelly

ISBN: 1892391279

Published: 2005

Available Format(s): Hardcover

Simplicity ain’t what it used to be.

The tiny planet of Morobe’s Pea has been sold, and the new owner has a few ideas. He has renamed it Walden, and voluntary simplicity is now the rule. It will become a rural paradise for everyone who embraces Thoreau’s philosophy. But the previous tenants have their own ideas. And they are willing to set themselves on fire to defend them….

“A powerful cocktail of the strange and the hauntingly familiar”
—Cory Doctorow

“When the new owner of the planet Morobe’s Pea renames the world Walden and imposes Thoreau’s pattern of simplicity in living upon its citizens, a few rebel against the new regime, setting themselves on fire to burn down the forests introduced on Walden’s surface. Spur—a young firefighter recovering from severe burns suffered while interrupting his brother-in-law’s arson attempt—conducts his own research on his world and unleashes a series of unforeseen events by contacting a group of off-planet benevolent meddlers led by a wise child known as the High Gregory. Veteran SF author Kelly brings a unique vision to his story of a utopia gone awry. With an intriguing set of characters and a plot both chilling and charming, this remarkable tale belongs in most SF collections.”
Library Journal

“Hugo-winner Kelly (‘Think like a Dinosaur’) mixes hard-edged extrapolation with messy human issues in this thought-provoking SF novel. The inhabitants of Transcendent State, a colony of ‘true humans,’ have rejected advanced technology for lives of voluntary simplicity on a world renamed Walden. They are threatened by the pukpuk, survivors of a previous settlement who seek to stop plans to cover the planet with healthy, dense forest by setting fires in the wilderness. Now even Walden’s citizens are beginning to question their charter’s tenets of simplicity, secretly trading produce and handmade goods for pukpuk tech through a thriving black market. The spark that will ignite Walden’s final conflict comes from one of its own, firefighter Prosper ‘Spur’ Leung, when he unwittingly contacts the High Gregory of Kenning, ruler of a distant world. ‘I make luck,’ the High Gregory says, turning Spur’s commitment to Walden’s (and Thoreau’s) philosophy of self-reliance and the primacy of nature upside down. Kelly’s many-layered story pivots on a set of paradoxes, asking questions about the difference between innocence and willful ignorance, responsibility and balance, and the true essence of nature.”
Publishers Weekly

“Bored while recovering from burns received in the line of duty, fruit farmer turned fireman Spur decides to contact similarly named people throughout the Thousand Worlds. He reaches a boy on a throne, who says he makes luck and becomes very interested in Spur’s world, the small planet Walden, designated a simple-living utopia by the wealthy man who bought it from its mother planet. A few days later, homeward bound from the hospital, a hover stops the train to take Spur aboard. On the aircraft are the boy, a gaggle of other children from other worlds, and their superintendent. The kids are all extraordinary and, as it happens, intent on resolving the warfare on Walden, which consists of the pre-utopian inhabitants setting forest fires to resist the forestation of all the land the Waldenites don’t farm. Besides its fireman hero (a reversal of Montag in Fahrenheit 451) and its would-be-utopian setting, the warm humanity and rural sympathies of this affectionate, winsome short novel will make many recall Ray Bradbury at his best.”
Booklist

“With his immaculate prose and perfect structural tricks, Kelly’s book offers a richly satisfying blend of adventure and philosophy.”
SciFi.com (Grade: A)

“James Patrick Kelly is one of the masters of science fiction. He imagines futures both high-tech and human, both dizzyingly complicated and determinedly simple, and then sends us to Walden, where simplicity is anything but, and even Henry David Thoreau begins to look disturbingly different. Burn is inventive, moving, and involving. It’s James Patrick Kelly at his best, and there’s nothing better.”
—Connie Willis

“Kelly has written something fresh…some of the fundamental concepts of sf in an innovate way.”
The New York Review of Science Fiction

James Patrick Kelly is the author of five novels and several collections of short stories for which he has won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Italia awards. A popular author of short stories, he is a four-time winner of the Asimov Reader’s Poll. He has edited a number of anthologies with John Kessel, described by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as “each surveying with balance and care a potentially disputed territory within the field.” He has taught writing in the NEA-funded Arts in Education program and served as the Chair of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts.

Praise for James Patrick Kelly

“One of the finest short-fiction writers in science fiction.”
Amazon.com

“A meticulous craftsman in the demanding short-story form, as well as a tactful scalpel-wielding veteran of many a writers’ workshop.”
Publishers Weekly

“A brilliant evocation of future possibilities that establishes Kelly as leading shaper of the genre.”
Booklist (on Wildlife)

Visit the James Patrick Kelly website.

One

For the hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men.

– Walden

 

Spur was in the nightmare again. It always began in the burn. The front of the burn took on a liquid quality and oozed like lava toward him. It licked at boulders and scorched the trees in the forest he had sworn to protect. There was nothing he could do to fight it; in the nightmare, he wasn’t wearing his splash pack. Or his fireproof field jacket. Fear pinned him against an oak until he could feel the skin on his face start to cook. Then he tore himself away and ran. But now the burn leapt after him, following like a fiery shadow. It chased him through a stand of pine; trees exploded like firecrackers. Sparks bit through his civvies and stung him. He could smell burning hair. His hair. In a panic he dodged into a stream choked with dead fish and poached frogs. But the water scalded his legs. He scrambled up the bank of the stream, weeping. He knew he shouldn’t be afraid; he was a veteran of the firefight. Still he felt as if something was squeezing him. A whimpering gosdog bolted across his path, its feathers singed, eyes wide. He could feel the burn dive under the forest and burrow ahead of him in every direction. The ground was hot beneath his feet and the dark humus smoked and stank. In the nightmare there was just one way out, but his brother-in-law Vic was blocking it. Only in the nightmare Vic was a pukpuk, one of the human torches who had started the burn. Vic had not yet set himself on fire, although his baseball jersey was smoking in the heat. He beckoned and for a moment Spur thought it might not be Vic after all as the anguished face shimmered in the heat of the burn. Vic wouldn’t betray them, would he? But by then Spur had to dance to keep his shoes from catching fire, and he had no escape, no choice, no time. The torch spread his arms wide and Spur stumbled into his embrace and with an angry whoosh they exploded together into flame. Spur felt his skin crackle. . . .

“That’s enough for now.” A sharp voice cut through the nightmare. Spur gasped with relief when he realized that there was no burn. Not here anyway. He felt a cold hand brush against his forehead like a blessing and knew that he was in the hospital. He had just been in the sim that  the upsiders were using to heal his soul.

“You’ve got to stop thrashing around like that,” said the docbot. “Unless you want me to nail the leads to your head.”

Spur opened his eyes but all he could see was mist and shimmer. He tried to answer the docbot but he could barely find his tongue in his own mouth. A brightness to his left gradually resolved into the sunny window of the hospital room. Spur could feel the firm and not unpleasant  pressure of the restraints, which bound him to the bed: broad straps across his ankles, thighs, wrists and torso. The docbot peeled the leads off his temples and then lifted Spur’s head to get the one at the base of his skull.

“So do you remember your name?” it said.

Spur stretched his head against the pillow, trying to loosen the stiffness in his neck.

“I’m over here, son. This way.”

He turned and stared into a glowing blue eye, which strobed briefly.

“Pupil dilatation normal,” the docbot muttered, probably not to Spur. It paused for a moment and then spoke again.

“So about that name?”

“Spur.”

The docbot stroked Spur’s palm with its med finger, collecting some of his sweat. It stuck the sample into its mouth.

“That may be what your friends call you,” it said, “but what I’m asking is the name on your id.”

The words chased each other across the ceiling for a moment before they sank in. Spur wouldn’t have had such a problem understanding if the docbot were a person, with lips and a real mouth instead of the oblong intake. The doctor controlling this bot was somewhere else. Dr. Niss was an upsider whom Spur had never actually met. “Prosper Gregory Leung,” he said.

“A fine Walden name,” said the docbot, and then muttered,

“Self id 27.4 seconds from initial request.”

“Is that good?”

It hummed to itself, ignoring his question. “The electrolytes in your sweat have settled down nicely,” it said at last.

“So tell me about the sim.”

“I was in the burn and the fire was after me. All around, Dr. Niss. There was a pukpuk, one of the torches, he grabbed me. I couldn’t get away.”

“You remembered my name, son.” The docbot’s top plate glowed with an approving amber light. “So did you die?”

Spur shook his head. “But I was on fire.”

“Experience fear vectors unrelated to the burn? Monsters, for instance? Your mom? Dad?”

“No.”

“Lost loves? Dead friends? Childhood pets?”

“No.” He had a fleeting image of the twisted grimace on Vic’s face at that last moment, but how could he tell this upsider that his wife’s brother had been a traitor to the Transcendent State? “Nothing.” Spur was getting used to lying to Dr. Niss, although he worried what it was doing to his soul.

“Check and double check. It’s almost as if I knew what I was doing, eh?” The docbot began   releasing the straps that held Spur down. “I’d say your soul is on the mend, Citizen Leung. You’ll have some psychic scarring, but if you steer clear of complex moral dilemmas and women, you should be fine.” It paused, then snapped its fingers. “Just for the record, son, that was a joke.”

“Yes, sir.” Spur forced a smile. “Sorry, sir.” Was getting the jokes part of the cure? The way this upsider talked at once baffled and fascinated Spur.

“So let’s have a look at those burns,” said the docbot.

Spur rolled onto his stomach and folded his arms under his chin. The docbot pulled the hospital gown up. Spur could feel its medfinger pricking the dermal grafts that covered most of his back and his buttocks. “Dr. Niss?” said Spur.

“Speak up,” said the docbot. “That doesn’t hurt does it?”

“No, sir.” Spur lifted his head and tried to look back over this shoulder. “But it’s really itchy.”

“Dermal regeneration 83 percent,” it muttered. “Itchy is alive, son. Itchy is growing.”

“Sir, I was just wondering, where are you exactly?”

“Right here.” The docbot began to flow warm dermslix to the grafts from its medfinger. “Where else would I be?”

Spur chuckled, hoping that was a joke. He could remember a time when he used to tell jokes. “No, I mean your body.”

“The shell? Why?” The docbot paused. “You don’t really want to be asking about QICS and the cognisphere, do you? The less you know about the upside, the better, son.”

Spur felt a prickle of resentment. What stories were upsiders telling each other about Walden? That the citizens of the Transcendent State were backward fanatics who had simplified themselves into savagery? “I wasn’t asking about the upside, exactly. I was asking about you. I mean . . . you saved me, Dr. Niss.” It wasn’t at all what Spur had expected to say, although it was certainly true. “If it wasn’t for you, it . . . I was burnt all over, probably going crazy. And I  thought. . . .” His throat was suddenly so tight that he could hardly speak. “I wanted to . . . you know, thank you.”

“Quite unnecessary,” said the docbot. “After all, the Chairman is paying me to take care of all of you, bless his pockets.”

It tugged at Spur’s hospital gown with its gripper arm. “I prefer the kind of thanks I can bank, son. Everything else is just used air.”

“Yes, but. . . .”

“Yes, but?” It finished pulling the gown back into place.

“ ‘Yes but’ are dangerous words. Don’t forget that you people lead a privileged life here — courtesy of Jack Winter’s bounty and your parents’ luck.”

Spur had never heard anyone call the Chairman Jack. “It was my grandparents who won the lottery, sir,” he said. “But yes, I know I’m lucky to live on Walden.”

“So why do you want to know what kind of creature would puree his mind into a smear of  quantum foam and entangle it with a bot brain a hundred and thirty-some light-years away? Sit up, son.”

Spur didn’t know what to say. He had imagined that Dr. Niss must be posted nearby, somewhere here at the upsiders’ compound at Concord, or perhaps in orbit.

“You do realize that the stars are very far away?”

“We’re not simple here, Dr. Niss.” He could feel the blood rushing in his cheeks. “We practice simplicity.”