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Fiction and Non-fiction


Here are a few examples of my published fiction and non-fiction, including my essay "Creating the Innocent Killer" analyzing the moral calculus of Orson Scott Card's novel Ender's Game, which over the years has received considerable attention. 

Herman Melville:
Space Opera Virtuoso

(An early story, in the form of an essay, about science fiction and literature.)







It was in 1928 that Hugo Gernsback, faced with the declining sales of his Amazing Stories, a magazine subsisting until then almost solely on reprints of Verne and Wells, was rescued from financial ruin by the appearance of a bright young star in the SF firmament: a twenty-six-year-old schoolteacher from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, named Herman Melville.


(For the rest of the story, click here)

Ten Underappreciated SF Novels


John Kessel 

Wells, H.G. 
The Island of Dr. Moreau


I know it's famous, yet it is nowhere near as well known as The Time Machine or The War of the Worlds, though it's probably Wells's best novel.  Book four of Gulliver's Travels transformed into a blasphemous evolutionary parable.



Collier, John 

Tom's a Cold (AKA Full Circle)


1930s vision of a tribalistic future in post-apocalypse England, starkly and humanely written. 

Wylie, Philip 
Finnley Wren (not really sf, but so what?)


Another lost masterpiece of the 1930s, a novel in the manner of Tristram Shandy, full of misogyny, wit, a terrifying description of a forest fire, and one-and-a-half sf stories. 

Tucker, Wilson 
The Long Loud Silence


As much as he is known as a fan, Tucker is vastly under-appreciated as a serious writer. In the 1950s he wrote a series of calm, unsentimental books about ordinary men facing extraordinary circumstances. Try this one, and then find The Lincoln Hunters and Wild Talent. 

Golding, William 
The Inheritors


The fate of the Neanderthal at the hands of Cro-Magnon. The anthropology may be dated, but the story devastates. 

Knight, Damon 
A for Anything


Knight at his most incisive punctures half a dozen sf cliches, but the power of the book is its bleak picture of the hero's submission to whatever rules. 

Simak, Clifford 
They Walked Like Men


Though I might have chosen Simak's Hugo Winning but still forgotten Way Station as an alternative, I enjoyed this book more than almost any I read in the early sixties. Uncharacteristically close to Phil Dick territory, about aliens (they look like bowling balls!) who can assume any human shape and are buying the world. Funny, horrifying, with hints of creepy sexuality.

Disch, Thomas



Overshadowed by Camp Concentration, this is Disch's best book, poised on the edge of satire, preceding his descent into epicurean cynicism. 

Robinson, Kim Stanley 

Pacific Edge


The least noted of Robinson's California trilogy contains his most gripping human story, of frustrated love. And the guts to base a plot on a zoning battle.


Creating the Innocent Killer

Creating the Innocent Killer:

Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality


by John Kessel


[This essay in slightly different form appeared originally in Foundation, the International Review of Science Fiction, Vol. 33, Number 90, Spring 2004, copyright © 2004 by the Science Fiction Foundation, on behalf of the contributors]



There's always moral instruction whether the writer inserts it deliberately or not. The least effective moral instruction in fiction is that which is consciously inserted. Partly because it won't reflect the storyteller's true beliefs, it will only reflect what he BELIEVES he believes, or what he thinks he should believe or what he's been persuaded of.


But when you write without deliberately expressing moral teachings, the morals that show up are the ones you actually live by. The beliefs that you don't even think to question, that you don't even notice-- those will show up. And that tells much more truth about what you believe than your deliberate moral machinations.

--Orson Scott Card


       Over the years I have told a number of friends that, if I had had access to a nuclear device when I was in seventh grade, there would be a huge crater in upstate New York centered on what used to be West Seneca Junior High School.

       Had Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game existed then, I might have been one of its biggest fans. I would have been enraptured by the story of the innocent who is persecuted despite his innocence, perhaps even because of it.  The superior child whose virtues are not recognized.  The adults who fail to protect.  The vicious bullies who get away with their bullying.  That was the world as I saw it in seventh grade.  Apparently this is a story that still appeals to many people:  Ender’s Game is probably the most popular science fiction novel published in the last twenty years.

      In relating Ender Wiggin’s childhood and training in Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card presents a harrowing tale of abuse.  Ender’s parents and older brother, the officers running the battle school and the other children being trained there, either ignore the abuse of Ender or participate in it.


(click here to continue)



Sympathy for the Devil: A Memoir

[This essay appeared, in slightly different form, in Contemporary Authors 235, copyright  © 2005, Thomson Gale ]




My father, John Kessel, was born in Utica, New York, in August 1904.  But when he was still a child the family returned to Poland, where they lived on a farm, in a one-room log house with a thatched roof that it shared with another log house occupied by another family.  My father and his sister, Caroline, slept on a shelf above the big Dutch oven, on a bed of straw.  The house was on a dirt road, which intersected a gravel road at a crossroads.  One day a man came running from the crossroads yelling, "The Devil is coming!  The Devil is coming!"  There was a loud buzzing, as of a swarm of angry bees.  My father and the other people ran down to the crossroads, and out of the buzzing and a cloud of dust came an apparition: a man on a motorcycle.

        My father died in November of 1993, eighty-nine years old.  In a life that spanned most of the  twentiethcentury, he had gone from a rural Poland where a piece of modern technology was a supernatural manifestation, to a world where supernatural manifestations—the Psychic Friends Network, angels, you name it—were promoted by the latest in technology.  His son became a writer of stories about the marvels of the future and fantasies of alternate reality. 

        I’m not sure I know what this means. 


(to continue, click here)

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