Empire State — “The Biggest” by James Patrick Kelly

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Empire State, March 2012

“The Biggest” by James Patrick Kelly

Reviewed by Richard E.D. Jones

Adam Christopher is a very lucky author. First, his debut novel Empire State, about New York City, an alternate reality version of that city, and the superheroes and private dicks that populate the two, gets published by Angry Robot.

The book is actually pretty good, although we’re not here to review that. The point is, though, it’s a pretty good book that manages to attract some attention. Working quickly, Angry Robot decides to start actively encouraging pros and amateurs to do a bit of fan fiction in the world of Empire State.

And here’s where author Adam Christopher gets so very lucky. One of the people who decided to contribute to the world-building effort is a man named James Patrick Kelly.

And James Patrick Kelly, well, he’s James Patrick Kelly. I mean, come on, the dude has won major awards, had a long and distinguished career and, for my money, is one of the best short-story writers out there. I certainly remember dancing the happy dance when I discovered his website and saw all those stories of his available for free.

The good news for the folks behind the world-building of Empire State, is that getting James Patrick Kelly to write a story set in that milieu did exactly what they wanted: The story got me interested in reading Empire State because of the author of this shared-world story. Also, because Kelly’s been monkeying around in this universe, I’m glad I purchased the book in the first place and I’ll certainly spread the word. So. Mission accomplished. Still, though, there’s the actual story and I did have my doubts.

This is Kelly’s first superhero story. There are a number of tropes and pitfalls many new writers fall into when they first try to step into this expansive, but still rigidly structured genre. I worried that he would make a severe misstep, maybe pursue something old and worn out under the mistaken belief that it was something new because he’d never heard of it. I worried a lot.

I am an idiot.

Sure superheroes come with a lot of very distinct baggage. Sure some of the genre conventions are difficult to grasp by outsiders. Sure it’s easy to fall into the trap of making the power the story instead of by whom and how the power is wielded. But, come on. This is James Patrick Kelly. I shoulda known.

He, at least, did know. “The Biggest” by James Patrick Kelly is a great short story, calling back to the Depression-era times that saw the birth of the superhero and the birth of the comic book.

Filbrick Van Loon was, like so many at the time, unemployed. Big, as he liked to be called, had worked for the grocer before his till kept coming up short. After that, he’d drifted into bootlegging and being a thug for a local loan shark. That all changed when he rescued those people from the burning building.

When Big concentrated, he could draw “stuff” up into himself, making his body grow to enormous heights and sizes, becoming super strong in the process. The only problem was, the more stuff he brought in, the less he was able to move and, at really big heights, the less he was able to think. Not a good combination.

When the bootlegging begins to get hot in Utica, Big heads to the big city. Along the way, he meets the Governor of New York, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who barely remembers giving Big a medal of honor for the rescue and causing him to think about using his powers for good, rather than personal gain.

Big embraces Roosevelt, asking for a card that he might use to get a job fighting crime with his powers. Roosevelt, his mind mostly on his upcoming run for President, gives Big the card and then promptly forgets about it.

Once Big hits the Big Apple, he has an eventful twenty-four hours. He gets big and removes the stinking corpse of King Kong from where it had fallen from the Empire State Building. He also changes into his costume in a phone booth. Unfortunately, he left all the rest of his stuff, including Roosevelt’s card, in the phone booth and someone walked off with it.

After a sleepless night at the poor house, Big goes to the bridge dedication at which Roosevelt will be speaking. There’s an intervention by another powered New Yorker, and Big must make a quick decision, that leads to a . . . big sacrifice.

I’ll be straight with you, readers. Right up until the very end, this was a remarkably good story, full of breezy dialogue, great period touches and a nice use of powers, especially showing the possible consequences of their use.

It’s just the end I’m having trouble with. Kelly brings us right up to the very moment of Big’s decision and action and then ends the story. It cuts to a current-day Wikipedia entry, which gives a quick overview of Big’s big day and what happened to him at the bridge. I really felt like this was a cop out.

The Wikipedia entry felt like it came out of nowhere, as if Kelly had decided enough was enough and it was time to move on.

Except for the ending, I really did like this story. It had some believable characters and some fantastic situations. As usual, Kelly grabbed me by the eyeballs and tugged me along for a neat little story.

It’s definitely worth reading, especially seeing as how it’s free. Give it a chance.