SCI FICTION, May 26, 2004

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"The Best Christmas Ever" by James Patrick Kelly

Set in the near future, "The Best Christmas Ever" by James Patrick Kelly is the tale of the last man on Earth, Albert Paul Hopkins (age fifty-six). Surrounded by biops–shape-changing sentients whose goal is to keep him happy and healthy–Hopkins' every wish is catered to and anticipated. But healthy is one thing, happy something totally different. Although the biops do their best to be mother figure, romantic interest, companions, and even pets to Hopkins, he is desperately lonely.

The biops attempt to create a world familiar and comforting for Hopkins, but their fractured understanding of twentieth century Americana results in outcomes alien and bizarre. Like future anthropologists discovering Darth Vader action figures and speculating on the religion that spawned such idols, their well-intentioned efforts are both tragic and comical. There is an aura of over-enthusiastic cheer overlying a profound desolation throughout.

Kelly doesn't explore the details of the cataclysm that is the cause of the near-complete extinction of mankind, but it is clear that whatever event or sequence of events was responsible, the outcome is absolute. The dearth in background leaves a lingering interest, but his characters are so well-realized and sympathetic, it is only a passing curiosity rather than a gaping flaw.

"The Best Christmas Ever" is poignant and occasionally charming. With a deft, understated elegance, Kelly shows that in the midst of despair, there can still be dignity, if not hope. It is an uplifting story, in a depressing sort of way. Definitely recommended.