James Patrick Kelly’s Burn (2005) was a finalist for the Hugo Award and won the Nebula Award for Best Novella in 2007. As Kelly explains in the afterword, the story was inspired by his dislike of Henry Thoreau’s Walden which depicts a pastoral utopian society where simplicity is valued and technology is shunned.
In Kelly’s version of Walden, an entire small planet has been purchased and terraformed into a forested utopia in keeping with Thoreau’s vision. Those who move there from Earth adopt a simplistic agricultural lifestyle, rejecting technology and all influence from the humans who make up all the other planets in space (the “Upside”). The only problem is that Walden was not uninhabited and the original denizens do not appreciate their new neighbors who are trying to force their agrarian lifestyle on the rest of the planet. To show their disapproval, the natives have begun setting fires to Walden’s new forests.
The protagonist of Burn is Prosper (“Spur”) Gregory Leung, a young rather naive man of Walden who has been seriously burned while fighting the fires. During his convalescence in a hospital, he gets bored and curiously starts using forbidden technology (similar to the Internet) to look things up and to communicate with people from the “Upside.” One of the people he contacts becomes interested in Spur and arrives in Walden with an entourage. This sets off a series of events that culminates in a raging forest fire, something that you don’t see too often in science fiction stories. (This event was exciting, but went on for way too long, in my opinion.)
From my description, it sounds like Burn is a straightforward story and you can probably guess some of the themes that Kelly explores: nationalism, isolationism, the evils of colonization, the impossibility of utopia, the danger of rejecting technological tools, the problem of forcing our own lifestyles on others (including our own children).
There is all that in Burn, but probably more than anything, this novella leaves the reader with a sense of bizarreness that I found somewhat off-putting. The entourage that descends on Walden is made up of a weird cast of youngsters that don’t seem to make sense in context and don’t help the plot. They serve as occasional sources of outside ideas and influence, but mostly I kept thinking that they belonged in a different story. Part of the problem may be that I listened to the audio version and these characters were given weird childish voices, but the reader was Jim Kelly himself, so it couldn’t have been a problem with the reader’s interpretation of the story. If the kids were supposed to be comedic, I didn’t get it (though there were some other parts of the story that were funny).
I didn’t get much out of Burn, but one element I really did admire was Jim Kelly’s portrayal of a nearly absent character: Spur’s wife Comfort. She had left him shortly before he went off to fight the fires and we see very little of her in the story. We get to know Comfort mostly through Spur’s confused thoughts about her and a peach pie that she leaves in an empty house. In the end, it feels like Spur still doesn’t understand Comfort, but the reader probably will.
The audio version of Burn is 4.5 hours long. You can listen to the first hour of it here.