by John Kessel



316pp/$24.95/February 1997

Corrupting Dr. Nice

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The motto of John Kessel's new novel may well be "The Past is just like today, only more so." Kessel postulates a world in which time travel is commonplace and travelers visit a wide variety of historical periods. This is possible because the each second the universe is in existence, several other universes are branching off to allow all possible futures. In some of his universes, the historicals (as natives are called) are aware of the time travelers, in other, untouched, universes, the travelers must be careful not to make the historicals suspicious.

The first portion of the novel explains how Dr. Owen Vannice literally bumped into Genevieve Faison and her confidence man father, August, in first century Jerusalem. This is a period during which the historicals are fully aware of the time travelers and Jerusalem is covered with modern day neon and jazz clubs, arenas and automobiles. Although there are groups of terrorists, they are the same people who would have been terrorists in the historical Jerusalem. The Romans, who have been pushed aside, offer not resistance of any sort to the time travelers.

Kessel dedicated the novel to nine Hollywood directors, including Preston Sturgiss, about whom Kessel recently wrote the short story "The Miracle of Ivar Avenue". These directors' influences can be seen throughout the novel, several of whose scenes are homages to the various men. For instance, Kessel recreates Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn's search for the jaguar from Howard Hawks's "Bringing Up Baby" with his main characters of Owen Vannice and Genevieve Faison. This is only one of the more obvious cases. Others abound throughout the novel. Several of the chapter titles are names of movies, with most of the others being movie titles with a slight twist.

The novel tells the story of Owen Vannice, a wealthy paleontologist who is bringing a baby apatosaur from the Cretaceous to 2063 C.E. When a malfunction in the time platforms occurs, Vannice, the Dr. Nice of the title, meets the Faisons. Anyone who has watched the screwball comedies of the dedicatory directors can, at that point, figure out most of Kessel's plot. However, Kessel adds a political dimension to the plot as well. As mentioned above, Kessel's Jerusalem contains malcontents, even if the Roman powers have agreed to share their dominance with the time travelers. The locale insurgents include Simon the Zealot. In this particular version of Jerusalem, Jesus (called Yeshua), was taken to the future before he met his ultimate fate. Without Jesus' influence, Simon joined a band in an attempt to regain some control of the land which he viewed as his.

Kessel's characters do not always act as real people, but that was not his goal in this novel, especially in the cases of Owen and Genevieve. They are supposed to act like characters out of a screwball comedy. In this particular screwball comedy, Kessel plays with gender. Usually, the woman is wealthy and the man is not. Vannice is heir to one of the wealthiest families in twenty-first century America.

Corrupting Dr. Nice is a fun novel. While Kessel is not the only SF writer to base work on the classic comedies of Hollywood, I feel he does a better job than Connie Willis.

"The Miracle of Ivar Avenue", Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology. Edited by John Kessel, Mark L. van Name & Richard Butner. Tor Books, 1996. Purchase Intersections from

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