Young People Read Old SFF


James Patrick Kelly

Young People Read Old SFF

12 Jun, 2023

June 2023s’ Young People Read Old Hugo Finalists story is James Patrick Kelly’s Rat,” first published in the June 1986 The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Kelly, who first debuted in the 1970s1, has an impressive body of work, always worth seeking out. His fiction has been nominated for a wide variety of awards. Rat”, for example was both a Hugo2 and Nebula finalist3.

In the ancient and now utterly irrelevant struggle between the so-called Cyberpunks and the so-called Humanists, Kelly was often lumped in the Humanists. Simple categorization is often misleading; Rat” fits nicely into the Cyberpunk genre. Let’s see what our Young People made of it.

Rat” can be found in Think Like a Dinosaur, although readers with money burning a hole in their pockets might consider Centipede Press’ Masters of Science Fiction: James Patrick Kelly.

Young People Read Old SFF is always looking for more Young People. If you were born after 1985 and want to join, please email me at jdnicoll at panix dot com. 

1: I believe his debut was 1975’s Dea Ex Machina”, in the late, lamented Galaxy Magazine.

2: Losing to Greg Bear’s Tangents” and placing behind Robot Dreams” by Isaac Asimov, The Boy Who Plaited Manes” by Nancy Springer, and Still Life” by David S. Garnett.

3: Losting to Tangents” by Greg Bear, edged out by Pretty Boy Crossover” Pat Cadigan and placing ahead of Robot Dreams” by Isaac Asimov, The Boy Who Plaited Manes” by Nancy Springer, and The Lions Are Asleep This Night” by Howard Waldrop.


Rat” is a surprisingly complex short story, where I really benefited from multiple readings.

At one level it is a dark story of a drug mule and looking at his culpability in the drug trade.

On another it is a wonderfully sensory exploration of a very cyperpunky future world.

Then there is the central question of the story. Is the main character a man who is having a mind-altering experience on dust so he thinks he is a rat, has somehow begun transforming into a rat, or was actually a rat all along (who either imagined the human conversations or has an ability to communicate with them).

All of these parts I found to be effective individually and in combination. Kelly has a real way with words that drags you along on this very strange journey almost meaning you can miss how the descriptors become less human and more rodent as the tale goes on.

What is the truth? is there even one? I don’t know but it is a hell of a journey he takes us on.


I’ve read Rat” a few times before and have never been able to totally wrap my head around it; that’s still the case with the latest reading, but I feel this is probably intentional. There are things we aren’t meant to understand. It’s both action-heavy (it’s basically one big chase sequence) and a shot out of hell, turning into pure nightmare at the end.

I’ve read a couple editorial introductions to this and they say Rat is a man whose body has been augmented severely, but this is never actually confirmed in-story unless I missed something between the lines. Personally I’m of the belief Rat is an actual rat that has been uplifted and grown abnormally large. It would explain his reverting to animal behavior towards the end and the fact that he keeps a nest.” We find out nothing about his past or even if he used to have a different name, since its doubtful his name was always Rat. Or maybe it’s like a title. 

It’s really an allegory about how murder will out. Rat is a drug runner, specifically of dust which kills anyone who tries withdrawal from it, and so Rat is indirectly responsible for killing quite a few people; that he gets accidentally high on his own supply and done in by the drug he’s been pushing is too fitting, as if God has pointed a finger (or rather a massive hand) at him and made the call.

It’s a nasty little fable that can be read totally divorced from the cyberpunk scene of the time. It has aged better than a great deal of its peers.