James Patrick Kelly is a good writer and a great guy. So I fully expected to read through "Surprise Party" and enjoy it. Unfortunately, I ended up skipping it. It starts out with a portrait of an aging starlet. This already does not thrill me, since the whole Norma Desmond/Sunset Boulevard thing never worked for me. It's got a nice sf cast to it though, where the medium she worked in was all neural. People experienced her life recorded from her brain. Nothing new there, though. She's got one faint customer today, but she doesn't give it much mind. She's got stuff to do.
As I read the story, there were two questions with the potential to make me stick around to find out the answers: what might happen at the "surprise party" her friends are throwing for her, and what is the "neutrality" issue that she mentions without explanation? However, before we get into that, we join her as she works on a draft of a crappy series novel, continuing a series started by her late partner. This could have been funny, but instead it really dragged on. And on. And then the two questions didn't seem enough for me to stick around for more of this.
I did skim the ending, and it looks like one of the questions I should have been looking forward to was an explanation of the faint presence in her head. However, since she gave it so little thought, I didn't give it any weight. It seemed inconsequential. I'm not quite sure if that's what Kelly was going for there.
Full Disclosure: when I was reading this I was feeling a bit under the weather and was generally in a bad mood. I wonder if the hack story excerpts might have been funnier if I'd been in a better frame of mind. As it was after I abandoned this story I went and read non-fiction for the rest of the day. Non-fiction is my comfort food now, since I don't have to review it. It takes a lot more effort to closely read something you're going to review than to just read something for enjoyment. It's odd to say that reading Herodotus is more relaxing than reading Asimov's now, but such is the odd place to which my life has come.