Ever since reading Kress’ wonderful collection Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories I’ve been keeping an eye out for her short fiction. A number of her short works won Nebulas and Hugos, the most recent was a Hugo in 2009 for her novella The Erdmann Nexus, which unfortunately I haven’ t read yet. The novella Act One was nominated for the Hugo, Locus and Nebula award but won none of them. It was originally published in Asimov’s in 2009. As usual, it is a thought-provoking and moving story.
I always have trouble reviewing shorter works without giving too much of the story away. The text below is a bit spoilerish.
Barry Tenler is the manager of the ageing, and in recent years none too successful, actress Jane Snow. Still, there is a new opportunity waiting and Barry believes this role will do Jane’s career a lot of good. To prepare for the part, which involved the consequences of recently introduced genetic engineering techniques, Barry and Jane have arranged to meet the members of The Group, an underground organisation willing to go a lot further down the path of genetic modifications than current legislation allows. They are considered terrorists by the authorities and have some very far reaching ideas on the future of the human species. The meeting goes well enough, or so Barry and Jane think. It takes a while for the reasons of The Group for agreeing with the meeting to become clear however. And when they do, Barry and Jane realize they are in trouble.
Nancy Kress stuffs quite a lot of questions about genetic engineering in this novella. There’s the ethical aspect of experimenting on human beings, altering them in ways that are not fully understood without them having a say in it. There is also the question whether or not the product of such manipulation can still be considered human. To explore these issues, Kress uses three main elements in the story. Barry, our narrator is the first. He has his own troubled relationship with genetics. Barry suffers from achondroplasia, a mutation that causes dwarfism. A life in a world created for taller people has given him a unique perspective when it comes to genetic engineering. It has also lead him to the decision in his life he regrets most.
The second element that illustrate the main questions the novella poses are the children who have had the benefit of genetic treatments. Kress introduces the Barrington twins, among the first to receive what advocates of the technique call Arlen’s Advantage — a genetic modification that makes the children hyper-emphatic. It is almost impossible to lie to them or to even hide your true feelings. This deeper understanding of other people’s feelings would make them more sensitive, cooperative and better behaved. As the twins show, the treatment has side effects. The twins, who possess radically different personalities, also serve to point out a problem in genetics that is still poorly understood — how much of a certain trait is due to genetic predisposition and how much to nurture. When you read this novella, compare the twins’ use of their ability with the natural empathy of Jane and Barry’s gradually shifting moods. The way Kress shows us that genetic engineering is more complicated than switching a couple of base pairs in a specific gene is very well done.
A third strand in this story looks at the effects on a larger scale than the individual. Genetics is scary to a large part of the population (think of the ongoing discussions of whether or not to allow genetically modified crops) and the Group’s disregard of legislation and the opinions of other people poses a threat to public order. The final part of the story is partly dedicated to showing how such fear and anger can lead to violence and, reaching back to the individual level, how it affects Barry and Jane.
Act One is quite a dense piece of writing, I needed a couple of days to reflect on this story before I began this review. It’s one of those stories one should savour, it’s not a long text but one that demands some time to read it properly. It is definitely one of the stronger stories by Kress I have read. She must have had some fierce competition to miss all those awards. It’s an emotionally intense look at some of the questions raised by advances in genetics. Recommended reading.