Reading Nancy Kress’s work is a disconcerting experience for me. I love her ideas; there is no one quite like her when it comes to integrating a Big Idea into a believable world. On the other hand, I often don’t understand her characters’ motivations and frequently find them unengaging. Subterranean Press’s new story collection, The Best of Nancy Kress — edited by Kress herself — provides some insight into her ideas and her storytelling, and is an educational, entertaining read.
There are twenty-one stories in the book, each with a brief afterword by Kress (one afterword is so brief that it’s just a set of initials). Kress discusses each story’s history, and many of these are award winners; she also includes a few that are personal favorites or display writing aspects she is proud of. The combination gave me a better insight into the mind of this innovative author.
I won’t comment on each story, but I will list them here with their year of publication and a brief synopsis. I’ll devote the rest of the review to the stories I found noteworthy.
“And Wild For to Hold” (1991): Pulled out of her time and place by far-future humans, Anne Boleyn uses her intelligence, intuition and powers of manipulation to ensure her survival. (That’s Lady Anne on the book’s cover.)
“Out of All of Them Bright Stars” (1985): In a diner, a server has a powerful encounter with a space alien.
“Pathways” (2013): Ludmilla Connors is a mountain girl from a mountain family, one that falls prey to a rare and devastating genetic disorder. The new clinic in town, staffed by a Chinese doctor working from a grant, offers an experimental procedure which should halt the fatal trajectory of the disease. Ludie has to come to grips with her own prejudices, family pressures, and ultimately, her own fears.
“Dancing on Air” (1993): In the near future, bio-enhancement has changed everything from sports to performance art. Enhanced ballerinas are being murdered in New York City, and this story investigates the murders but imagines the world of dance with bio-enhancement as a choice as Susan, a journalist, Caroline, a bitter prima ballerina, and Angel, a genetically modified guard dog, all make life-changing decisions.
“Unto the Daughters” (1995): This takes a familiar religious story and turns it sideways. In the afterward, Kress makes a funny comment about the one type of science fiction story you’re not supposed to write, because it’s a cliché.
“Laws of Survival” (2007): Jill has come up with the 5 laws of survival on an Earth destroyed by human war. When the aliens entice her into one of their ships for an incomprehensible purpose, Jill needs to reinvent those laws to survive.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” (2014): With wireless and micro-technology, it’s only a matter of time until someone implants a camera in the human brain. This story shows us one way that it could be used.
“The Flowers of Aulit Prison” (1996): Uli Pek Bengarin is a sinner in her world; by murdering her sister, she changed her sister’s reality. That is not permitted. To atone for her sin, Uli agrees to shadow a crazy “human” who is imprisoned for crimes against reality, and soon Uli begins to question everything she thought she knew. (Winner of the Sturgeon prize in 1997 and the Nebula Award in 1998.)
“Price of Oranges” (1989): This is a time-travel story.
“By Fools Like Me” (2007): What kinds of things would be crimes, in an alien or futuristic society? Kress introduces us to Anna and her granddaughter Hope, living on an earth brutalized by global warming, and to their temptation to commit a strange crime.
“Casey’s Empire” (1981): Casey fails at college and fails to sell his novels; he can have the deepest wish of his life, if only he has the courage to say yes.
“Shiva in Shadow” (2004): Two scientists and a ship captain study the birth of stars. The dangers of space are serious, and so are the risks brought on by the dark holes in their psyches.
“Grant Us This Day” (1993): A short tale about religion and performance art.
“Kindness of Strangers” (2008): Aliens destroy all the large cities of earth one by one. Outside of Rochester, NY, a group of human refugees struggle to find the meaning in this act.
“End Game” (2008): Kress considers this a horror story about getting the thing you really, really want.
“My Mother, Dancing” (2004): What responsibility do we have for the things that we create? A group of future humans must answer this question and face the consequences of their answer.
“Trinity” (1984): A woman goes to devastating lengths to stop her sister’s attempts to prove the existence of God through science.
“People Like Us” (1989): America is a “classless society,” we say, but in this tale a corporate wife bonds more easily with the space alien than with her husband’s blue-collar partners.
“Evolution” (1995): Kress imagines what would happen in a world where no artificial antibiotic worked anymore.
“Margin of Error” (1994): Bio-engineering has allowed people to be perfect and have complete control of their bodies. Now something’s gone wrong. Paula must reach out to her estranged sister for help, but is Karen willing to help her?
“Beggars in Spain” (1991): Kress’s 1991 Hugo-award winning novella about people who are engineered to function without sleep. (Winner of the Hugo and the Nebula in 1992.)
Kress says that she is not a scientist, but she is a smart woman who can learn enough about a scientific breakthrough, or new technology, to depict it convincingly. She is a genius at imagining the impact these changes will have on everyday people. This collection features a few of that type of story. “Beggars in Spain,” “Dancing on Air,” and “Pathways” all look at changes in technology, specifically bio-modification, and the effect it has on people. My favorite of these is “Dancing on Air,” for two completely unrelated reasons. The first is Kress’s un-blinkered view of an art form she loves: ballet. She writes both lyrically and critically about it here, but her clear-eyed love for dance comes through in every line. The second is that she creates a believable dog narrator for part of this story. Angel is a genetically engineered guard dog. He has the ability to talk, and the reasoning power of a five-year-old human child; he is still completely a dog. Call me a sentimental sap, but I was hooked. Susan is a journalist working below her potential and raising a teenaged daughter obsessed with dance, and Caroline is an angry prima ballerina. The story starts with a pair of murders of ballerinas in New York City, which leads to Caroline getting Angel, but the murder plot peters out fairly quickly. The real story is how bioengineering will change dance (and dogs). Kress does not go for easy answers. I thought the plot was labored in a few places, but watching Caroline reluctantly bond with Angel made up for that.
Ludie, the main character in “Pathways,” is smart but not educated. She has grown up in an insular society and her family has isolated her even more because of their condition. Ludie’s struggle to overcome her bigotry and distrust of strangers and understand the strange things that are being done to her makes up the story. The consequences become more serious when it seems, for a time, that the procedure isn’t working. Ludie’s radicalization at the end of the story comes up pretty quickly, but it’s believable because Kress has grounded it in family loyalty. In this story, unlike others in the collection, Ludie actually wants to help a younger sister.
I’ve reviewed the novel “Beggars in Spain” here; this is the original novella, and definitely the best part of the story. Leisha is engineered to function without sleep; it is also clear that she is brighter than sleeping humans, able to process information more quickly, and is more cheerful. This seems to be true of all the Sleepless. In her family, Leisha is the star and her normal fraternal twin Alice lives in her shadow. Once again, Kress takes this idea and plays it out over the social, political and economic spectrum, but the core of the story is the two sisters and their difficult, if ultimately loving, relationship. I enjoyed the afterword for this one, where Kress talks about the struggles to write this story, and to sell it.
Kress states that “End Game” is her first conscious horror story; it’s a story about getting what you want. A “normal” human is the narrator and observer as a genius develops a way to help people concentrate better. The law of unintended consequences immediately kicks in. This was a solid, punchy story.
If “End Game” is horror, then “Price of Oranges” is fantasy, although Kress may be surprised to see it called that. I say it’s fantasy because the time-travel apparatus has no scientific underpinning; it’s just a magical portal that lets retired Harry travel to 1937 and bring back cheap food and clothing for his friend Manny. In 1989 the two oldsters are surviving on small pensions, living in Single-Resident-Only hotels. The park where they sit is the territory of youth gangs and drug addicts, and Harry is worried about his granddaughter who writes bitter, angsty fiction about the futility of life (by the way, Kress has some real fun with granddaughter Jackie’s prose). The closet in Harry’s room leads to 1937, and he decides what will help Jackie is to bring forward a “nice guy” for her to meet. The results, while not surprising to us, take Harry completely by surprise. Harry seems startlingly naïve in this tale, yakking about how pure and sweet everything is in the 1930s while ignoring, for instance, the tattooed number on his friend’s arm. Even when Manny says, “It wasn’t a paradise in 1937 either, Harry,” Harry still doesn’t get it. This is the one genuinely sweet story in the collection. It was a surprise and a treat.
While I didn’t find “The Flowers of Aulit Prison” completely successful, I admired Kress’s attempt to create a truly alien viewpoint. I thought the story fell short in a few small areas; Uli chastises the human for not starting a polite conversation by asking about flowers, which her people supposedly do, but we never see her do that in the story. Still, her people’s idea of “shared reality” and how the interventions of humans changes that is interesting. This is another story in the collection where a female protagonist battled with a sister, and another story based on sexual jealousy.
Kress tells us that she really likes dogs. “Dancing on Air” featured a dog, and dogs are a prominent factor in “Laws for Survival.” As with the dancing in “Dancing on Air,” Kress’s lack of sentimentality about humans or canines makes the story both suspenseful and heart-warming. An alien robot requires that Jill train a room full of feral dogs to “behave correctly.” Since starving Jill was planning to eat a puppy earlier in the story, it’s hard to see just how this is going to work, but Kress pulls it off.
“Shiva in Shadow” contains fascinating science, beautiful imagery, powerful symbolism (a statue of dancing Shiva, a go board), and an interesting structure… and characters I found it difficult to relate to. Two scientists, Kane and Ajit, and the ship’s captain, Tirzah, are studying the star nurseries of Sagittarius A*. They cannot bring the ship too close because of the risks of radiation and the tidal pull of the stars, but they can launch a probe, which contains online analogs of their personalities. The story follows two storylines: the ship and the probe. I could understand Kane and Ajit, if they did seem a bit stereotypical; but the concept of Tirzah completely baffled me. She is our first-person narrator; a ship’s captain and a “Nurturer,” a sort of cross between a courtesan and a super-Mom. She makes the scientists have a good breakfast when they forget to eat, and has sex with them to keep them happy and tranquil, yet supposedly her word is also law on the ship. Tirzah has fallen in love with one of the scientists and this clouds her judgement so that she makes fatal errors, because, of course, even intelligent women are weak and ruled by emotion. The dark sides of each scientist’s personality comes to the fore so quickly that it’s hard to see how they got chosen for this mission, although Kress tries to massage that by saying that review boards can be influenced or bribed. I struggled with the Tirzah of the ship-story, but I loved the idea of the probe-story. Some of the best lines of the work are in that section. I come away with mixed feelings for what I think is ultimately an important story about science and life.
In “Trinity,” the main character Seena goes to bizarre lengths to stop her sister from an experiment to prove the existence of God. This is an elaborate novella with lots of themes: twins, genetic engineering, cloning, and, of course, the God question. We get lots of information about why Seena is the way she is; on the surface, she believes her sister is delusional and must be saved from the experiment, but that is a rationalization. All in all, Seena was too bitter and too desperate to be fully believable.
In “Margin of Error,” Paula pushed her scientist sister Karen to the outskirts of a vital project, and then slept with Karen’s husband. Now, five years later, Paula desperately needs Karen’s help. The imagery in this story, and the way Karen uses the earthy realities of her infant children, breast-feeding, changing diapers, to mess with her child-queasy sister, is brilliant, but two unlikeable characters are hard to stay with. In the afterword, Kress assures us, with dry humor, that her own sister is terrific.
Kress includes what she calls her “Anne Boleyn” story. Just a month after giving birth to Elizabeth, Boleyn is transported out of Tudor England by the Time Rescue Project and the Church of the Holy Hostage. This project identifies “key people” who were responsible for wars, pluck them out of time and hold them in the future. It’s a bit of a struggle to see Boleyn as a “key person” in the intra-Christian wars of the late seventeenth century. Kress invents the Rahvoli equations, which identify historical people as “fulcrums” to get around this plot problem, and frankly that works well enough. Ripped away from everything, and told terrible things about how her life would have gone had she stayed, Boleyn uses her intellect, her intuition, her sexuality and her skills at manipulation to take control of her environment, with some shocking results. It’s a good story. I admired Kress’s creation of Boleyn. Honestly, it was easier to accept a transplanted sixteenth-century queen as a sexual manipulator than it was some of Kress’s futuristic women characters.
Set in far future, “My Mother, Dancing” asks a serious philosophical question (it’s actually a variation on the question asked about God in “Trinity”), but for me Kress’s authorial voice made the story refreshing and interesting. Faced with the consequences of an earlier action, her main characters behave in a way that is, sadly, very human.
I can’t help noticing that I engage more easily to the characters of Kress’s shorter works than I do for characters in the novellas, with the exception of “Dancing on Air.” Kress excels at the novella, though; this length gives her enough time to paint her world for us and play out whatever innovation has caught her interest. I doubt that I’ll ever love her protagonists, but I know that whatever idea she runs with, it will be well-developed, realistically portrayed, and thoughtful. Everybody should be reading Kress to see what can be done when a good storyteller is fearless about wondering. I recommend The Best of Nancy Kress both for fans and people who want an introduction to her work.