Tag Archives: Nancy Kress

A Kress collection — short stories with depth

trinityI’ve made comments in the past about the limitations of the short story format, and one thing I mentioned was the lack of room for any serious character development. Well, I have just had the experience of being proven wrong, because I’ve just read Trinity and Other Stories, an exceptional 1985 collection by the talented Nancy Kress. Characterization has always been one of her strong points, and it appears that skill is abundantly present whether she’s writing five pages, or five hundred. These stories contain personalities more complex and compelling than some authors achieve in their novels, and that’s impressive. Going along with that character depth is a keen insight into human nature, emotions, motivations, and shortcomings. And there’s more than great characterization and human insight; most of these stories are built around intriguing ideas as well. There isn’t a lot of “flash” here — aliens, robots, and spaceships are few and far between. The emphasis here is on inner rather than outer space, and fortunately Kress seems comfortable in either realm.

Several of the stories have something to say about art. “With the Original Cast” takes place in a world where reincarnation is real, and past memories can be recovered scientifically via a brain operation. When the director for a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan finds a girl who was the actual Joan of Arc in a past life, he imagines casting her in the role and reinvigorating the play like never before. But he learns there’s much more to such an artistic endeavor than historical accuracy; interpretation and acting are, perhaps, far more important. “Shadows on the Cave Wall” explores a similar artistic theme, and addresses the question “what is art for?” The story involves a new trend in publishing that attempts to reduce writing to a cold, logical, scientific process that gives readers exactly what they want, and turns authors into little more than technicians. It also tells us that if art is too perfect, it becomes meaningless. “Ten Thousand Pictures, One Word” is about an artist whose drawings are trying to tell him something about his relationship with his wife; as he refuses to get a clue, both his drawings and his marriage continue to fade away.

Other stories deal more centrally with various human fears, prejudices, or weaknesses. “Explanations, Inc.” is a tale about a business supplying just what its name says, and about one obsessed customer who yearns for answers as a way of battling his deep-seated fear that life has no meaning. “Night Win” deals with a telepathic healer whose job is to save lives, but who is encumbered with a secret death wish. In “Talp Hunt” a woman runs from a shock she can’t face and flees to a simpler life, but one that is confusing and unsettling to her children.

My favorite out of the lot is “Out of All Them Bright Stars.” It’s very short, but I admire a story that can say something meaningful, and say it simply and elegantly in a very short space. It’s about an alien visitor, but the alien is almost a peripheral character. The emphasis is upon a waitress in a small-town diner who is faced with the ugly reality of human bigotry.

There were two or three other stories that didn’t strike me as being of the quality of those above, including the title story. Nevertheless, the majority of the collection was very good, with a few outstanding pieces. Also included is a glowing introduction by Gene Wolfe, and introductions to each story by Kress herself, sharing some background information on where the ideas came from (which I always appreciate). This is one of (I believe) three story collections by Kress, and you can bet I’ll be acquiring the other two somewhere down the road.

Kress can do better than Crucible

crucibleI said in my review for Crossfire that (to paraphrase myself) it wasn’t the best Nancy Kress was capable of, but that it was still within the realm of worthwhile reading; and that its weaknesses were offset by its strong and well-developed characters. Its sequel Crucible (2004), however, doesn’t even quite make it to that modest level, falling a notch or two lower on the quality scale than its predecessor. This book has some problems and was not nearly as enjoyable as Crossfire. Taken together, this two-book series does not really impress, and I have to consider it something of a minor blemish in Kress’ track record.

The action takes place, once again, on the colony world Greentrees, where humans first encountered two alien species, the Furs and the Vines (who were at war with each other). This story takes place about forty years later, and the main character from the first book is now a very old man. However, through the wonders of near-lightspeed travel and relativity, some of the other characters have only aged a few months. And then, of course, there are some new characters.

Life on Greentrees has moved on; few of the new younger generation have ever seen an alien, and they have a hard time believing there is, or ever was, any danger to their world. Their society is soft and naive, totally ignorant of (and uninterested in) Terran history, and this of course sets the stage for a rude awakening. When a ship arrives, fleeing a dying Earth, its charismatic commander and his crew are welcomed with open arms. When this leader, General Martin, emphasizes some recent ethnic conflict and the continuing theoretical alien threat, he is granted more and more power to defend the colony. Before long the citizens of Greentrees come to realize they have handed over power too willingly, and paid too steep a price for security. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, there really is an alien threat, and the colonists soon find themselves fighting for survival and freedom against enemies of more than one species, including their own.

Now all that’s fine, I suppose. There’s the skeleton of a good story there, and some themes worth exploring (ignorance of history, security versus freedom). The basic problem is, this novel lacks sophistication or much of a sense of realism. Everything is too obvious or predictable, everything happens too easily. From the moment Martin arrives on the planet, it’s painfully apparent to the reader what he’s doing, he’s transparent as glass. It’s the Palpatine-style power grab: secretly manufacture a crisis, then step forward and offer to defend against it, with an air of false modesty of course. And the colonists are completely clueless; you just want to grab them and shake them and yell “WAKE UP!!!” This coup is helped along by the fact that none of the colony’s leaders exhibit any leadership qualities whatsoever, and so there’s little to no resistance, which seems a little too convenient. It’s also too easy that the aliens show up so soon after Martin’s arrival, a timely threat that strengthens his bid for power. Add to this several occasions on which characters jump to wild conclusions based on almost no evidence, only to find their conclusions are of course correct, and you can see how this story is just too neat and tidy.

And unlike its predecessor, Crucible is pretty weak on the characterization front. None of these people were drawn with much depth, not as in the previous book. And none of them behaved in a way that made me care much what happened to them. The Greentrees administrator Alex, one of the main characters, was a bumbling idiot; far from being sympathetic, I feel she deserved what she got. And she was far from being the only annoying personality in the book. Even the continuing characters from the first book weren’t half as interesting as they were before.

I don’t know what else to say about this one. It wasn’t necessarily horrible, but it wasn’t very good either. I guess every author has a low point now and then. Kress, at least, doesn’t have many of them.

Kress puts us in the crossfire of first contact

crossfireNancy Kress is one of my favorite authors, writing high quality science fiction that adeptly blends well developed characters, absorbing plots, and thought-provoking themes. The latest Kress novel I picked up to read was Crossfire (2003), and as I expected, it did not disappoint. I don’t feel it’s quite in the same league as some of her other work (notably the Sleepless and Probablity trilogies); nevertheless, it’s a solid enough piece of writing and an enjoyable read. Crossfire is a tale of first contact (one of my favorites kinds) built around issues of war, pacifism, conflicting loyalties, personal demons, and inter-species ethics.

As social and environmental conditions on Earth deteriorate, a group of several thousand colonists, funded privately, flee the imminent downward spiral and head for the newly-discovered planet of Greentrees. There they plan to begin anew on a fresh world. The colonists consist largely of several sub-groups who have joined together for the venture: a Chinese group; an Arab group; a group of Cheyenne descendants who want to recreate the “noble savage” lifestyle of their ancestors; and a religious group, the New Quakers, with whose views I find myself very sympathetic:

Truth, simplicity, silence, conscience. These were the New Quaker tenets. [...] [They] had departed from Earth because there seemed no Terran society left that didn’t value lies, image, scams, celebrity, and cynicism over truth.

This New Quaker philosophy plays a prominent role in the story, through one of the major characters, Dr. Shipley — who was, against my expectations, the character I most closely identified with.

The plot thickens when the colonists discover they are not alone on Greentrees. Soon a species of sentient aliens is discovered. Oddly, though, there are only a few scattered villages of these primitives, each with its own very different behavioral pattern. And, even more bizarre, there is no evidence that these creatures have lived there very long. And then — just when the colonists begin to come to terms with the situation, another alien species enters the picture. Before long, things have gotten very complicated, and the humans find themselves in the middle of an interstellar war, caught in the crossfire between two different species, finding not only their ethics challenged, but also their very survival.

The story has points of similarity with other Kress novels. For example, she explores here, just as in An Alien Light, the question of intrinsic human violence, and the idea of one alien species performing experiments on another in order to gain the upper hand in a war. And as in her Sleepless series, a piece of the plot here revolves around “genemod” individuals (genetically modified) and the effects therof.

The best thing about Crossfire is the depth of character. From Shipley’s struggle to be true to his convictions, to another character’s shameful past, to another’s self-destructive and anti-social tendencies, the characters in a Kress story are just damned interesting people. The most obvious weakness is that the aliens are not very imaginatively conceived. One species is a bit too similar to kangaroos, and I’ve never been satisfied by aliens that look like Earth creatures. The other species seems like a simplified version of Vinge’s Skrode Riders.

A worthwhile read, even if not the best Kress has done. If she’s written anything truly bad, I’ve yet to come across it.

Kress sheds some (alien) light on human nature

After loving Nancy Kress’ Sleepless series (Beggars in Spain and its follow-ups), and Probability series, I thought I’d backtrack and try one of her earlier books. After writing some fantasy early in her career, she moved on to science fiction, with her first such novel being An Alien Light, published in 1988. And I was pleased to find it showcasing the same high quality of writing that I have come to know from her later work.

The novel is set in the mid-distant future after humanity has developed the ability to travel between the stars. And out there among the stars, humanity has found an enemy and is at war with that enemy, the Ged, who seem to be at roughly the same technological level as the humans. The reasons behind this war and how it started are never given, and in fact it plays only a background role and is never described in any detail.

The focus of the book is a small population of humans who have descended from a colony ship that landed on a distant planet, who have forgotten their origins and know nothing of the existence of the rest of humanity. They are primitives, existing at something like an Iron Age level, and furthermore are divided into two bitterly warring factions, each based around its own city, each with its own social identity. The Ged discover this planet and its primitive humans, and see it as the perfect laboratory in which to study aspects of human psychology which they find extremely puzzling, hoping that whatever they learn will aid them in the war (in which they seem to be taking a beating lately).

So the Ged send a team to the planet to set up a massive anthropological experiment to study what they call the Central Paradox. The paradox that has them so stumped is how humans, as violent as they are, could have lasted long enough to achieve interstellar spaceflight without first destroying themselves. As we learn from the Ged, this is absolutely unheard of. Any species whose members commit violence against each other invariably destroys itself long before reaching the stars. Humanity is the first species encountered that has proven to be the exception to the rule. The Ged simply can’t fathom how a species could be intelligent and at the same time exhibit conflict within itself. This is completely alien to the Ged, who value solidarity above anything else — “singing in harmony,” they call it.

I must say that I found it a bit hard to swallow the Ged’s claim about humanity being the sole example of an intelligent yet violent species. Evolutionary logic goes a long way toward explaining violence, and it is very likely that species from other worlds would have developed under that same logic and would thus have violence as at least some part of their nature. And indeed, at the end of the book, when the Ged finally find a solution to the Central Paradox, that solution does seem to imply that violence evolved with a certain level of functionality. It just seems strange that the same didn’t happen anywhere else in the galaxy. I suppose Kress wanted to isolate our own species in order to better examine our own nature, which is of course what good science fiction does. And so it wasn’t too hard to set aside any theoretical debates about the nature of aliens, and focus on the humans, which is after all where the real strength of this novel lies.

One thing Kress is very good at (there are several) is characterization. Her characters are people you can sympathize with and really care about, people who draw you into the story because they seem so real. And An Alien Light was no exception in this area. These characters displayed so much real emotion, and were so complex in their interactions with each other, that they took on a life of their own, and that’s what made this such an enjoyable read.

It’s interesting how conflict is so deeply woven into this novel at every level. There’s the conflict between human and Ged. There’s the conflict between the two human city-states of this lost colony. There is conflict between smaller groups within each of those subcultures. And then, within many of the major characters, there is conflict within a single individual who struggles — often agonizingly — to find the right path between opposing sets of principles, creeds, or desires. But then, set against the concept of conflict is the concept of cooperation; more and more throughout the book, the most unlikely and unpredictable alliances form between characters who, before meeting the Ged, would rather have killed each other than help each other.

In the end, I find it hard to distill a single, cohesive message from this book. If I had to try, perhaps it would be that traits like violence or cooperation aren’t all-or-nothing propositions, but are highly dependent on context, and the context means everything in how they play out. And they played out in all sorts of fascinating ways in this novel full of vivid and believable characters.

What was your introduction to sci-fi?

I certainly hope it was more elegant and, umm… cleaner than in this story Nancy Kress shares about one of her fans. Of course, if the young lady had to go through that to get some good science fiction, at least she was lucky enough to find such a superb novel. One could hardly do better than starting off with Beggars in Spain as one’s first sci-fi reading experience. Kress says she herself started with Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

My memory is a bit shaky going that far back, but I think the first sci-fi book I ever read was Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. That would have been in grade school, I’m sure, because I have a clear memory of the book being in the grade school library. I just don’t recall what year it was, exactly. Most likely I was around 9 or 10 years old.

It’s possible I read some other juvenile-type sci-fi around that time that has completely escaped my memory. The next thing I remember is reading whatever fantasy was in the school library, which wasn’t that much: The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and Quag Keep by Andre Norton. Those were around age 11-12.

I think I was 14 when I was looking through a box of old books my parents had picked up at a yard sale. In it I found a hardcover book missing its dust jacket, called A Time of Changes, by some fellow named Robert Silverberg whom I’d never heard of before. I didn’t even have any idea it was science fiction. Out of idle curiosity, I opened to the first page for a brief scan to see if there was anything interesting. And there was. I was drawn in by the fantastic narrative hook, and before I knew it I was finished reading what was to become one of my favorite novels ever. At age 15 I happened upon another “favorite novel ever” — Frank Herbert’s masterpiece Dune. By that time, I was thoroughly hooked and and my sci-fi readings became more frequent.

So there you have it, some of my foundational SF experiences. All in the usual manner, I might add…. nothing strange, no stickiness involved, nothing like that. Just me and some great books.

So what’s your story?