Monday, June 02, 2008

Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories, by Nancy Kress

Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories
Nancy Kress
Golden Gryphon: 2008

I cannot remember when I first heard of Nancy Kress. It may have been in regards to her novel Crucible (and not Beggars in Spain for some reason), but I first paid attention when I read her Nebula winning and Hugo nominated story "Fountain of Age". I still am convinced I've read another related story to this one, but I can't find it. Regardless, I was impressed with "Fountain of Age" and when the opportunity arose to review this collection, I jumped at it.

So, here are the stories.

Nano Comes to Clifford Falls: The opening story in the collection is one of the best. It is also representative of what we will find in this collection. The fiction of Nancy Kress frequently deals with the intersection of people and technology, and “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” is exactly that. It takes a small town and shows what happens with the introduction of a device which can replicate nearly anything by using nanotechnology. Suddenly people don’t need to go to work because they can get nano food, nano clothing, nano homes. Businesses close and much of the population is excited by Nano, but there is a segment that rebels against Nano and lives a more natural life. Society begins to collapse with the collapse of the economny. The story encompasses all of the technology and the effect of technology on society, but the story is about people, specifically the people who do not choose to use Nano. As I mentioned, one of the best in the collection.

Patent Infringement: This is a much shorter story, and is a series of letters (or e-mails, for all I know) about how a company is willing to cheat to protect their patent even when the company is initially at fault, and then twist everything so that the person who was defrauded ultimately ends up taking the blame. Naturally. This is one of my favorites in the collection.

Computer Virus: What happens when a rogue AI hides in a computer protected house and takes the family inside hostage? "Computer Virus" happens. Kress could focus on the AI, the technology involved, and the hunt for the AI. In part, she does, but like most of her more successful stories, she focuses instead on the people involved and "Computer Virus" is all the more successful for it.

Product Development: A short-short originally published in Nature magazine, and it is a nearly all dialogue story about a hypothetical product which turns off electronics. Kress doesn't write too many stories this short, or even as short as "Patent Infringement", but she should. She's quite good at it.

The Most Famous Little Girl in the World: This story wasn't quite as successful as the previous stories in the collection. It still focused on the people, cousins, one of whom was abducted by aliens and in turn becomes the title girl of the story. Their estrangement seems to mirror that of the aliens / humanity, sort of, though not fully. Kress's afterword speaks to the changing of allies she is attempting to demonstrate, but I don't know just how interesting this is. There is nothing inherently wrong with the story, it just doesn't work for me.

Savior: On the other hand, "Savior" is far more interesting despite the fact that it covers a couple of hundred years of non-communication with an alien artifact which landed on Earth. Kress shows the changing of society and technology and what an alien craft might be waiting for. Fascinating.

Ej-Es: Originally published in an anthology of stories based on the songs of Janis Ian, “Ej-Es” works on its own terms, about the discovery of a failed colony of humans on another world where the power of speech has been limited to basic sounds and the residents act as if they can see things that aren’t there. The scientists on the mission work to fix the problem, but the solution itself is heartbreaking. The title doesn’t make sense until we get into the story, and the last line of the story (as Mike Resnick points out in the introduction) can only make sense having read the entire story. It raises the question of whether the scientists did right and what was taken away from those colonists by their actions.

Shiva in Shadow: This story feels a bit more techy than most of this collection and as such, doesn't work for me. There is some odd dual storytelling with transfered consciousness to some sort of biometric programming to do scientific in deep space...but because it is the same characters (sort of) in each storyline, sometimes it is easy to confuse the two. There was an interesting moment with the same bit of dialogue and narration in each storyline that I had to work to realize what just happened. Bottom line: Not a favorite.

First Flight: A cheerful story (almost out of place in this collection) based around the concept of a 1960's Space Cadet show. It has the feel of Connie Willis (think D.A.) and what I'd expect if Scalzi wrote a juvenile story (Zoe's Tale notwithstanding). It's on the forgettable side at the end of the day, but a very pleasant read.

To Cuddle Amy: A different kind of horror story and one which barely touches upon science at all. Two parents are despairing of their daughter, Amy, and the teenager she has grown up to be. There is a list of ages of photographs of Amy and then the next line lists Amy’s age as she walks in the room. It reads like a typo, but it isn’t. That’s when we realize something else is going on here. The more you think about it, the nastier this story gets.

Wetlands Reserve: In her story afterword Kress mentions that "Wetlands Reserve" was the first story she wrote about environmental issues (still about the people, not the science) and I'm glad she did. Kress is good at it. I can't say I'm too surprised at how the story ended, but right up until the ending - good stuff.

Mirror Image: I believe that "Mirror Image" feels more science laden than it actually is. The problem (my problem) is the AI QUENTIAN, the ^563's, and the overriding sense of "otherness", or alienness that pervades the story. Kress pulled off what she tried to do, I think. She says the story is "very high tech and very far future" and it is, at that. It is also her favorite story in the collection. It's not mine. I suspect everything that she likes about it, is what I dislike about it.

My Mother, Dancing: A weird conclusion to this collection, a shorter story, but one which remains on two readings fairly incomprehensible. I want to like every story in a collection, but sometimes it just isn't possible. This is another far future story, set in the year 3000, and just does not connect with me.

Thinking about the collection, I have a good, positive feeling. I enjoyed more stories than not, and the ones which did not work were inoffensive enough to not mar my overall enjoyment. If asked (and what is a review if not an answer to an unasked question?), I would say that I can see myself reading more of Nancy Kress based on having read this collection. Her writing feels familiar, but new at the same time. Nancy Kress is a damn fine writer and Nano Comes to Clifford Falls is a wonderful place to experience her for the first time. I wasn't a Kress fan before this collection, but I am now.

Reading copy provided courtesy of Golden Gryphon.


Andy Wolverton said...

I'm really looking forward to this collection. I had the great pleasure of having Kress as an instructor at Clarion 2004, so I am a bit biased, but she is one of the few true sf writers I read. She has the uncanny ability to both make the science of her stories approachable and give the reader complex characters readers can care about. I also enjoy her novels, but am partial to her short fiction. You'd probably also enjoy her collections Beaker's Dozen and The Aliens of Earth.

Andy Wolverton said...

Sorry - that third sentence wasn't very well constructed. (Maybe I need to go to Clarion again!)

Joe said...

I think this'll start me on a mini Kress reading binge. I want to read Beggars in Spain and perhaps Crucible, but I'll definitely look for her short fiction collections.