Asimov’s: March 2009
Nominated for the Nebula Award: Novella
Nominated for the Hugo Award: Novella
There is a feeling I get from some of Nancy Kress’s recent work that she is only giving readers a fraction of the story, and the stuff that is most interesting is the stuff she is leaving out. That was part of my issue with Steal Across the Sky, and it is my biggest problem with “Act One”.
Now, let us be fair here. The story is called “Act One”, suggesting that it is the beginning of something (of a new society, promises the Asimov’s intro) and that any ending is only a preliminary ending. It is inherent to the story.
Kress sets the reader up with the introduction of Jane Snow, a beautiful fifty-something actress whose best professional days are behind her. Jane, through her manager (and the narrator) Barry, has arranged an interview with a cell of The Group, a mysterious organization devoted to changing the world by changing humanity through gene modification. The Group has began with changing children, giving them “Arlen’s Syndrome”, something they believe will change the world. Readers learn what it is a bit later in the story. Jane’s interview is to prepare for a movie script which could be her big comeback.
The story hinges on the believability of a biological vector for The Group to somehow “ripple” out into the wider world and infect and alter the rest of humanity, to force that better world into being. Science fiction and popular fiction have been riddled with enough stories of mutating contagions to make just about anything plausible. From The Stand to Wild Cards to a myriad of zombie tales, it is an easy enough leap to make for the reader.
As per usual, Kress mostly concerns herself with the human stories of Barry, Jane, and a couple of other characters. How Jane is affected by the research she has done, how Barry’s past continues to hurt him, what the children with Arlen’s Syndrome are like is the true core of the story. This is what makes a Nancy Kress story (or novel) so readable. She deals with her characters in a natural and honest manner and because the stories never get bogged down in jargon, the overall storytelling is so smooth.
The problem is that while the core stories of the protagonists are resolved, readers will still be left wondering “what next” in regards to the societal changes that have begun as a result of the actions of The Group. Whether this story is only the first act in a cycle of stories, or “Act One” is complete as Kress intended, “Act One” is ultimately unsatisfying in its conclusion. When a story reveals that something just happened that will (likely) irrevocably change the world, and then fails to show what that change looks like on a macro scale, there will be an inevitable sense of disappointment.