Free Will at the End of the World
It's a Good Year for Nancy Kress's High-Viscosity Apocalyptic Fiction
After the Fall Before the Fall During the Fall
by Nancy Kress
Fountain of Age
by Nancy Kress
(Small Beer Press, $16)
Nancy Kress published Beggars in Spain, her best-known novel, in 1993. And though the main character, a genetically modified genius with no need for sleep, was born in 2008, the book still feels fresh and futuristic in a way that much science fiction doesn't, two decades on. In fact, Beggars (and the other books of what came to be known as the Sleepless series that followed) directly addresses some of the questions we face in the 2012 election. Most importantly: Do the powerful members of a society owe anything to their less fortunate compatriots? If so, how deep do their obligations run?
In 2009, Kress moved from Buffalo to Seattle. "Seattle is an improvement over Buffalo," she says of her new home in a recent phone interview. There's a pause, and she feels compelled to add, with a bit of a gibe in her voice, "almost anything would be." Kress's dry little jokes are dropped throughout the conversation. When I express shock that she types thousands of pages of fiction by hunting and pecking with a single finger, she shoots back, "It's a pretty fast finger."
Kress's writing definitely has an air of the classical sci-fi about it. You won't ever confuse her prose with China Miéville or any of the other practitioners of the New Weird, for example. Kress's literary qualities come not from being too baroque, or too precious, or overly philosophical. Her stories live at the perfect junction between character and plot, and the taut sentences serve to propel the reader from the beginning to the finish, making her a direct descendant of sci-fi masters like Asimov and Bradbury.
Every science fiction author has a name for their specific subgenre. "I write stuff that is definitely hard science fiction," Kress says, but much of her work is what's known as high-viscosity science fiction, which she says "works off known science" but "takes it a step farther." If you enjoy thoughtful stories about the ramifications of science so advanced that it can feel like magic instead, you will sink into these with a sigh and a smile.
Kress is as prolific as the old sci-fi masters, too, estimating that she publishes "about a novel a year and maybe a half-dozen short stories." This year, because "the pipeline got backed up," Kress is publishing three new books. Flash Point, a young adult thriller set in a dystopian future, will be published in November. Fountain of Age is her latest collection of short stories. Nearly all of the stories in Age share two themes: the apocalypse and genetics.
My favorite story in Age, "Laws of Survival," follows a woman on earth after a devastating nuclear war. She is abducted by a robot and thrown into a large room with a pack of feral dogs. She soon discovers, thanks to a series of indirect, passive-aggressive demands from the robot, that her job is to re-domesticate the dogs for the robot's masters. Much of the pleasure of the story comes from the narrator's attempts to parse motivation out of the robot's behavior. Even as the human trains the dogs, the robot is training the human, and the human is trying to train the robot. The story becomes a contest of three (or more) opposing forces, an elaborate battle of wills in the ashes of the ruined world.
A deeper exploration of Kress's most recent themes—apocalypse and genetics—takes place in After the Fall Before the Fall During the Fall, a novella she published with small San Francisco press Tachyon Publications in March. It is a braided narrative with three threads: In 2013, a mathematician is trying to help the FBI solve a series of seemingly random kidnappings. In 2035, the few survivors of an apocalypse try to keep from killing each other before they can repopulate the world. And in 2014, in a series of short, declarative paragraphs, Kress documents the birth of a life form that springs from the soil to lay the world as we know it to waste:
Below ground, bacteria mutated again. This time it found the lower salinity much more congenial than it had the roots of cordgrass, a month ago. The bacterial slime engaged in all its metabolic processes, including mitosis and fermentation. Alcohol began to accumulate on the marsh elder's roots.
This is the known science, the science that comes from Kress's interest in biology. (She claims to "collect microbiologists the way people collect butterflies.") The writing achieves high viscosity during the postapocalyptic passages. The few humans left are being protected in an egg-shaped dome by an advanced technology they fear and cannot comprehend. We share their ignorance, and at times the motivations and machinations of their saviors/tormenters feel as inscrutable as an iPhone would to a caveman.
Kress doesn't think it'll be long before the biological science in her books feels as old-fashioned as those rocket-ship-and-ray-gun potboilers of the '50s and '60s. "Biological breakthroughs are a lot newer than engineering breakthroughs," she says, but "probably 50 years from now, my biology will look dated."
But like the best science fiction, the science isn't necessarily the point, and even when the science is disproved or made to look wildly conservative in comparison to whatever comes, Kress's works will endure. Underneath everything, Kress's books are about the battle between free will and control, a battle that will persist as long as there are people. Kress quotes a line from Ecclesiastes: "Time and chance happeneth to them all."