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Maximum Light
Nancy Kress
Tor Books, 245 pages

Maximum Light
Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1948. She went to college at State University of New York at Plattsburgh, receiving a degree in Elementary Education, and spent four years teaching the fourth grade. Her first sale was a story, "The Earth Dwellers," to Galaxy in 1976. Her first novel, The Prince of Morning Bells, appeared in 1981. Nancy Kress moved on to write copy for an advertising agency, wrote fiction part-time, raised her children, taught at SUNY Brockport, and earned an M.S. in Education and an M.A. in English. In 1990 she became a full-time writer. In January, 1998, she was married for the third time, to SF writer Charles Sheffield. They live in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Nancy Kress Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Savior
SF Site Review: Probability Moon
Interview: Nancy Kress
SF Site Review: David Brin's Out of Time: Yanked!
SF Site Review: Stinger
SF Site Review: Maximum Light
SF Site Review: Beaker's Dozen

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

In the last few years there's been a lot of speculation that synthetic chemicals released into our environment are accumulating in animals and humans and causing a host of problems such as infertility and birth defects. This is the provocative jumping off point for Nancy Kress's novel, Maximum Light, set in the 2030s when the worldwide birth rate has suffered a devastating collapse, but nobody has the political will to attempt the drastic solutions needed.

Protagonist Shana Walders, for one, has no interest in politics. She has precisely one ambition -- to join the regular army. Unfortunately, even in an era when healthy 19-year-olds are scarce, the military isn't interested in a kid who's already accumulated a criminal record and seven National Service reprimands. But Shana is convinced that her rejection was engineered by a congressional committee she briefly appeared before as a witness. When Shana testified that she had seen highly-illegal vivi-factured chimps, the committee treated her like a liar, so Shana is determined to prove to them she wasn't lying.

One committee member, eminent scientist Dr. Nick Clementi, believes Shana but he knows that political and industry appointees don't want to rock the boat. If the fertility crisis is publicly linked to a host of common industrial chemicals, the economic and political fallout will be immense. And Nick isn't up for fighting this battle, even though he likes the belligerant, lively Shana. Nick has other problems. He's 75, he's dying of a brain disease, and he hasn't yet found a way to tell his beloved wife.

Meanwhile, Cameron Atui is on the verge of becoming an internationally famous ballet dancer. He loves dancing and delights in the resulting attention -- if only the horrific dreams would stop. What happened to him that was so terrible that doctors decided to erase his memory?

This is a remarkably tight, well-written short novel. Kress's characters are strong and her decision to use the first person present tense for her young people and past tense for the old man contributes to the feel of those characters. In particular, I thought she succeeded very well at portraying Shana -- an angry young woman with attention deficit, learning disabilities, and poor impulse control (all symptoms of pollutant-caused endocrine disruption), but who nonetheless manages to engage the reader's sympathy.

The only real weakness in this book is an anti-climatic ending. I don't think regular SF readers will be at all shocked or even much surprised by the ultimate revelations of what the "bad guys" were up to. And Kress's resolution of the plot struck me as unrealistic. Her villains were far too easily defeated.

I also found myself getting aggravated with Kress's assumption that an 80% decline in human fertility would be a disaster. Hell, I'd see it as an ecological miracle, albeit with some social and economic problems attached. And I found myself nitpicking at details -- for example, she assumes that developers would build small houses for smaller families. That sounds logical, until you consider that family size has been decreasing in North America for the last 50 years and houses just keep getting bigger.

Still, those niggles are my problem, not Kress's, and it was a pleasure to read a novel with intellectual meat in it worthy of debate. Maximum Light certainly deserved its Nebula nomination. It's one of the best examples I've seen of taking an idea, researching it, and extrapolating it into a solid, entertaining book.

Copyright © 2002 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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