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Nancy Kress
Asimov's SF, June 2000

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: 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 Trent Walters

An alien, silver egg will land on Earth in 2007, or so predicts Nancy Kress' novella "Savior" from the June 2000 issue of Asimov's. That's right, more than a year ago. This review should have been posted then, but careers take precedence. The lack of timeliness almost let this review slip away, but having seen no reviews highlighting its exemplary achievements, I felt someone had to do it.

Those of you without a subscription to Asimov's at the time will be kicking yourselves on this one. One of the greatest scenes in the history of the genre since the banquet scene of Dune passed you by. Not only that, but the story also shares similarities with Jane Austen, O. Henry, Kim Stanley Robinson and a classic 1940 Astounding tale by Harry Bates.

So this giant egg lands. Scientists scratch their heads because it's not doing anything, nor are they able to plumb the secrets inside with any of their fancy doodads. Eventually, the scientists give up the probing though it continues to plague their thoughts. (Is this symbolically the age-old tale of the girl who snubs the guy who acts interested? Why does the ship land as an egg? I've posed these questions parenthetically, so the reader might appreciate the reviewer's keen sense of humour.) The true answer to the purpose of the ship lies in an ironic reading of the title. And throughout, Kress thwarts reader expectations:

"The [egg's] landing was smooth and even. There was no hovering, no jet blasts, no scorched ground. Only a faint whump as the object touched the earth, and a rustle of corn husks in the unseen wind."
The aliens are not going to respond until they're good and ready... or until Earth's good and ready... or...

The surprise ending of course is Kress' link to O. Henry, whose twist finales have fallen into disfavour with writers. Of course, the average reader still loves them; only he has to go to the theatre to find them now. Maybe this is one reason why magazine readership has fallen...?

But, of course, there was a bonafide reason for why they'd fallen into disfavour: abuse. Pick up any genre collection of short shorts and read tale after bad tale -- the twist for twist's sake. There has to be a potent meaning behind the twist, a playing upon assumptions for a reason. Harry Bates' moving "Farewell to the Master" plays upon such reader assumptions for its finale, but it doesn't matter whether you guessed the surprise. The ending still retained emotional impact and meaning. The saying -- a good story is one a reader will read even should the last page be missing -- has been attributed to Raymond Chandler. The same is true for O. Henry tales. If the story's purpose includes the journey and not merely the destination, it satisfies.

Kress' "Savior" falls into this category of story. That is, it does when one knows what Kress is driving at. One Locus reviewer said it was "less than the sum of its parts." True enough if one does not question who it is that needs saving. The plot unravels an episodic future history where industrial technology finally breaks civilization down but where human ingenuity through quantum computers and nanotechnology turns civilization back around. The episodic drama is more reminiscent of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy than the standard story plot. The episodes don't always seem to direct the reader toward a deeper understanding of the story's thematic goal. Kress appears to misdirect the reader even here... except when, between the episodes, we receive the bold voice of the alien announcing, "Transmission: There is nothing here yet. Probability of occurrence: 67%." The percent fluctuates with the falling and rising of technology. Unfortunately, the theme gets buried and doesn't always arise to let the reader know what it is driving at. But perhaps this is by design; neither do humans know what other humans are driving at, let alone aliens.

While the storytelling language rarely emerges from the functional -- Flannery O'Conner asked why anyone would need more -- character realism is Kress' strong suit and perhaps is what makes her so appealing to those who enjoy strong characterization. For example:

"'A man has to believe in something,' he said in a gruff voice, quoting a recent bad movie, swaggering a little to point up the joke. It fell flat. Ann went on staring..."
This and the dialogue that leads up to it seem indicative of male/female (if not all human) exchanges -- the constant misinterpretation and consequences. Kress doesn't stretch for the heroic character moment but lets him fall flat, even in a social exchange.

Back to falling magazine subscriptions for a brief digression, apart from the more obvious aspects of societal alliteracy (to borrow a neologism from the first lady, meaning people who choose not to read), perhaps the genre's greater tendency toward shorthand or simply stringent reading protocols has blocked out potential readers. For example, though Kress uses Fermi's Paradox which has been bounced around the SF block for years, a new reader may stumble over such an undefined term and feel lost, putting down the book. Perhaps, arguably, older SF assumed less shorthand than it does today; hence, the older generation of non-SF readers knew who Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and Bradbury were. Maybe SF writers should be more cognizant of such terms and try to provide the context that would define the terms without insulting the intelligence of those who already are aware of them. Again, to appropriate another Chandlerism (from "Notes on the Mystery Story"):

"It is arguable, although not certain, that inferences arising from special knowledge... are a bit of a cheat, because the basic theory of good mystery writing is that at some stage not too late in the story the reader did have the materials to solve the problem."
This is merely fodder for thought. On the other hand, neither have I defined the terms "fodder" nor "neologism," but hopefully context (or a good dictionary) provided this.

The best was saved for last. What's all this hyperbole comparing one of Kress' episodes (the second) to the incomparable banquet scene in Dune? Though there are more characters and intrigue to juggle in the Dune scene, Kress works similar yet subtler magic -- more akin to the literary works of manners in Jane Austen. The egg has permeated the culture so thoroughly that they've taken to prefixing statements with "O." The scene tension builds through a goat herder's perceptions or misperceptions of his wife. The goat herder cannot reveal what he does not know, so what the reader learns is completely by inference, requiring only a knowledge of human nature. I won't spoil the sly yet potent revelation. (Hint: Kress has built up enough little details that what the character thinks has happened, the reader knows otherwise. "On the journey home...")

If you missed the June 2000 issue of Asimov's, don't despair. "Savior" has been reprinted exactly where it belongs: in Gardner Dozois' Year's Best Science Fiction, 18th Annual Collection.

Copyright © 2001 Trent Walters

Trent Walters' work has appeared in Speculon, Spires, and The Pittsburgh Quarterly, among others. He has interviewed for, Speculon and the Nebraska Center for Writers. More of his reviews can be found here. When he's not studying medicine he can be seen coaching the Minnesota Vikings as an assistant coach, or writing masterpieces of journalistic advertising, or making guest appearances in a novel by E. Lynn Harris. All other rumored Web appearances are lies.

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