Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fountain of Age - Nancy Kress

I ordered a copy of Nancy Kress' latest collection as a present for my girlfriend. She has recently read an enjoyed Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories (2008) so this one seemed like something she would like. I am a fan of Kress myself, especially a her short work, so I borrowed it from her during my recent visit to Norway. Fountain of Age contains nine pieces of short fiction, all published between 2007 and 2009. Five stories appeared in Asimov's, two in Jim Baen's Universe, one in Fantasy Magazine and the final story is originally part of the anthology Fast Forward 2, edited by Lou Anders. Kress won a Hugo award with the first story in the collection and got a Nebula for the last one. In short, I was expecting some good science fiction when I opened the book and I wasn't disappointed.

This review is very spoilerish, you have been warned.

The collection opens with the novella The Erdman Nexus (2008). It is one of the stories that deals with ageing that can be found in this collection.The ninety year old physician Henry Erdman goes though a number of strange mental experiences. At first he suspects a stroke but when his health checks out fine and the occurrences increase in intensity, he starts looking for another explanation.

It takes a while for the direction of the novella to take shape but I did like the premise that the unprecedented accumulation of knowledge and experience in the minds of our rapidly ageing population might cause a next step in the development of consciousness. I've come across several stories that link conciousness and quantum mechanics recently and the idea continues to intrigue me. Most of them mentioning the famous double slit experiment, as this one does. This story add the idea of some kind of critical mass being needed. It's a fine concept for a science fiction story. What I liked most about is Erdman's final decision though. The way Kress lets him, and a number of other characters choose is the strongest part of the story for me.

I can't quite make up my mind on whether or not the story is too long. For a novella, Kress has quite a few point of of view characters and a couple are a bit cliché. On the other hand, the story does need them to convey this idea of critical mass and the sense that the characters do have an individual choice. I don't think she could have pulled that off with just one point of view. Very strong opening of the collection.

Following this novella are two short stories. The Kindness of Strangers (2008) features another element that frequently shows up in Kress' work. Technically superior alien beings whose motives are mysterious. This story is written in the present tense, something Kress doesn't do a lot, and features a group of people who were lucky enough to be out of town when their city was wiped off the map, along with all of the world's largest settlements. It was not really a favourite of mine. The aliens' motive turn out to be very straightforward. The story itself focusses more on the guilt the characters feel at having survived. Kress makes you feel for the plight of the main character but it is not really enough to carry the story

By Fools Like Me (2007) is also one of the shorter pieces. It is a heartbreaking story where the Earth has been ruined by pollution and climate change. It features another elderly main character who remembers people who have witnessed the collapse. The survival strategy of the people who survived as been to try and reforest the planet to bring down de CO2 (or as the characters think of it, see-oh-two) content of the atmosphere. Trees are worshipped, they are holy, killing one is the ultimate sin. By extension book are a sin as well. Creating paper is a waste of a perfectly good tree. They are not made anymore and the ones that are still found are burnt as soon as possible. Our main character remembers the reasons for this and is not so convinced this is the way to go. Society has sank back to a more primitive existence though and her opinion clashes with her daughter-in-law.

This story is like watching a train wreck. You know the inevitable outcome of this final confrontation between these two characters but also between generations. Without books to store knowledge and record events, things that have a scientific origin are turned into inflexible religious dogmas. It is frighteningly believable at times and as much a tragedy as the final collapse of the relationship between the main character and her family. This story worked a lot better for me than the previous one.

In First Rites (2008) we are back to novella length again. The story is about a little Chinese boy named Cixin who is the victim of an illegal experiment in genetic engineering. His mother, who signed up to become a surrogate without quite knowing what she was getting into, has returned to her native China to raise him and with the help of her Chinese-American cousin they manage to produce the neurotransmitters that allow him to stray alive. They do have severe side-effects however, and when his mother dies, the cousin decides to try and adopt him. A decision with a deep impact on both their lives.

Besides the link between conciousness and quantum mechanics, we encounter another recurring theme in Kress' work in First Rites: genetic engineering. This is definitely one of the more chilling applications I've come across in her stories. Human experimentation in this fashion is not allowed in Kress' future of course, but there are always places where the authorities will look the other way for the right price. The boy in this story is essentially a failed experiment. The drugs he is forced to take make him very poorly behaved and difficult to handle, as cousin Ben finds out as soon as he adopt him. He is probably one of the best characters in this collection. I wouldn't call him likeable but he certainly provokes an emotional response in the reader.

A lot of what is happening to Cixin goes on over his head, he is only partially aware of why he is different than other people and why he has to take drugs. In fact, he is fascinated by what happens to him when he doesn't take his pills, a side effect of his modifications even Ben was unaware of. How to deal with this ramps up the tension between Ben, who feels he should be the one to make all choices for Cixin, and his girlfriend Renate, who disagrees with that. A conflict that is ultimately just as interesting as what happens to Cixin. It takes quite a shock for Ben to see things her way and that makes me wonder what he would have done under less extraordinary circumstances. Ben might be a bit too stubborn for his own good at times.

Next up is the short story End Game (2007). It is a decent story which describes a way to reduce the 'static' from our thought processes and allow a person to focus completely on a single task. At first glance this may seem to have advantages, one of the characters in the story becomes a chess grandmaster is short order after acquiring the trait for instance. From an evolutionary point of view it would be a road to extinction however. What the story calls static also includes awareness of your surroundings. You'd be killed pretty quickly if you focus exclusively on one thing. Not to mention social interactions would get problematic quickly. The idea seemed a bit far fetched to me and my suspension of disbelief collapsed a page or so into the story.

Images of Anna (2009) is more of a paranormal story than science fiction. It is about a photographer who finds a series of pictures of strange people after a photo shoot with a particular client. This was another story that didn't like that much. It does lead the main character to an important realisation, and a decision not all readers will agree with, but the paranormal side of the story did nothing for me.

Laws of Survival (2007) is a novelette that features mysterious and technically superior aliens. I am sure I have read this story before but I can't for the life of me remember where. A girl making a living by going through the trash in the slumps near one of the alien domes finds out that the aliens accept stray dogs and reward her with food. Life is hard for her and she lives by a few rules of basic survival. Knowledge hard won in a world where nobody particularly cares about her. The real test for her set of rules comes when the aliens drag her into the dome and force her to train the dogs she and others have collected for them. Failure means death but what success brings is uncertain as well.

Kress blurs the motivation of the alien invaders in this story even more by having them hide behind computers with limited programming. The main character spends quite a lot of her time trying to figure out ways to get around the limitations these computers impose on her until the true nature of what the aliens want of her become clear. It is an interesting puzzle and a bit of a cat and mouse game. I thought it was one of the better stories in the collection. The realization that her laws of survival hold her back in a way make for an emotionally satisfying ending.

In the novelette Safeguard (2007) we run into another genetic engineering experiment that is so completely despicable that it is hard to imagine people would sink to that level. The story is told from the point of view of an ageing scientist and one of the modified children. As in First Rites, the children are not aware of their modification, in fact they have been kept in a closed off environment for all their lives until an earthquake shatters the dome and destroys the machinery that supports them. That is when the trouble starts and the danger becomes acute.

Kress presents us with a huge dilemma here. The children are not aware of the danger they pose but is it really reasonable to keep them alive? Their naivety really drives home the point that they are innocent of what has been done to them. The reader gets a deeper understanding of what is going on that the children and though the eyes of the scientist and her efforts to keep them alive. The story grabbed me in a way a short story should, it is too short to play nice with the reader and Kress certainly does not pull her punches in this one. Despite the impact it had on me, in the end I felt the resolution was a bit too easy. After all those years of study, it seemed like something they should have figured out before.

The final story in the collection is the one that gave it its name: Fountain of Age (2007). It is a novella about a Max Feder, a man living in a retirement home after handing over his business to his son. He is filthy rich but much of those riches has been gathered using dubious and often outright illegal tricks. Max is not above breaking in, kidnapping, bribing or stealing to make his way. He has left all that behind himself though, but much of the past becomes relevant again when he looses the one tangible reminder of the woman who has helped him gather his fortune. Max calls in a few favours and decide to go look for her.

The main character's attitude reminded me a bit of the main character in Frederik Pohl's Heechee books Robinette Broadhead. There is something about their unapologetic embrace of their vices that make them similar in a way. And it has to be said, Max is a bit of a shifty character. Kress has great fun with him doing things most of her better behaved characters would never dream of. I also like the way in which Kress tied all of the ghosts from his past together in the final scenes of the novella. I'm not quite sure what to make of the Gypsy characters in the novel though. They strike me as more than a bit cliché. It got Kress a Nebula though, so I guess it didn't bother all readers.

In this story Kress combines the themes of aging and biotechnology by describing a technique that stops a person again for 20 years, after which you die. For Max, who is eighty-six, that might seem worth the risk but younger people opt for it as well. The social tensions that arise between people who take the treatment (which is very expensive so most certainly not available for everybody) and those who feel it is wrong to do so are also woven into the story in the background. This type of story is what Kress does best. A strong ending to collection, it goes out with a bang.

Nine stories with ageing, genetic manipulation and alien mystery as recurring themes. Perhaps you can say that Kress does not really surprise with these stories. Thematically they share a lot with most of Kress' oeuvre. What the collection does deliver, is nine expertly crafted stories however. Each and everyone is clearly written by someone who masters the short form completely. In these stories Kress combines very human emotions with extraordinary situations and technical advances that have a huge impact on society. They are thought-provoking and often heartbreaking pieces. In fact, this collection might not be a bad place to start if you want to sample some of her short fiction. For me, this collection was definitely one of the better reads of the year.

Book Details
Title: Fountain of Age
Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Pages: 303
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-931520-45-4
First published: 2012

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