Saturday, January 28, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Elliot Wrote - Nancy Kress

I have read quite a few pieces of short fiction by Nancy Kress. She seems most comfortable writing novella length pieces (to the point where many of her novels are three novellas put together) but there are quite a few short stories and novelettes as well. She regularly ends up on award shortlists with her shot work. This particular story did not get nominated and I can see why. It did not have the same impact some of her stronger stories had on me.

Eliot's father is a mathematician. A man of numbers, of reason, and of science. One day, he has a religious experience after seeing the image of Zeus on a strawberry toaster pastry. It upsets him to such a degree that he is admitted to a mental hospital. They offer him a treatment that will remove the memory from his brain. Elliot wants him to have this treatment, but since he is still under age, he cannot give permission. The only person who can is his aunt, who in many ways is the opposite of his father. Rationality plays no part in her decision, and this frustrates Elliot greatly.

What Kress does in many of her stories is explore the impact of some piece of science, biological, genetic, or in this case neurological, on an individual. In this case it is a procedure to remove memories. I have no idea if it is based on some real or proposed procedure. The description is so vague that I suspect it isn't. The human mind is still very poorly understood, and it will not come as a surprise to the reader that it has side effects. Elliot, who believes in numbers and evidence, has trouble accepting that people base decision on feelings or statistically insignificant occurrences. Elliot is pretty extreme in this, and that makes him a somewhat unlikely character.

What I did like about the story, is the way in which he keeps looking for the right metaphor for the human brain. It is a nice illustration of him grappling with something that is not understood, something that perhaps can't be understood. Where his father tries to capture god with numbers, Elliot tries to capture the brain with words. Where it drives one to give up, the other realizes the importance of the attempt.

There is a lot of potential in the story but for some reason the elements don't really fall into place. Where in Kress' best work, the consequences of a scientific discovery for the main character, or the society they live in, is central to the story, here it seems to be the nudge for the main character to gain insight in the way people perceive the world. The father who is actually undergoing the procedure and the change that comes with it, is of lesser importance to the story. His situation is probably just as interesting as that of the son however. Although I am having difficulty pinpointing it, the story leaves me with the feeling that Kress missed an opportunity somewhere along the way.

Story Details
Title: Elliot Wrote
Author: Nancy Kress
Language: English
Originally published: Lightspeed, May 2011
Read in: Lightspeed Year One, edited by John Joseph Adams (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 4,700 words
Awards: None
Available online: Lightspeed

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