The Best Of Nancy Kress (book review)

I’ve read and enjoyed some of Nancy Kress’ story output in recent years, so being handed an anthology of 21 short stories and novellas wasn’t something I was going to avoid.


The opening story, ‘Wild For Her To Hold’, fulfils Kress’ desire to write an Anne Boleyn story by having her being amongst several individuals being rescued from death in the past in. I suspect not being totally aware of her history didn’t make me catch on to the metaphor when the hosts were accused of not looking after her.

‘Pathways’ is an interesting take centring on a hillbilly family who have a genetic disorder that can give them chronic insomnia and ultimately kills them in a short order. One of the family, Ludy Connors, volunteers for a surgical implant that will allow a solution to be tried. Her family isn’t particularly happy and even Ludy isn’t sure about her own decisions. An oddly sensitive story that Kress did for a science magazine.

‘Dancing On Air’ is an oddity as it enters into the future of ballet where dancers can be modified to survive the physical damage that affects unenhanced people. The story is seen through a variety of people but you’re not always sure which but, as this is one of Kress’ early stories, then I suspect she was experimenting, especially when she included Angel, an enhanced Doberman security dog. A secondary plot of a murderer after enhanced dancers gets side-lined when you would have thought that it would have been a stronger story element.

‘The Flowers Of Aulit Prison’ is an alien first-person perspective where Uli Pek Bengarin, responsible for the death of her sister goes to prison as an informer on some humans that are going to be introduced there. This story ended up being more significant to me because it enabled me to recognise some of the pattern in Kress’ work. In short form stories, there is always a necessity to jump in running and feeding details to the reader along the way rather than declaring them from the start. It has to be done cleverly to avoid introducing anything unexpectedly that might seem like deux ex machina. Kress does very well at that but for those of you who might not recognise the technique, it can seem like a jigsaw and you might need to think as you read her stories putting things together.

Kress in her end notes states that she wasn’t sure about the reaction to ‘The Kindness Of Strangers’ because it shows an action of aliens who see their action as a way to save mankind. Although the perspective is from a group of trapped humans and I’m avoiding spoilers here, I think she could have gone farther because the impact of this choice doesn’t come across strong enough.

Some of the stories are less successful than they should have been and even Kress admits so in her end notes but I suspect a lot of the time it’s more a question of testing her abilities and, occasionally, the demands of editors’ requests. Saying that, the likes of ‘Trinity’ exploring clones and ‘Evolution’ about an infectious virus and its cure were written some time ago but still hold some relevance which is always a good sign.

Reading them all as a collective, it becomes obvious that Kress is a good character writer and captures urban Americana. Combined with SF, it’s no wonder she’s won so many awards. If you like but haven’t got all of Kress’ work, then this limited edition might be the only way.

GF Willmetts

September 2015

(pub: Subterranean Press. 555 page deluxe hardback. Price: $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-721-9)

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