All posts by laogden1

The Best of Nancy Kress – Introduction

Introduction to THE BEST OF NANCY KRESS

How do you choose the best stories an author ever wrote? And why should the author be the one doing the choosing?

These are not trivial questions, because they bring along, like the debris unavoidably entangled in a comet’s tail, all the much-debated issues about “standards” in art. Are there objective criteria for judging a story “good”? If so, what are they? Or is the entire question of value purely a subjective one? I once had a woman say to me, “If I like it, it’s good.” Well—what if you like it and I don’t? Can a work of fiction be both good and bad at the same time? That makes nonsense of the very words.

Unless…

I think that stories are usually good in parts. Some have compelling, realistic, fascinating characters but the plot is predictable. Others are amazingly inventive in narrative but the writing is pedestrian: it never surprises, never soars. Others, especially, in science fiction, explore fascinating ideas, but the characters have all the depth of a solar sail. Every once in a while a story has everything—character, idea, plot, language—and we gasp in admiration. But there are still readers out there who will hate it. This doesn’t imply the absence of standards or even the presence of wholly individual standards; rather, it means that some readers care only about one of the parts of fiction (a hero I care about! Weird aliens! A new scientific idea!). The other parts just don’t register, as all wavelengths of light not near 475 nanometers will be thrown back by an object that is “blue.” Nothing not-blue is absorbed.

I know readers like this. Sometimes I am a reader like this, disappointed by a story that does not satisfy the standards I happen to value most, even as I can recognize that the story includes other excellences. Sometimes this is true of a writer’s entire output. I’m not going to name names; I want to keep my friends.

The stories in this book try to do different things. Some, such as “People Like Us,” are predominately idea stories. Some, like “Laws of Survival,” are mostly interested in what a character would do in an impossible situation. Some, like “Unto the Daughters,” were written because I enjoyed writing the voice. At least one, “Casey’s Empire,” is a comment on writing science fiction: why, how, and at what cost one may become an SF writer. Just as I had different motivations for writing these stories, the stories themselves meet different standards of “good.” Or else they don’t—you, the reader, must judge that for yourself.

As to why the author was the one to choose her “best” from among over a hundred stories: because, after decades of waiting for editors to accept or reject manuscripts, it was just so much fun to finally be the one doing the choosing. A few favorite but very long novellas had to be left out due to length, notably “The Erdmann Nexus” (which won me my second Hugo) and “Fountain of Age” (a Nebula). But for the most part, for better or worse, these are the stories of my own that I like the best.

Now the judging is up to you.

Beggars in Spain – Excerpt

Opening Scene of BEGGARS IN SPAIN

ONE

They sat stiffly on his antique Eames chairs, two people who didn’t want to be here, or one person who didn’t want to and one who resented the other’s reluctance. Dr. Ong had seen this before. Within two minutes he was sure: the woman was the silently furious resister. She would lose. The man would pay for it later, in little ways, for a long time.

“I presume you’ve performed the necessary credit checks already,” Roger Camden said pleasantly, “so let’s get right on to details, shall we, Doctor?”

“Certainly,” Ong said. “Why don’t we start by your telling me all the genetic modifications you’re interested in for the baby.”

The woman shifted suddenly on her chair. She was in her late twenties — clearly a second wife — but already had a faded look, as if keeping up with Roger Camden was wearing her out. Ong could easily believe that. Mrs. Camden’s hair was brown, her eyes were brown, her skin had a brown tinge that might have been pretty if her cheeks had had any color. She wore a brown coat, neither fashionable nor cheap, and shoes that looked vaguely orthopedic. Ong glanced at his records for her name: Elizabeth. He would bet people forgot it often.

Next to her, Roger Camden radiated nervous vitality, a man in late middle age whose bullet-shaped head did not match his careful haircut and Italian-silk business suit. Ong did not need to consult his file to recall anything about Camden. A caricature of the bullet-shaped head had been the leading graphic for yesterday’s online edition of the Wall Street journal: Camden had led a major coup in cross-border data-atoll investment. Ong was not sure what cross-border data-atoll investment was.

“A girl,” Elizabeth Camden said. Ong hadn’t expected her to speak first. Her voice was another surprise: upper-class British. “Blonde. Green eyes. Tall. Slender.”

Ong smiled. “Appearance factors are the easiest to achieve, as I’m sure you already know. But all we can do about slenderness is give her a genetic disposition in that direction. How you feed the child will naturally — “

“Yes, yes,” Roger Camden said, “that’s obvious. Now: intelligence. High intelligence. And a sense of daring.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Camden, personality factors are not yet understood well enough to allow genet — “

“Just testing,” Camden said, with a smile that Ong thought was probably supposed to be lighthearted.

Elizabeth Camden said, “Musical ability.”

“Again, Mrs. Camden, a disposition to be musical is all we can guarantee.”

“Good enough,” Camden said. “The full array of corrections for any potential gene-linked health problem, of course.”

“Of course,” Dr. Ong said. Neither client spoke. So far theirs was a fairly modest list, given Camden’s money; most clients had to be argued out of contradictory genetic tendencies, alteration overload, or unrealistic expectations. Ong waited. Tension prickled in the room like heat.

“And,” Camden said, “no need to sleep.”

Elizabeth Camden jerked her head sideways to look out the window.

Ong picked up a paper magnet from his desk. He made his voice pleasant. “May I ask how you learned whether that genetic-modification program exists?”

Camden grinned. “You’re not denying it exists. I give you full credit for that, Doctor.”

Ong held his temper. “May I ask how you learned whether the program exists?”

Camden reached into an inner pocket of his suit. The silk crinkled and pulled; body and suit came from different classes. Camden was, Ong remembered, a Yagaiist, a personal friend of Kenzo Yagai himself. Camden handed Ong hard copy: program specifications.

“Don’t bother hunting down the security leak in your data banks, Doctor. You won’t find it. But if it’s any consolation, neither will anybody else. Now.” He leaned forward suddenly. His tone changed. “I know that you’ve created twenty children who don’t need to sleep at all, that so far nineteen are healthy, intelligent, and psychologically normal. In fact, they’re better than normal; they’re all unusually precocious. The oldest is already four years old and can read in two languages. I know you’re thinking of offering this genetic modification on the open market in a few years. All I want is a chance to buy it for my daughter now. At whatever price you name.”

Ong stood. “I can’t possibly discuss this with you unilaterally, Mr. Camden. Neither the theft of our data — “

“Which wasn’t a theft — your system developed a spontaneous bubble regurgitation into a public gate. You’d have a hell of a time proving otherwise — “

” — nor the offer to purchase this particular genetic modification lie in my sole area of authority. Both have to be discussed with the Institute’s board of directors.”

“By all means, by all means. When can I talk to them, too?”

“You?”

Camden, still seated, looked up at him. It occurred to Ong that there were few men who could look so confident eighteen inches below eye level. “Certainly. I’d like the chance to present my offer to whoever has the actual authority to accept it. That’s only good business.”

“This isn’t solely a business transaction, Mr. Camden.”

“It isn’t solely pure scientific research, either,” Camden retorted. “You’re a for-profit corporation here. With certain tax breaks available only to firms meeting certain fair-practice laws.”

For a minute Ong couldn’t think what Camden meant. “Fair-practice laws …”

“… are designed to protect minorities who are suppliers. I know it hasn’t ever been tested in the case of customers, except for redlining in Y-energy installations. But it could be tested, Dr. Ong. Minorities are entitled to the same product offerings as non-minorities. I know the Institute would not welcome a court case, Doctor. None of your twenty genetic beta-test families is either Black or Jewish!”

“A court … but you’re not Black or Jewish!”

“I’m a different minority. Polish-American. The name was Kaminsky.” Camden finally stood. And smiled warmly. “Look, it is preposterous. You know that, and I know that, and we both know what a grand time journalists would have with it anyway. And you know that I don’t want to sue you with a preposterous case just to use the threat of premature and adverse publicity to get what I want. I don’t want to make threats at all, believe me I don’t. I just want this marvelous advancement you’ve come up with for my daughter.” His face changed, to an expression Ong wouldn’t have believed possible on those particular features: wistfulness. “Doctor, do you know how much more I could have accomplished if I hadn’t had to sleep all my life?”

Elizabeth Camden said harshly, “You hardly sleep now.”

Camden looked down at her as if he had forgotten she was there. “Well, no, my dear, not now. But when I was young … college, I might have been able to finish college and still support … Well. None of that matters now. What matters, Doctor, is that you and I and your board come to an agreement.”

“Mr. Camden, please leave my office now.”

“You mean before you lose your temper at my presumptuousness? You wouldn’t be the first. I’ll expect to have a meeting set up by the end of next week, whenever and wherever you say, of course. Just let my personal secretary, Diane Clavers, know the details. Anytime that’s best for you.”

Ong did not accompany them to the door. Pressure throbbed behind his temples. In the doorway Elizabeth Camden turned. “What happened to the twentieth one?”

“What?”

“The twentieth baby. My husband said nineteen of them are healthy and normal. What happened to the twentieth?”

The pressure grew stronger, hotter. Ong knew that he should not answer; that Camden probably already knew the answer even if his wife didn’t; that he, Ong, was going to answer anyway; that he would regret the lack of self-control, bitterly, later.

“The twentieth baby is dead. His parents turned out to be unstable. They separated during the pregnancy, and his mother could not bear the twenty-four-hour crying of a baby who never sleeps.”

Elizabeth Camden’s eyes widened. “She killed it?”

“By mistake,” Camden said shortly. “Shook the little thing too hard.” He frowned at Ong. “Nurses, Doctor. In shifts. You should have picked only parents wealthy enough to afford nurses in shifts.”

“That’s horrible!” Mrs. Camden burst out, and Ong could not tell if she meant the child’s death, the lack of nurses, or the Institute’s carelessness. Ong closed his eyes.

When they had gone, he took ten milligrams of cyclobenzaprine-III. For his back — it was solely for his back. The old injury was hurting again. Afterward he stood for a long time at the window, still holding the paper magnet, feeling the pressure recede from his temples, feeling himself calm down. Below him Lake Michigan lapped peacefully at the shore; the police had driven away the homeless in another raid just last night, and they hadn’t yet had time to return. Only their debris remained, thrown into the bushes of the lakeshore park: tattered blankets, newspapers, plastic bags like pathetic trampled standards. It was illegal to sleep in the park, illegal to enter it without a resident’s permit, illegal to be homeless and without a residence. As Ong watched, uniformed park attendants began methodically spearing newspapers and shoving them into clean self-propelled receptacles.

Ong picked up the phone to call the chairman of Biotech Institute’s board of directors.

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall – Excerpt

November, 2013

It wasn’t dark, and it wasn’t light. It wasn’t anything except cold. I’m dead, Pete thought, but of course he wasn’t. Every time he thought that, all the way back to his first time when McAllister had warned him: “The transition may seem to last forever.”

Forever was twenty seconds on Pete’s wrister.

Light returned, light the rosy pink of baby toes, and then Pete stood in a misty dawn. And gasped.

It was so beautiful. A calm ocean, smooth and shiny as the floor of the Shell. A beach of white sand, rising in dunes dotted with clumps of grasses. Birds wheeled overhead. Their sharp, indignant cries grew louder as one of them dove into the waves and came up with a fish. Just like that. A fresh breeze tingled Pete’s nose with salt.

This. All this. He hadn’t landed near the ocean before, although he’d seen pictures of it in one of Caity’s books.. This – all destroyed by the Tesslies, gone forever.

No time for hatred, not even old hatred grown fat and ripe as soy plants on the farm. McAllister’s instructions, repeated endlessly to all of them, echoed in Pete’s mind: “You have only ten minutes. Don’t linger anywhere.”

The sand slipped under his shoes and got into the holes. He had to leave them, even though shoes were so hard to come by. Cursing, he ran clumsy and barefoot along the shoreline, his weak knee already aching and head bobbing on his spindly neck, toward the lone house emerging from the mist. The cold air seeped into his lungs and hurt them. He could see his breath.

Seven minutes on his wrister.

The house stood on a little rocky ridge rising from the dunes and jutting into the water. No lights in the windows. The back door was locked but McAllister had put their precious laser saw onto the wrister. (“If you lose it, I will kill you.”) Pete cut a neat, silent hole, reached in, and released the deadbolt.

Five minutes.

Dark stairs. A night light in the hallway. A bedroom with two sleeping forms, his arm thrown over her body, the window open to the sweet night air. Another bedroom with a single bed, the blanketed figure too long, shadowy clothes all over the floor. And at the end of the hallway, a bonanza.

Two of them.

Four minutes.

The baby lay on its back, eyes closed in its bald head, little pink mouth sucking away on dreams. It had thrown off its blanket to expose a band of impossibly smooth skin between the plastic diaper and tiny shirt. Pete took precious seconds to unfasten a corner of the diaper, but he was already in love with the little hairless creature and would have been devastated if it were male. It was a girl. Carefully he hoisted her out of the crib and onto his shoulder, painfully holding her with one crooked arm. She didn’t wake.

No doubt that the toddler was a girl. Glossy brown ringlets, pink pajamas printed with bunnies, a doll clutched in one chubby fist. When Pete reached for her, she woke, blinked, and shrieked.

“No! Mommy! Dada! Cooommme! No!”

Little brat!

Pete grabbed her by the hand and dragged her off the low bed. That wrenched his misshapen shoulder and he nearly screamed. The child resisted, wailing like a typhoon. The baby woke and also screamed. Footsteps pounded down the hall.

Ninety seconds.

“McAllister!” Pete cried, although of course that did no good. McAllister couldn’t hear him. And ten minutes was fixed by the Tesslie machinery: no more, no less. McAllister couldn’t hurry the Grab.

The parents pounded into the room. Pete couldn’t let go of either child. Pete shrieked louder than both of them – his only real strength was in his voice, did they but know it – the words Darlene had taught him: “Stop! I have a bomb!”

They halted just inside the bedroom door, crashing into each other. She gasped: perhaps at the situation, perhaps at Pete. He knew what he must look like to them, a deformed fifteen-year-old with bobbly head.

“Moommmeeeee!” the toddler wailed.

“Bomb! Bomb!” Pete cried.

Forty-five seconds.

The father was a hero. He leaped forward. Pete staggered sideways with his burden of damp baby, but he didn’t let go of the toddler’s hand. Her father grabbed at her torso and Pete’s wrister shot a laser beam at him. The man was moving; the beam caught the side of his arm. The air sizzled with burning flesh and the father let go of his child.

But for only a few precious seconds.

Now the mother rushed forward. Pete dodged behind the low bed, nearly slipping on a pillow that had fallen to the floor. Both of them sprang again, the man’s face contorted with pain, and clutched at their children. Pete fired the laser but his hold on the child had knocked the wrister slightly sideways and he missed. Frantically he began firing, the beams hitting the wall and then Pete’s own foot. The pain was astonishing. He screamed; the children screamed; the mother screamed and lunged.

Five seconds.

The father tore the little girl from Pete. Pete jerked out his bad arm, now in as much pain as his foot, as much pain as the man’s must be, and twined his fingers in the child’s hair. The mother slipped on a throw rug patterned with princesses and went down. But the father held on to the toddler and so did Pete, and—

Grab.

All four of them went through in a blaze of noise, of light, of stinking diapers and roasted flesh, of shoulder pain so intense that Pete had to struggle to stay conscious. He did, but not for long. Once under the Shell, he collapsed to the metal floor. The father, of course, was dead. The last thing Pete heard was both children, still wailing as if their world had ended.

It had. From now on, they were with him and McAllister and the others. From now on, poor little devastated parentless miracles.

Yesterday’s Kin – Excerpt

Opening Scene of YESTERDAY’S KIN

I: S minus 10.5 months

MARIANNE

The publication party was held in the dean’s office, which was supposed to be an honor. Oak-paneled room, sherry in little glasses, small-paned windows facing the quad—the room was trying hard to be a Commons someplace like Oxford or Cambridge, a task for which it was several centuries too late. The party was trying hard to look festive. Marianne’s colleagues, except for Evan and the dean, were trying hard not to look too envious, or at their watches.

“Stop it,” Evan said at her from behind the cover of his raised glass.

“Stop what?”

“Pretending you hate this.”

“I hate this,” Marianne said.

“You don’t.”

He was half right. She didn’t like parties but she was proud of her paper, which had been achieved despite two years of gene sequencers that kept breaking down, inept graduate students who contaminated samples with their own DNA, murmurs of “Lucky find” from Baskell, with whom she’d never gotten along. Baskell, an old-guard physicist, saw her as a bitch who refused to defer to rank or back down gracefully in an argument. Many people, Marianne knew, saw her as some variant of this. The list included two of her three grown children.

Outside the open casements, students lounged on the grass in the mellow October sunshine. Three girls in cut-off jeans played Frisbee, leaping at the blue flying saucer and checking to see if the boys sitting on the stone wall were watching. Feinberg and Davidson, from Physics, walked by, arguing amiably. Marianne wished she were with them instead of at her own party.

“Oh God,” she said to Evan, “Curtis just walked in.”

The president of the university made his ponderous way across the room. Once he had been an historian, which might be why he reminded Marianne of Henry VIII. Now he was a campus politician, as power-mad as Henry but stuck at a second-rate university where there wasn’t much power to be had. Marianne held against him not his personality but his mind; unlike Henry, he was not all that bright. And he spoke in clichés.

“Dr. Jenner,” he said, “congratulations. A feather in your cap, and a credit to us all.”

“Thank you, Dr. Curtis,” Marianne said.

“Oh, ‘Ed,’ please.”

“Ed.” She didn’t offer her own first name, curious to see if he remembered it. He didn’t. Marianne sipped her sherry.

Evan jumped into the awkward silence. “I’m Dr. Blanford, visiting post-doc,” he said in his plummy British accent. “We’re all so proud of Marianne’s work.”

“Yes! And I’d love for you to explain to me your innovative process, ah, Marianne.”

He didn’t have a clue. His secretary had probably reminded him that he had to put in an appearance at the party: Dean of Science’s office, 4:30 Friday, in honor of that publication by Dr. Jenner in—quick look at email—in Nature, very prestigious, none of our scientists have published there before….

“Oh,” Marianne said as Evan poked her discreetly in the side: Play nice! “it wasn’t so much an innovation in process as unexpected results from known procedures. My assistants and I discovered a new haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA. Previously it was thought that Homo sapiens consisted of thirty haplogroups, and we found a thirty-first.”

“By sequencing a sample of contemporary genes, you know,” Evan said helpfully. “Sequencing and verifying.”

Anything said in upper-crust British automatically sounded intelligent, and Dr. Curtis looked suitably impressed. “Of course, of course. Splendid results. A star in your crown.”

“It’s yet another haplogroup descended,” Evan said with malicious helpfulness, “from humanity’s common female ancestor 150,000 years ago. ‘Mitochondrial Eve.’”

Dr. Curtis brightened. There had been a TV program about Mitochondrial Eve, Marianne remembered, featuring a buxom actress in a leopard-skin sarong. “Oh, yes! Wasn’t that—“

“I’m sorry, you can’t go in there!” someone shrilled in the corridor outside the room. All conversation ceased. Heads swiveled toward three men in dark suits pushing their way past the knot of graduate students by the door. The three men wore guns.

Another school shooting, Marianne thought, where can I

“Dr. Marianne Jenner?” the tallest of the three men said, flashing a badge. “I’m Special Agent Douglas Katz of the F.B.I. We’d like you to come with us.”

Marianne said, “Am I under arrest?”

“No, no, nothing like that. We are acting under direct order of the president of the United States. We’re here to escort you to New York.”

Evan had taken Marianne’s hand—she wasn’t sure just when. There was nothing romantic in the hand-clasp, nor anything sexual. Evan, twenty-five years her junior and discreetly gay, was a friend, an ally, the only other evolutionary biologist in the department and the only one who shared Marianne’s cynical sense of humor. “Or so we thought,” they said to each other whenever any hypothesis proved wrong. Or so we thought… His fingers felt warm and reassuring around her suddenly icy ones.

“Why am I going to New York?”

“I’m afraid we can’t tell you that. But it is a matter of national security.”

Me? What possible reason—?”

Special Agent Katz almost, but not quite, hid his impatience at her questions. “I wouldn’t know, ma’am. My orders are to escort you to UN Special Mission Headquarters in Manhattan.”

Marianne looked at her gaping colleagues, at the wide-eyed grad students, at Dr. Curtis, who was already figuring how this could be turned to the advantage of the university. She freed her hand from Evan’s, and managed to keep her voice steady.

“Please excuse me, Dr. Curtis, Dean. It seems I’m needed for something connected with…with the aliens.”