The Best of Nancy Kress, comprised of 21 short stories, novelettes, and novellas, will be released by Subterranean Press next week. This collection, which will be available as both a signed limited edition hardcover and an ebook, also contains an introduction and afterwords after each story, all written by the author. The stories within this volume are the author’s own personal favorites, other than a couple of novellas that were too long to include, and most of them are science fiction. The complete table of contents from The Best of Nancy Kress can be seen on the publisher’s website.
Before reading this collection, I had only read three stories shorter than novel length written by Nancy Kress, and I’d been especially impressed by a couple of her recent novellas, Yesterday’s Kin and After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall. Even though I only enjoyed about one fourth of these stories to the same degree as those two excellent books, I am now even more in awe of her ability to pack more intriguing ideas and characterization into her shorter fiction than I would have thought possible. It’s often difficult for me to read short stories, and this is easily the longest book containing them I’ve ever read—and yet, I found all but one of them compelling in some way. While the stories were not in publication order, I also thought it showed the progression of her writing skill over time. The end of the book listed each story with the year it was published, and I noticed that almost all of the ones I felt were weaker were the oldest stories in the book.
Although I love the way she tackles thoughtful questions and incorporates hard science into her stories without dry infodumps, I think much of what makes her stories so appealing is that they’re all very much about characters—and often, flawed ones. Some are decent people facing difficult circumstances, but most of them have a mixture of strong and weak personality traits with a few more terrible than others. One of my favorite stories was about a woman who got her vengeance with science in a most diabolical manner, and neither major character in that tale seemed like a good person! Even if they did some awful things, they were well-characterized with clear motivations.
Each character seems quite real, whether human, alien, or even a dog. When I first realized one of the two narrators in “Dancing on Air” was a doberman, I wasn’t sure it would work, but it actually did. Angel, a bioengineered dog, was not very intelligent, but this made him the perfect narrator for the part of the story viewed from his perspective. He was able to observe without having the analytical ability to piece together what was actually happening, allowing that part to begin as a mystery, and he also had a voice that fit. This was a great story about ballet and genetic engineering that showed parallels between two mothers of ballerinas and their daughters.
Perhaps the best example of Nancy Kress’ skill with combining examination of ideas with complex characters and relationships is her phenomenal Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novella, “Beggars in Spain,” my favorite in this volume. It is the longest story in this collection, but the amount contained within its pages is still incredible for this length: everything from examination of future developments in genetic engineering to the societal changes and philosophies resulting from both this and other technological advances to the more personal story of a family. The beginning is immediately gripping: a man and his wife are meeting with a doctor to determine the genetic engineering of their child. They end up with one daughter engineered to be exactly the way her father wanted—intelligent and joyful with no need for sleep—and an unexpected “twin” with no genetic engineering whatsoever, exactly what their mother had wanted. Neither parent even attempts to hide that they have a favored child, and Leisha and Alice have a complicated relationship, to say the least! It also shows the world’s reaction to Leisha and other “sleepless” like her, brilliant people who have more hours in their day than other people to devote to studies, professions, or athletic training. The ending also had unexpected emotional impact considering that I didn’t feel like the characters themselves were as compelling as their relationships and lives.
While I liked the longest story best, one of my other favorites was one of the shortest stories in the collection, “Margin of Error.” I don’t want to give away too much about what happened in those six pages, but they contained an excellent science fiction story that was mostly a conversation between two sisters. It gave a clear picture of their past, their relationship, and their characters, and the final lines they spoke to each other toward the end were perfect.
Besides having a variety of story lengths, this volume also contains a remarkable assortment of concepts. One is a reversal of the common time travel story—instead of characters going to the past to change it, they bring people from the past to their present, which is forever changed because of this. Another is a tale of people and their mission in the far future while another another tells what really happened in the Garden of Eden. Each story is unique, and even the two stories that both deal with a similar scenario (meeting an alien for the first time) are about very different situations and characters.
The Best of Nancy Kress is a superb collection by an outstanding writer who excels at telling a large story without a large word count. Although I did enjoy some stories more than others, I found nearly every story engaging on some level whether it was due to the strength of the ideas, characterization, or storytelling—or, in several cases, all of these!
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.