Review of Act One by Nancy Kress
by Nancy Kress
Few authors have won my heart as quickly as Nancy Kress. Two years ago, I had never heard of her. Suddenly I have seven of her books on my shelf, only one of which I've read. Like Octavia E. Butler does in Lilith's Brood, Nancy Kress uses genetic engineering to comment on what we consider human. With Nothing Human, Kress looks at humanity through posthuman eyes, asking where we draw the line between human and inhuman—when we can cut down the chromosomal level, what criteria are we using to decide what is human and what isn't?
"Act One" is set even closer to the present day. An actor is preparing for her role in a movie about "Arlen's children," girls who have been genetically engineered at birth to be more empathic. The novella opens with the actor and her achondroplastic manager (our narrator) meeting with representatives of the Group, a radical organization that advocates genetic engineering by any and all means. Jane Snow just wants to be prepared for her role, but she finds herself an unwitting participant in an act of bioterrorism.
Engineering children to be more empathic seems innocuous, right? Or, as Jane's manager, Barry, puts it: "Prospective clients loved the promise of kids who actually understood how parents felt." As creepy children Bridget and Belinda Barrington demonstrate, however, super-empathy is not all it's cracked up to be. Nurture is as important as nature, and from Belinda's sociopathic behaviour it's clear that her super-empathy does not mitigate her spoilt, emotionally-distant relationship with her mother.
The Arlen's Syndrome children plot, while central to the story, did not affect me as much as Barry's relationship with Jane and his relationship with his ex-wife, Leila, and his son, Ethan. As a dwarf, Barry knows his share of genetic woes. He is the product of a genetic disorder, a mutation that, while not a disease, carries its share of disadvantages and drawbacks, both physiological and social. When genetic screening indicates his unborn son will not be a dwarf, Barry decides to use genetic engineering to change this. But
something went wrong. The retrovirus that was the delivery vector mutated, or the splicing caused other genes to jump (they will do that, or maybe God just wanted an evil joke that day. The soma-gene correction spawned side effects, with one gene turning on another that in turn affected another, a cascade of creation run amok. And we got Ethan.
Barry and Leila fall out, and Barry meets Ethan for the first time when he is forced to flee with Jane and the Barringtons to his mountain-side cabin. Ethan's reaction is … less than warm, at first. But soon we see there is a glimmer of hope.
Children … such enigmas, such complicated bundles of information. Intrinsically innocent, yet blatant reminders of past mistakes or triumphs. And that is the point: when we dabble in our genes, we dabble in the future of our species. We are changing our children, arguably our most precious assets. It behoves us to think long and hard about any such changes before we make them.
Barry is also hopelessly in love with Jane. Jane knows this, but it's an unbroached topic between them—at least, until Belinda broaches it:
Something unnamed could, just barely, be ignored. Could be kept out of daily interaction, could almost be pretended away. What had been "given words" could not.
Jane's serial marriages to very attractive men combined with Barry's dwarfism, not to mention their professional relationship, seems to make anything more than friendship impossible. It's more than that, of course. As Belinda points out, Jane recoils from Barry's accidental touch:
It wasn’t the words Belinda had said. Yes, I loved Jane and yes, that love was hopeless. I already knew that and so must Jane. How could she not? I was with her nearly every day; she was a woman sensitive to nuance. I knew she hated my accidental touch, and hated herself for that, and could help none of it.
On a visceral level Jane's body rebels and displays a bigotry that disgusts her. As enlightened as we like to think we are, sometimes our involuntary reactions bely that and surprise us. I'll admit to having such reactions before.
And so Kress explores not only the consequences of genetic engineering but the motives as well. She goes deeper than the stock reasons of eliminating disease or, for those of a sinister bent, breeding a master race. To some extent, those visceral reactions we find so shameful make us human, and they contribute to our desire to give our children better futures.
Although genetic engineering is in its infancy (no pun intended), it is real. We have sequenced the human genome, and we can screen for genetic disorders. Gene therapy is a reality. It is only a matter of time before we are able to choose the sex of our children, and from there, even more complex traits. With the shadow of World War II looming over the last century, and the spectre of biological determinism always waiting in the wings, there is no area of science for which the phrase "playing God" is more apt. Our ability to alter individuals and our species at the most fundamental level raises hard questions for which there are no easy answers. Kress and other authors like her are using science fiction to show us thought experiments, potentialities inherent in our future capabilities. "Act One" is a powerful reminder that advancements in science and technology bring with them challenges to morality and ethics that must not be ignored. This is, as the title of Kress' novella says, only the beginning of the show.