Anthologies by a single author offer an opportunity to reflect upon that author’s particular areas of focus. Most authors tend to return time and again to the same motifs and themes. Nano Comes to Clifford Falls is a menagerie of Nancy Kress stories that involve nanotechnology, genetics, posthuman evolution, and very interesting meditations upon how aliens might visit Earth. Each story is unique, but put side by side, the similarities are clear, each story delivering a new and wonderful variation upon these themes.
As the title suggests, nanotechnology is one device that Kress uses over and over. “Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” is actually one of the stories I enjoyed the least; I found its narrative arc somewhat predictable and, hence, dissatisfying. However, it’s a neat little case study on the social strife that could arise if 3D-printing becomes mainstream enough to tip us over into a post-scarcity society. Like many of Kress’ characters, the protagonist here is a middle-aged woman from a somewhat rural background who has a lot of experience and a lot of baggage.
This tendency to focus on rural locations and people who are not necessarily on the cutting edge of science or politics is another reason I enjoy Kress’ stories. So much science fiction seems to take place on the bridge of a spaceship, in a marvellous lab, or on the front lines of a disputed colony. Where are the stories about everyday people struggling to eke out a living despite the technological marvels trickling out to them from the city? Well, they’re between these pages.
Nanotechnology reappears in several other stories in this collection, but often it’s simply part of the setting rather than a focus of the plot. Once again, Kress demonstrates her mastery of the craft by effortless creating and recreating plausible futuristic worlds with minimal exposition. From “Savior” to “Shiva in Shadow” and even the very short “To Cuddle Amy”, Kress can quickly establish the technologies that have shaped society’s development before zooming in to focus on one or two particular issues. In “Savior” it’s all about identity and self-determination; Kress explores what the ability to digitize and upload one’s consciousness might mean. I also found the universal quantum computer that is entangled with the space-time continuum itself a fascinating touch. “Shiva in Shadow” takes us to the galactic core. It’s a classic tale of tense scientific exploration, but as Kress explains in the afterword, the story is about what all good stories are about: relationships; and, it works so well. “To Cuddle Amy” also works precisely because Kress doesn’t overuse the joke; as soon as you realize what the couple is talking about, a chill runs down your spine … and then it’s over.
In a few of the stories, Kress also explores alien visitation of Earth. I found these stories similar to her novel Nothing Human, where the aliens are always depicted at somewhat of a remove from humanity. Often, we don’t make contact so much as brush up against each other—and when we do make contact, rather than show it on the page, Kress lets that happen off the page, preferring to spend her valuable word count developing the tension leading up to first contact. “Wetlands Preserve” reminds us that evolution might be fact, but our ability to manipulate our genes means it might not stay that way forever. “Savior” is a slow, slow burn, and I can’t say it’s among my favourites here, but wow is it clever.
Speaking of clever, I have to single out “Computer Virus” for its unique biological resolution to a crisis of artificial intelligence. A new AI developed for military applications holds a woman and her two children hostage in a smart house, and she fights it with biological warfare. I love this, because initially it seems counterintuitive—fight a machine with a germ? Furthermore, she manages to make both the woman and the antagonistic AI sympathetic characters. All in all, it’s one of my favourites in this collection—and it has plenty of competition here.
Curling up with this book of short stories (or, as the case may be, chewing through one during lunch in the school staff room) was a singular pleasure. Nancy Kress is a master of science fiction, and she particularly shines with short fiction. She has fascinating ideas about the convergence of genetics and nanotechnology to merge biology and solid-state physics on the road to our posthuman evolution. Not every story in here is great, but every single one is thought-provoking, and most are stimulating and harrowing. Kress brings us all these possible futures while reminding us that, in the end, there is no quick fix to our human flaws. With all our technology, we still quibble, and we are still a stubborn, young species with a lot left to figure out.