The author of over a dozen books, including the well-received Probability trilogy, Nancy Kress loves to thwart our expectations about the future. In her new short story collection Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories, out this month, she takes stereotypical SF tales of galactic colonization, alien invasion, and nanotech singularities — and slaps them upside the head. In one story, aliens "invade" Earth by landing a spaceship and just letting it sit in rural Minnesota for centuries; in another, we see the nanotech singularity from the perspective of people in a small prairie town. A story ostensibly about exploring a black hole at the center of the galaxy turns out to be about how AI uploads of people actually have better personalities than their originals. Though often uneven, the collection will tweak your preconceptions enough to stay with you long after you've put it down.
The book leads off with Kress' story "Nano Comes to Clifford Falls," which was originally published via scifi podcast Escape Pod. The tale of a single mother coping with what happens when her small town, Clifford Falls, gets several nano-fabricators sparked a great deal of controversy online, in part because nobody could figure out if Kress was for or against nanotech. And that's part of what appeals about this tale: Kress shows the dark side of being liberated from the need to work, showing us people in Clifford Falls who quit their awful factory jobs and spend all day getting drunk on nano-whiskey or primping in their nano-fashions. Her heroine refuses to use the nano-fabricators, preferring to farm and sew her own clothes as a way of not giving up on work. One of the strongest stories in the book, this tale exhibits Kress' allure as a writer: she manages to explore hard science while also looking at its social consequences among ordinary people rather than scientists or elite space explorers.
A similarly strong story is "Computer Virus," about a woman trapped inside her computer-secured fortress by an invading A.I. who wants to escape being killed by the government agency that made him. While our hero figures out an ingenious way to use her skills with proteomics to fight the A.I., she also struggles with a sense that her biology skills are inferior to those of her dead husband. And in "Savior," we follow several generations of mostly-humble Minnesota families as they struggle to understand why a strange alien craft landed on a patch of farmland and never moved or transmitted any information to Earth for over two centuries.
Kress has a way of making the vast reaches of the galaxy and the tiniest nanomachines seem familiar and comprehensible — while also making the Earth itself into a creepy alternate world. At times her depressed single mothers, dysfunctional siblings, and cruelly condescending male authority figures feel like figures out of a Dorothy Allison novel. Until they grow new bodies in nano-vats, or blast themselves into the heart of a black hole. Or destroy an entire solar system by merging with a universe-spanning synthetic intelligence that's slowly being tortured to death by a similar intelligence from another universe. At her best, Nancy Kress evokes the surreal unhappiness of Katherine Dunn's mutant-family novel Geek Love.
But many of the stories in this volume, such as "Shiva in Shadow," suffer from a kind of overly-ambitious metaphorical symmetry in which science becomes a fancy symbol for human psychology. In that story, three characters studying anomalous gravitational artifacts at the center of the galaxy find their own relationships haunted by (you guessed it) anomalous, unseen forces that cause them to get sucked slowly into a swirling pit of hellish destruction — just like a black hole. "The Most Famous Little Girl in the World" has the same problem. A girl who is abducted by aliens becomes (wait for it) alienated from her little cousin, and the story tracks the two women for their whole lives as their alienation from each other too-perfectly reflects the humans' growing relationship with the aliens who once abducted the girl.
Despite these moments when Kress bashes the reader over the head with simple allegories, the collection is generally strong and worth a read. I was especially impressed with Kress' ability to quickly invoke posthuman worlds with just a few deft paragraphs, and bring us deeply into the emotional lives of her sometimes quite alien characters. And her heaping doses of bio-geekery, usually based in extrapolations from today's state-of-the-art science, give these stories a grounding in realism that a lot of great science fiction lacks.