Review: Beaker’s Dozen by Nancy Kress

BEAKER’S DOZEN by Nancy Kress, Tor Books, August 1998, Hc, 352 pp., ISBN: 0-312-86537-6

Nancy Kress is known as an Idea writer (Capital I with fanfare and flourishes) with a tendency toward polemic. I don’t think the reader can find better examples of both traditions often in the same story as are found in BEAKERS DOZEN. I also don’t think there’s a better capsule summary of both the potential rewards and pitfalls of either approach.

Kress starts the collection with her Hugo Award winning “Beggars in Spain.” This is arguably Kress’s most well known story, and it’s also a good introduction to her fascination with biotech. As the story opens, Roger and Elizabeth Camden are meeting with a geneticist to order the enhancements they wish for their planned child, rather like a young couple of an earlier time might meet the architect of the house they wished to build. The enhancement that Roger–but not Elizabeth—wants most is sleeplessness. He gets his way, with one glitch: instead of a single daughter, two are conceived. One with the enhancement, Leisha, and one, Alice, without.

“Beggars in Spain” is mostly Leisha’s story, as we are shown her life in jump-cuts of time as she grows up, meets other Sleepless, and generally tries to apply sensible Yagaiist philosophies of contract and trade to the task of making her way in a world still dominated by Sleepers. She finds both love and resentment, a resentment that grows as more and more people become aware of the Sleepless and project, as they usually do, their fears and hatreds onto someone, anyone, who can be seen as “other.” Kress’s story takes Leisha full circle from joy and hope to despair and back again. She matures to the point she can finally find the flaws in her father’s philosophy, and the man himself who could easily see how special Leisha was and yet completely miss a different kind of specialness in her sister alice.

In “Feigenbaum Number” Kress moves from biology to chaos theory, with a smidgen of Platonic Ideal thrown in. Jack is a post-doc on a teaching fellowship, working on chaos theory, pursuing strange attractors. He also suffers from a bizarre sort of double-vision that always shows him both the real world and the ideal version of same at once. It’s an extremely disconcerting condition to say the least. Only the death of his beloved mentor and his chance meeting with another who shares the same condition shake him into an understanding of just what it all might mean.

Biological adjustments appear again in “Fault Lines.” In this case the agent is a designer drug. Gene Shaunessey is a retired NY cop who now teaches at an inner-city school. When several elderly couples die in apparent suicides, an old friend draws him into the case.

The culprit is apparently J-24, a drug that facilitates emotional bonding between people, the so-called “perfect union” that human beings supposedly strive for. It’s not that simple, of course. Gene doesn’t really solve the case as such; he just finds an answer he can live with. In his case, the answer is a less perfect union. That’s the central irony: human beings want connection, yet it is precisely this lack of connection that allows the protagonist to cope.

“Grant us this Day.” God as an art student competing for a grant on the basis of Creation, perhaps destined to repeat the Crucifixion as a set piece. Kress, in her introduction, says no one got what the story was really about. I’m sure I didn’t either.

“Flowers of Aulit Prison.” Aliens on the planet called “World” base society on the concept of a consensus reality that only “real” people share. So what happens when the basis of that consensus is undermined? Which counts more, the reality or the consensus? When Uli Pek Bengarin is convicted of a crime she may or may not have committed and is thus made “unreal,” that is the question she must answer as best she can.

There are thirteen stories all told. In the best of the works we get both social consciousness and the play of ideas in a narrative carried by a sympathetic character. I think this is the aspect of “Beggars in Spain” that makes it work so well. Tell a human being about a tragedy or injustice and they will certainly agree that either is a bad thing. Show them the same thing through the eyes of someone living it, let them, if only for a little while, become that character and that same injustice hits on an emotional level that mere facts never reach.

Whether this tendency to see the universal only through the specific is a strength of the species or a flaw is another question, but the tendency is there. In the less successful of the stories(“Evolution” or “Sex Education,” for example) that character is the missing element. Here Kress puts her protagonists and everyone around them through a great deal of tragedy and suffering, almost to the point where empathy should be automatic. It never is. No matter how much Sturm and Drang surrounds the characters, their pain is just as cerebral as the ideas Kress expresses through them. Here as in her more successful pieces Kress writes skillfully, ideates originally, extrapolates beautifully. It’s wonderful, but it’s just not enough.

Enough, however, is as good as a feast. When that empathy is there, even in the smallest regard (witness Angel the bio-enhanced guard dog of “Dancing on Air”), the difference is striking. “Flowers of Aulit Prison,” is another piece where the viewpoint character manages to carry the burden of ideation and polemic, though barely.

Yes, I know. Many readers of science fiction do not consider ideas well-explored or a good dose of didacticism a burden. Fair enough. Yet when those things are allowed to become the sum total of the story, then I submit that what you’re reading is no longer a story at all. An essay in disguise, perhaps. Perhaps something else. A sf story needs good ideas but it also needs people, no matter what planet they’re from or however many heads or alternative respiratory appendages they may possess. People are not the sum of their arguments any more than they are Dueling Viewpoints with feet.

Sometimes when Kress succeeds in creating a sympathetic character it almost feels like an accident. It can’t be an accident. Otherwise there is no way on Heaven or Earth to explain stories like “Summer Wind” and “Unto the Daughters.”

First, “Unto the Daughters.” Adam and Eve from the Snake’s viewpoint. It’s an old notion but Kress finds another perspective and just enough twist to make it work. More over, there’s an emotional depth to the viewpoint character that you just don’t see in the more ambitious stories. In her foreword Kress says that she started, not with an idea, but the snake’s voice. That doesn’t mean there is not an Idea, as such, but that it arose out of character in the telling. I don’t know what conclusions are to be drawn from that, but it does show that Kress is capable of doing very well by her creations.

Witness again “Summer Wind.” This is a deceptively simple retelling of Sleeping Beauty, with one difference: Everyone in the castle is asleep except Briar Rose. Heroes come to hack at the thorn, heroes fail. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way, as the princess tells herself, but there is a plan in back of it all revealed in the fullness of time. Year after year passes until Briar Rose is no longer the nubile young prize the tale normally makes of her. She becomes something else entirely and it has nothing to do with Handsome Princes and rescues.

The story is elegant and affecting and, like “Unto the Daughters,” shows what Kress can do when polemic yields place and story comes first. Maybe this isn’t what her readership wants and it certainly isn’t my place to say. Speaking as one selfish reader, though, I wish she’d do it more often.