Friday, May 14, 2010

2010 Hugo (and Nebula) nominee, novella: "Act One" by Nancy Kress (Asimov's 3/09)

It probably should not be surprising that a lot of current science fiction deals with genetic manipulation. Nancy Kress, who already has several Hugo and Nebula nominations and wins for short fiction, offers a fairly subtle version of the story in this novella that serves more as a character study than anything else.

The novella is set in the near future, and the narrator, Barry, is the manager of an out-of-work actress named Jane Snow. Jane is set to make a big come back with a film about someone genetically engineered to have something called Arlen's Syndrome, which grants a sort of hyper-empathy. To research the role, she lives with a pair of young twins with Arlen's, and she becomes somewhat embroiled in the machinations of a pro-genetic modification group (genetic modification is extremely unpopular in this future, so the group has to live underground and the twins face a future of discrimination). Most of the drama of the story actually comes from Barry, who is a dwarf, and thus has his own distinct, but ambivalent, views on genetics.

The result is a refreshingly complex take on the issue. While the twins initially seem a bit Stepford, we instead see the role of unintended consequences and nurture-over-nature in genetically modified people. The story is somewhat less than satisfying though. The title refers to the typical structure of scripts, and the story really does feel more like a beginning. A lot of the subplots, the twins especially, seem to go nowhere, and the novella has an intentionally ambiguous ending. And, while Barry's voice and perspective are the best part of the novella, his situation fits just a bit too perfectly, and it does feel a bit contrived. There's good material to chew on here, but setting up clever ethical and character dilemmas seems to overshadow simple storytelling.

Available to read for free at Asimov's.

Grade: B

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