Hugo and Nebula award winning writer Nancy Kress just published a story collection with Subterranean Press. It’s called The Best of Nancy Kress. My review of the whole book is available here. (And a plug, ordering the book via FanLit’s link gets the site about twelve cents, which can go toward operating expenses.) The stories in the book span more than thirty years, and show a lot of Kress’s thought processes, as well as her considerable skill.
I don’t always like Kress’s characters, particularly her women, but I love her ideas and the direction she goes with them. I’m going to discuss one story in particular from the collection. It isn’t even my favorite, but I think it shows so well what she does.
“My Mother, Dancing,” is one of Kress’s rare far-future stories. The story toys with Fermi’s Paradox; if (theoretically) there are hundreds of billions of earth-like planets, why haven’t we been visited by other life?
In “My Mother, Dancing,” the conclusion to Fermi’s Paradox, after centuries of search by terrestrial humans, is that the universe is empty of life except for us. Centuries after Fermi, other human visionaries have pondered the question, and one group has come to the conclusion that it is the responsibility of nano-enchanced, gene-modded humans to spread hand-crafted life among the stars. These aren’t human colonies; these are other entities, seeded onto planets and monitored. It’s called the Great Mission.
The story opens with a quartet of humans, returning to a gas giant planet where life was seeded a millennium ago by the planet’s reckoning. The humans put a created life form at the bottom of a deep rift, where the atmosphere was protected. They promised to come back in a thousand years, and have left an AI to allow them to communicate with the life forms.
The opening tone of the story is celebratory. The quartet is throwing a party before contacting the life forms below. They anticipate a population of about 200,000. Carefully, they lecture their child, Harrah, about treating the lifeforms with respect, and their gentle, patronizing tone tells us volumes about these missionaries themselves.
When they reach out to Seeding 140, their contact, the life form reacts with joy. Through the hologram projection, the humans see their life forms, which look a little bit like oysters, dancing. Seeding 140 then says they are happy that “Mother” has appeared to help them with their problem; they are dying.
Instead of 200,000, there are about 80,000 life forms left. The humans assume immediately that some geological disaster like an earthquake killed off the colony, but Seeding 140 says no. It’s the Others. The Others came about ninety-two planetary years ago, and the seedings began to die. The AI shows a picture of one of the Others. They look plant-based, and there are hundreds of them. A quick scan of the rift’s atmosphere shows that oxygen levels are changing to a rate the seedings can’t tolerate; the Others excrete oxygen, and the shifting levels are proving fatal to the seedings.
Seeding 140’s tone is clearly that of a faithful follower calling upon its deity for help. It knows, without doubt, that Mother will save them.
This is not a “science” science fiction story, where the humans must problem solve to make an environmental change; or even a science ethics story were they debate the rightness of choosing seedings over Others. The four human characters are devastated, shocked at the presence of the Others, because they can’t be there. Everyone knows there is no life in the universe except that created by humanity. Their databases show conclusively that the Others were not planted in the rift by another human team, or in error. Sentence by sentence, the smugness of the humans erodes away, and their arguments become flimsier and flimsier. The holographic evidence is corrupted, they decide. The oxygen readings are in error; they can’t send a probe, because it might become contaminated too, and there’s the child to think of. Not one of them can admit in so many words that this situation calls their belief system into doubt. Not one of them is strong enough in their belief to face this challenge. Kress strips away every rationalization, while at the same time giving us glimpses of these modified humans, the “beautiful deep-green eyes,” of one, for instance. Only one of the four will say out loud that the Others are alive.
What do we owe to the things we create? Until those things achieve sentience, it’s probably an abstract question. How do we react when everything we believe is challenged? Must we act on a cry for help? All these questions are asked in the story. This is also a story about the way we rationalize Not Us = Less Than Us. Humans now live centuries-long lives, and one of the four says that they’ve devoted their life to the Great Mission. They stop just short of saying what they mean, but the reader gets it; their life work, their ego, is more important that the truth… more important than a cry for help from the things they’ve created.
Kress shows us the spiritual hollowness of the healthy, beautiful, physically perfect missionaries,and makes us care about the seedings. Sadly for faithful Seeding 140, dancing as it waits for Mother to help, its creators are all too human.