BEAKER’S DOZEN

Nancy Kress

Tor / 352 pages / August 1999

ISBN: 1931081549

Once a year, it seems, a story collection emerges that is such a step above the rest that it seems to be in its own class. Last year, it was Jonathan Lethem’s brilliant Wall Of The Sky, Wall Of The Eye, a book that kept me enthralled even through a sleep-deprivation test. (Actually, my condition may have allowed me a deeper connection with the unusual stories.) This year, the gift from the world of publishing is Beaker’s Dozen by Nancy Kress. Two wildly different volumes, but both works of genius.

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Anyone who has read her Beggars series or her latest novel, Maximum Light, knows to expect the best from Kress. Her short fiction appears in only the upper echelon of science fiction and fantasy magazines and anthologies. Spanning 1993-1997, these 13 stories represent a sampling of the finest of her work.

As to be expected, many of the tales in Beaker’s Dozen deal with the promise and the possible consequences of genetic engineering. “Beggars In Spain” will be familiar to many readers. It did, after all, take the Hugo and the Nebula for best novella, and provide the springboard for the Beggars cycle. Even if you’ve read it before, read it again; “Beggars In Spain” and the wrenching “Dancing On Air” offer perhaps the most sobering look at the future of this stampeding science.

In addition, “Dancing On Air” takes an unflinching look at the unrealistic and toxic demands of professional ballet on the mind and body. It is a lofty pursuit that claims a sobering number of lives every year. Kress allows readers to see the reasons behind the single-minded drive of dancers and the toll of the dream.

There are twisted fairy tales and social commentary, laughs and tears. Nothing you wouldn’t expect of Kress. No, the unexpected would come in “Fault Lines.” Yes, it has elements of science fiction, but it is a surprise nonetheless. Who knew Kress could make the jump to mystery/detective fiction with such ease? Gene Shaunessy, ex-cop and multi-dimensional human being, is a character strong and intriguing enough to carry his own series. If she ever decided to switch genres, Kress would pull me irresistibly back to the mystery shelves.

What, exactly, distinguishes Nancy Kress’ fiction is difficult to pin down. It may be the sheer intelligence and curiosity behind the work. It may be the relevance of the subject matter. It may be the seamless storytelling. Just possibly, it is the instant attraction of her fiction. There is no period of “getting into” her stories as with most fiction; the reader is ensconced and involved form the first paragraph. And, that attraction never wanes throughout the narrative, regardless of the length.

From the brief “Margin Of Error” to the novella, “Beggars In Spain,” it is a hypnotism of words, with the hand clap of the final period. But the suggestions made remain, to make our lives, and ourselves, more interesting.