Fountain of Age: Stories

  • Nancy Kress
  • Small Beer Press
  • 300 pp.

A menagerie of other-world characters populates these stories of tragedy and mystery by an award-winning writer.

Reviewed by Phil Harvey

In Fountain of Age, Nancy Kress creates a menagerie of gene-altered and space-connected characters. In one story, an alien force is taking over the minds of the residents of St. Sebastian’s Assisted Living Facility and everyone over 80 is suddenly dying. In another tale, four gene-modified child-toddlers are unknowingly spreading a highly contagious and deadly virus wherever they go.

In these stories, I want to be worried about the next victim. I want to be concerned about who will die next. Will it be someone I know? When a boy named Cixin, whose genetic makeup was fiddled with illegally in a renegade lab, behaves dangerously, erratically, I want to be fearful for him and for his guardian who must regularly supply him with the antidote for his ailment. But for my money, these stories just aren’t scary enough.

There’s a lot of death here ― indeed, in one story, almost the entire human race gets wiped out. But there’s surprisingly little that’s tragic or moving. Death comes in the form of mind melding, or slipping into ‟the ancient largeness.” One protagonist, we are told, “became everything and went home.” That is an interesting way to die, but it doesn’t resonate with our emotions.

There are bright spots. Kress’s prose is smooth and accomplished. In “Fools Like Me,” an abused girl develops a finely drawn relationship with her grandmother, who helps her hide contraband books in the house. (There are practically no trees left in the world and paper books are banned.) The girl’s parents are awful, but real, and we care about them. This story works well. So too, generally, does “Laws of Survival,” the story of a destitute woman who is pulled pneumatically from the garbage pile she frequents through the wall of a dome, constructed on Earth by aliens, so she can train their dogs. The aliens need the dogs for a critical part of their reproductive process, and the woman is grateful for the chance to train them because there is nothing left to live for outside the dome; human civilization has been devastated by a cataclysmic war. Inside she is fed and sheltered as “the alpha dog.” This story is tightly woven, often humorous and told in a satisfying first-person voice. But the ending is less dramatic than the richness that the story demands.

There are high points in Cixin’s story, too. We follow with interest as the boy’s mother gives birth to him in China and he is smuggled into the United States. But his fate, like that of many others, is other-worldly. We are told so often that the boy is “woven into the universe” that we lose the drama of his life story here on Earth.

Sometimes things just aren’t explained. In two stories, what people think becomes reality.  Photographs of one woman show only the things and people she was thinking about when the shutter snapped. Interesting, but where does this take us? It’s not the sort of thing that makes you hurry through your dinner so you can get back to the plot; there’s no this-world explanation for the phenomenon and, hence, no mystery to be solved.

A final plaint, for Kress and all writers, including myself: Don’t drop lessons from the author into a good story. When a benevolent alien explains to our human protagonist in “The Kindness of Strangers” that Earth was overpopulated and cities had to be destroyed because, in one more generation, “you [humans] would have had irreversible climate change,” I cringe.

Kress writes like the award winner she is, and her imagination serves up wonderful possibilities for alien mind games and for humans with endlessly interesting genetic afflictions. But just as we are getting to know these characters, the author moves us into mind melds or outer space, taking the wind out of what could otherwise be moments of tragedy, suspense and mystery, the very stuff that good fiction is made of.

Phil Harveys short stories have appeared in 13 publications.

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