cover image Beaker's Dozen

Beaker's Dozen

Nancy Kress. Tor Books, $24.95 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-312-86537-5

A crucial aesthetic issue in SF is how well the science and fiction meld. In Kress's writings, there are never the crude info-dumps or token, thin characters endemic to much of the genre. Every story of the 13 reprinted in this volume has, in addition to the science--sometimes rigorous and detailed, sometimes extrapolated and fantastically ramified--compelling human beings (or other sentients) entangled with one another in ways that are psychologically real. Leading off is the Hugo-winning novella ""Beggars in Spain"" (1991), which led to Kress's highly regarded Beggars series of novels. From the simple premise of a genetically engineered ability to do without sleep, Kress weaves a compelling tale of factional and personal conflicts in a future meritocracy. Closing the collection is another novella, ""Dancing on Air,"" in which Kress explores the implications of genetic enhancements against the perfectly apt background of stage mothers and their thoroughbred ballerina daughters. This story contains some of the best ""alien"" POV narrative anyone is likely to see, with the ""alien"" being a genetically enhanced Doberman. Nearly perfect is ""Always True To Thee, in My Fashion,"" a parodic take on the fashion world in which mood-altering designer drugs go in and out with the clothes. Other stories explore chaos theory, alternate history and, exquisitely in ""Summer Wind,"" the human experience of aging and the passage of time. A recurrent weakness is the crowding of thematic metaphors in a heavy-handed way, so that the plotting at times is greatly overworked. Subplots sometimes converge and provide resonance to the theme as if they created a mathematical proof rather than an organic story. Even in these tales, however, there is much to admire and fascinate. (Aug.)