Fountain of Age: Stories
by Nancy Kress
Cover Artist: fonografiks
Review by Cathy Green
Small Beer Press Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9781931520454
Date: 10 April 2012 List Price $16.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Nancy Kress's latest short story collection, Fountain Of Age, collects short stories and novellas published between 2007 and 2009 in print and on-line venues such as Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Jim Baen's Universe, and Fantasy Magazine. The collection includes two award winning novellas - "Fountain of Age" which won the Nebula, and "The Erdmann Nexus" won the Hugo. It also includes the short story "Images of Anna", which was a WSFA Small Press Award finalist, and many of the stories in the collection have been reprinted in various Year's Best collections. In short, if you have any interest in the short fiction Nancy Kress has been writing in the 21st century, you will want to buy this collection published by Small Beer Press.
"The Erdmann Nexus", the longest story in the collection at 78 pages, involves a group of over-eighty seniors in an assisted living facility who seem to be developing a collective consciousness, with sometimes disastrous results. The story is an interesting meditation on identity and relationships as some people choose to join the collective consciousness and leave the Earth as a newly evolved being and others do not, preferring to remain themselves rather than be subsumed into something bigger and alien.
In a similar vein, "First Rites" also involves a greater consciousness. Cixin is a genetically modified boy, a botched attempt by rogue scientists to create supersoldiers, who may or may not be connected to some universal consciousness when he is in what his guardian thinks is a petit mal fugue state. The story is somewhat bittersweet, as Cixin does not lead a particularly happy life, nor did his late mother, and his adoptive father and distant cousin is not really able to relate to him or other people. On the other hand, the Earth is saved from destruction by massive solar flares when Cixin shuffles off his mortal coil to happily join the collective consciousness of the universe, a state of affairs his guardian is unable to accept as anything other than Cixin dying.
In "Safeguard", children who were successfully modified to be weapons of mass destruction are kept in a carefully controlled, domed environment and visited daily by their caretaker, Dr. Katherine Taney. Although they are weapons, they are still children and killing them would be morally problematic. Unfortunately, there's an earthquake and the dome cracks. When Dr. Taney doesn't come, the children go out in the world to find her, unintentionally killing the kind strangers who aid them in their search.
In "The Kindness of Strangers", aliens decide we have gotten too numerous and too violent and destroy the majority of cities on the planet. In the aftermath, the aliens provide limited help to the survivors as people gather together in groups and also start to help each other. At the edges of what's left of Rochester, NY, Jenny deals with survivor guilt, the end of her relationship with her boyfriend and the question of how to reach her surviving relatives. Eventually, she is able to ask the aliens why they did it, and the aliens explain that it was an act of kindness to reverse the course we were on of overpopulation and environmental disaster and ever more destructive wars. The aliens blithely assure her that things will be much better in a couple of generations and that humans will ultimately come to appreciate their intervention. However, it seems pretty clear by the end of the story that the aliens may have miscalculated when it comes to human nature.
In "Laws of Survival", Jill has somewhat better luck in her alien encounter. Humanity has seriously wrecked the earth in a massive war, after which aliens landed their spaceships and built domes from which they never come out. Jill is living at the dump on the outskirts of Raleigh, surviving alone as best she can. A chance encounter with a robot from the Dome leads Jill to be taken inside the Dome to train dogs for the alien's robot for some unspecified purpose.
The collection ends with the title story, the Nebula Award winning "Fountain of Age". Max Feder is in an old age home waiting to die. Treatments are available to extend his life, but he does not see the point. Then his son and grandsons visit and his grandsons manage to destroy the one possession he values above all else, a ring containing the hair and a kiss of his one true love Daria. Suddenly, Max has a reason to live, as he becomes determined to get another kiss and token from Daria. As a result, Max is soon involved in an adventure involving federal agents, corporate intrigue, and terrorist conspiracies. It's a story in which people commit acts of incredible cruelty and kindness out of anger but mostly out of love and friendship.
The nine stories in this collection are all excellent examples of Kress's writing for the past decade. Fountain Of Age should be a 'must buy' both for fans of Kress's work and for those readers who are just discovering her writing. Highly recommended.