Jim Freund: Tonight at 10:00 PM, Eastern Time, our guest will be sf writer Nancy Kress. What follows is her entry from "The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction" by John Clute:
Nancy Kress: US writer who began publishing sf with "The Earth Dwellers" for Gal in 1976, and whose first novels were fantasies like The Prince of Morning Bells (1981), a quest tale during which, surprisingly, the young princess involved ages into an old woman before the close, and The Golden Grove (1984), which, again surprisingly, treats Greek myth with something of the iron darkness it merits. After a further fantasy novel, The White Pipes (1985), and an intermittently rewarding collection, Trinity and Other Stories (coll 1985), which includes the NEBULA-winning "Out of All Them Bright Stars" (1985), NK moved forthrightly into sf with her fourth novel, the slow-moving but cumulatively impressive AN ALIEN LIGHT (1988), set on a planet inhabited by two sets of irreconcilably opposed humans, the descendants of the people from a starship that crashed there centuries earlier after a battle with the ALIEN Ged. All knowledge of this history has been lost, and the Ged set up a huge technological honey-trap to entice humans inside for study, as they have found the territoriality and attendant aggressiveness of Homo sapiens baffling. What they learn from the two sets of stranded humans does not lead them to feel that they will win the war against a species whose savagery seems ultimately unopposable. Brain Rose (1990), just as impressively, presents an extremely grim NEAR-FUTURE Earth whose inhabitants are harassed by an AIDS-like disease which eats memory; which is intended somehow to counter the dimming out of the world itself through a "genuine" return to the past. "Beggars in Spain" (1991), a novella, is set within a framework familiar to most sf readers: a group of specially bred children who need no sleep must band together to defend themselves against the jealousy and oppressive behaviour of normal humans. But within this frame NK embeds speculations about not only GENETIC ENGINEERING but also the ethical consequences of "superiority" (> SUPERMAN) in a world which demands an "ecology of help" to survive; the novella version won a NEBULA, and the full-length version, Beggars in Spain (1992) which expands the novella into an ironic saga set partly in space, is almost certainly her best work yet; with Beggars & Choosers (1994), the sequence has begun to acquire the scope -- and to encounter some of the difficulties of focus -- of genuine Future HISTORY. Her recent fiction -- much of which makes virtuoso use of sf devices, but from an angle of vision which gives the impression that the author deems them irremediably belated -- appears in The Aliens of Earth (coll 1993). There seem few subjects that NK, in an already fascinating career, will be unable to assimilate.
JF: It is now 10:00 PM, where I am, in NYC. At 9:59 I finished reading the epilogue of Beggar's Ride, and I must say that my only regret was in having to rush through the end to be in time for this interview. The Beggar's Trilogy is most compelling -- politically, scientifically, and as literature. Thank you, Nancy.
JF: Let me caution the audience that we may have some technical difficulties with this software (we hope to be switching to something more dynamic soon) so please bear with the response time.) Are you here yet, Nancy?
Nancy Kress: Hi, this is Nancy Kress.
JF: Greetings! Glad you made it!
NK: Glad to be here.
JF: Great. I was wondering if you had any reaction to John Clute's bio that I posted (and if you could update us with your latest book)?
NK: I didn't see the Clute bio, but if it's the same one as in the SF Encyclopedia, I liked it very much. My latest book is BEGGAR'S RIDE, the conclusion of the trilogy that started with BEGGARS IN SPAIN.
JF: The Clute bio is at the beginning of this chat, and we already mentioned Beggar's Ride. I was thinking of the book you'd told me about on the phone earlier tonight, which you just turned in.
NK: It's called MAXIMUM LIGHT and it will be out from Tor in 1997, I hope. It concerns both worldwide falling sperm counts and tissue engineering, which is a very hot topic right now in medical circles.
JF: Is there actually a falling sperm count? (he asked in a high-pitched voice...)
NK: Several studies say there are, with sperm count as low as 50% of what it was in 1945. Other studies disagree. I'm going with the ones that make the better story.
JF: Yikes! That _is_ interesting, and something of which I was totally unaware. A good deal of your work shows a deep medical understanding. Do you have a formal medical background?
NK: No. I have no scientific training whatsoever, and I deeply regret that. As a result, I have to research very hard and pick the brains of anyone who will hold still long enough. Microbiology fascinates me and if I had my life to do over again, I would have paid attention to it much sooner.
JF: What did hold your attention in your studies? Your work is so well-researched between medicine, political science and plain ol' human nature that you write with the overview of someone who has done deep research in multiple disciplines. (whether or not you actually did the studies is irrelevant, IMHO, given the way your stories end up.
NK: Thank you. My work wasn't always concerned with political questions. That I address them now is due mostly to the influence of Bruce Sterling. We workshopped together every summer for several years with a large group of people and over time, I absorbed some of Bruce's intense interest in the political and economic underpinnings of any society. I owe him a debt.
JF: That's fascinating--from afar (the reader's point of view) I never would have seen any correlation between your Work and Bruce's. (Although I guess "Green Days at Brunei" does come to mind, now that I think of it.) Getting into the Beggar's trilogy, do you see any direct aspects of the society you created extant now? For example, are there Livers among us?
NK: What I see now is a growing gap between the haves and the havenots in our society. And that, of course, is what the BEGGAR'S TRIOLOGY is all about. What do the haves owe the havenots? The triology came about partly to answer that question and partly because I personally need a lot of sleep and am very jealous of those who don't.
JF: I'm jealous of the time I give to sleep as well. A friend made an interesting comment about Beggars in Spain, in which she perceived that Leisha is sort of a Heinleinian hero--more capable to lead than most, but that in Heinlein, most everyone would accept the Sleepless as proper leaders, but that you point out that people are more likely to be angry and allow their prejudice to rule. Was any part or aspect of that in your mind? (Either in the novella or the trilogy?)
NK: Yes, of course. Heinlein had too sanguine a view of the world. We don't always get the most capable as our leaders. All you have to do is look at Congress.
JF: Politically speaking, is there a Nancy Kress utopia? What kind of political/economic system might appeal to you? (As far as I know, no one from HUAC is logged in...:-)
NK: I don't know. One of the reasons I write is to find out what I think by the mere act of exploring it through words. That's why I never know the endings of my novels before I begin. If I knew the end, I'd have no reason to write.
JF: So does that mean that you're going through an act of discovery at the time you're creating?
NK: Very much so. I don't understand writers who are able to outline their entire book before they begin. I might envy them, but I don't understand. For me, the most exciting part comes when the character and the story get away from me and take off on their own.
JF: You had mentioned offline that you didn't know Beggars in Spain would become a trilogy. How did that come about--from novella to novel to trilogy?
NK: After I finished the novella, the story didn't seem over to me. There was more to say. And this process just went on until I had committed trilogy. But now, I'm absolutely done with the sleepless.
JF: I would say more, but I don't want to give anything away about the end of the trilogy. I must say though, that I could go on reading (or imagining) a lot more--especially about Leisha. She is one of the great characters in sf.
NK: Thank you. The truth is, I prefer writing novellas to novels. If I could make a living writing only novellas I would do that. But it's not possible.
JF: There is something immensely beautiful about the havenots in your stories--Lizzie in Beggars and the narrator in "Out of All Them Bright Stars". Have you known folk like this?
NK: With regard to Out of All Them Bright Stars, the narrator is a waitress. I waitressed in a diner much like hers when I was in college and still have a feel for that life. It's not an easy one.
JF: I've been there as well... Getting back to a point you just made, it's too bad one can't make a living easily with shorter fiction. You mentioned you prefer novellas. How are they different from novels to you?
NK: I like novellas because they're long enough to permit more development of the world than you get in a short story, but unlike novels, they usually have only one plotline, which means it can be focused on with more intensity. My favorite of my own work is mostly novellas.
JF: Any particular titles you'd care to share with us?
(Note to audience: We are now open to your questions.)
NK: My favorite of my own novellas is probably DANCING ON AIR which lost a Hugo by 3 votes. Let me also say, Jim, that I would be astonished if there's any audience out there given the tortuously slow software on which we are chatting. Anybody sticking with this for the last 1-1/2 hours would have to be an incredibly dedicated fan of SF or a masochist.
JF: I think we have both of those kind of folk out there... :-)
Guest: I would like to know how long after "Beggars & Choosers" is "Beggar's ride" set.
JF: Again, note to 'guest' we can't see your name or handle if you don't sign your messages. And to Nancy--don't forget that these interviews are saved for posterity, and will be read by a great many people well after the fact.
NK: I've written another book in between, but to the best of my recollection, BEGGAR'S RIDE opens 7 years after BEGGARS AND CHOOSERS ends. Why?
JF: I think there's an attraction to people when longer works span well over a normal lifetime. Beggars does this, as does Robinson's Mars trilogy (to name the two series that have impressed me the most since 1980).
NK: I too am a big admirer of Kim Stanley Robinson. RED MARS is probably the best novel ever written about the colonization of Mars. I especially admire it because Stan doesn't have a scientific background either and had to research everything in there.
Marilee: Hi Jim, Hi Nancy.
Nancy, I was the emcee the last time OMNI had you in conference -- I was OMNI Muse on AOL.
NK: Hi, Marilee.
Marilee: In sort of an offshoot of OMNI hosts on AOL, we have the Other*Worlds*Cafe. In our message board, we're discussing transhumanism. Do you consider the Sleepless transhumans?
NK: Is that the same as Bruce Sterling's concept of post-human?
Marilee: Sorta -- it's the in between stage -- the changing stage before posthuman.
A lot of folks mention Vinge's AFutD as transhumanism, too. The change to a different form -- eventually so different there's no understanding between humans and the posthumans.
JF: My personal belief (and Nancy, please correct me with your definitive knowledge) is that while the donkeys and livers consider the sleepless not human, this is not true, and that the super-sleepless may be the most human characters left by the time the societies and people have evolved into who they are in Beggars and Choosers.
NK: Marilee, in that case, Sleepless are transhuman. They represent the next state in the evolution of our species which, unlike previous stages, is self-directed. Through genetic engineering I think we will indeed get there.
It depends on whether you're using "human" in a strictly biological or in a metaphorical sense. The super-sleepless still retain the full compliment of human desires and human frailties, including hubris.
JF: Nancy, I was thinking in a metaphorial sense, insofar as things like compassion and striving to push the envelope of the human experience are concerned. Miranda certainly shows that in Beggar's Ride, I believe.
NK: Jim, thank you for all your good questions. It's midnight here and I'm going to bed. Goodnight.
Marilee: Night, Nancy! Thanks for coming!
JF: Thanks so much for being here (and putting up with the software. And thanks
for your wonderful writing.
NK: You're welcome and to all a good night.
JF: Good night to all, and thanks for coming.