Wednesday, May 10, 2006

“Nano Comes to Clifford Falls” by Nancy Kress [Asimov’s, July 2006]

Posted by Trent Walters at 5:45 PM
Three cheers for another Nancy Kress tale. I was immediately swept into this (semi-)quiet meditation on the dangers that a sudden technological leveler of economic disparity could bring. People quit their jobs because there’s no reason to work now that all needs are provided for--food, clothing, shelter, and the unnecessaries of prettier curtains and hot rods. Of course, when no one wants to work, some things get left behind, like children’s education. Our protagonist does what she can eke out a safe harbor as the brave new technological society descends into social chaos.

The story stands fairly well on its own. But I did think that a few issues would not occur as she plotted them. Since I’ve explained the problems elsewhere and plan to write a more Mundane treatment of the matter, I may be a little vague. 1) The technology is a bit too easy and would not be implemented this way, economically. 2) The society would not wholly dissolve in this manner. While the first impulse of men and women may begin as Kress illustrated, at least one secondary reaction would ensue to compensate for the drastic change in economics. Finally, 3) the narrator, while incredibly “empathizable,” does not address what seems to me to be her central issue: being unnecessarily isolationist and a bit too leery of the technology. A deeper issue underlies this psychological problem, but it may be that this kind of pragmatic narrator would not look too deeply within to see it as a personal problem as opposed to logical responses in dealing with a problem society.

Unfortunately, these problems may make it appear that the story is not enjoyable. Quite the contrary. If I'm thrown out of a story, I tend to gauge periodically how many pages are left. Not here. It is quite aesthetically pleasing--the matters mentioned being peripheral to the overall arc. In fact, I reread parts to see how I’d been helplessly drawn in to the narrative when it opens with such an inherently non-dramatic character scene:

I was weeding the garden when nanotech came to my town. The city got it a month earlier, but I haven’t been to the city since last year. Some of my neighbors went--Angie Myers and Emma Karlson and that widow, Mrs. Blaston, from church. They brought back souvenirs, things made in the nanomachine, and the scarf Angie showed me was really cute. But with three kids, I don’t get out much.

The title’s “Clifford” might signal the rural kind of SF that Clifford Simak wrote. The first line may play off the BB King song, “When Love Comes to Town,” thereby foreshadowing the lack of love and the abundance of “Nano” technology and all that comes with it (but maybe not. The comparison is rather loose). The strength, to me, was the banality of the names, the ease with which they’re rattled off, as if the narrator has known them all her life. The comment that the scarf is cute sharpens her desire for girliness, yet the hook was the narrator’s inability to get out of the house much because of the hecticness of raising kids. The narrator sublimates said girliness for the more pragmatic child-rearing.

Kress captures the small-town mentality well, and one longs to see more writers look toward stronger characterization.

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