Book review: Act One, by Nancy Kress

3 09 2017

Nancy Kress is an American SF writer whose stories often explore the societal implications of genetic engineering. She’s won numerous Nebula awards, alongside Campbell, Sturgeon, and Hugo awards, for her novels and short fiction. I’ve previously reviewed her books Beggars in Spain and AI Unbound.


Kress’s Nebula-shortlisted novella Act One revolves around the genetics of empathy, with Barry Tenler, in his role as her manager, seeking to shepherd fifty-something actor Jane Snow through her preparations for a role in a movie exploring the social implications of Arlen’s Syndrome, a gene-therapy treatment designed to promote a heightened aptitude for empathy in wealthy clients’ designer babies. Barry has his own history with gene therapy and its limitations—he suffers from achondroplasia, a type of dwarfism, and an attempt to alter his unborn son’s genetic makeup led to the breakup of his marriage—but it’s not Barry’s relationship with epigenetics that causes the problem that develops as a result of Jane’s research for her role …

Kress’s characterisation is always effective, and the speculation that underpins Act One is intriguing. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable on the subject of human genetics to know whether the thesis here—that genetic modification can lead to a substantially enhanced capacity for empathy and an awareness of the broader emotional context in human interactions—is genuinely credible, but the text at least emulates credibility, which is after all the underpinning of all successful hard science fiction. This is very much a story in the classic idea-as-hero SF mould, but the characters matter, and the central dilemma (for all that it is, so far as we know, a fictional fabrication) is sufficiently weighty that it’s worth dwelling on.





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