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N A N C Y   K R E S S : Juggling Realities
(excerpted from Locus Magazine, July 2000)

Nancy Kress
    Photo by Beth Gwinn

Nancy Kress’s first published story work was SF -- ‘‘The Earth Dwellers’’ (Galaxy 1976) -- but her first three novels were fantasy: The Prince of Morning Bells (1981), The Golden Grove (1984) and The White Pipes (1985). Since then, she has concentrated on SF for novels An Alien Light (1987), Brain Rose (1990), Beggars in Spain (1993) -- with sequels Beggars and Choosers (1994) and Beggars Ride (1996) -- as well as standalones Oaths and Miracles (1995), Maximum Light (1998), and Probability Moon (2000).

Kress is also a notable writer of shorter fiction. After a Nebula nomination in 1984 for her novella ‘‘Trinity’’, she went on to win a Nebula the following year for short story ‘‘Out of All Them Bright Stars’’, and another in 1991 for the original novella version of ‘‘Beggars in Spain’’, which also won a Hugo that year. Novelette ‘‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison’’ won a Nebula for 1997. Her shorter work has been collected in Trinity and Other Stories (1985), The Aliens of Earth (1993) and Beaker’s Dozen (1998).

After two previous marriages, she married fellow SF writer Charles Sheffield in 1998. They live in Maryland with his two younger daughters.


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‘‘My first three novels were fantasy. My first science fiction novel was offworld, far-future, with aliens, space war -- the whole trope. Then I decided I didn’t want to do that, and the next seven or eight novels were variations of near-future Earth, usually using genetic engineering, because that fascinated me. However, I feel like I’m played out on that, temporarily. So Probability Moon goes back, not to the same world or the same aliens, but it’s far-future, offworld, aliens, spacewar, and the science it uses is physics, rather than genetic engineering. I don’t know a lot of physics. Partly I’m reading, partly I’m picking Charles’s brains, and partly I’m inventing like mad. When he reads it, he’s going to turn pale and say, ‘This is gibberish,’ and we’ll have the same argument we always have. I’ll say, ‘I know it’s gibberish. It’s science fiction. If it were real, it would be a monograph.’ He pronounces it science fiction, and I pronounce it science fiction.

‘‘It’s set in the same world as my Nebula-winning novelette ‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison’ because those aliens have a built-in biological mechanism called ‘shared reality.’ They can’t really deceive each other, or even think very differently than each other, because when they perceive that they are, they start getting headaches. So they have a very peaceful society. There’s an occasional murder of passion, but you can’t plan and premeditate much violence without getting headaches because you know your victim is not sharing this particular idea of reality. That’s what went on in ‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison’ -- the major character encounters a human and discovers that there are other realities.

‘‘What I’m exploring is ‘How do we know what we think is reality is reality? And how do we know our reality overlaps significantly enough with other peoples’ realities that we’re even talking or planning or thinking about the same things, when we think we are?’ Anybody who’s been married knows how different two realities can be, even in the same household! So here I’m extending it to two different species, and yet there are no bad guys. They’re all trying to get along. It’s just that there are built-in difficulties. Each species ends up causing terrible harm to the other, without any intention of doing so. It’s sort of a microcosm of human relationships writ very large, and bringing in aliens to help underscore the point.

‘‘I’m working on a sequel now. It extends the story, because when I finished Probability Moon I realized I wasn’t done. It doesn’t stop in mid-sentence, but it certainly doesn’t tie everything up, so I felt I had to pursue the characters and the situations further. And now that I’m nearing the end of this sequel, I’m beginning to fear that I may commit trilogy -- I didn’t plan to, truly! It’s all about reality, and the harm and the good we do each other without knowing that we’re doing it."


‘‘People are talking about the state of science fiction all the time, and they’re always talking about it in extremely gloomy tones. They say we’re losing media space and rack space to books set in immediate times -- which is true -- but what I don’t believe is the part where they say ‘Nobody reads anymore. Kids don’t read. We’ve drifted away from the Golden Age of science fiction.’ The quality of the SF being written now is higher than it’s ever been. And even if the audiences look smaller at the moment, what I think is happening is that science fiction more and more is picking up mainstream readers. I come across a lot of people who say, ‘I never read science fiction before, or not for years, but now I’m back reading in the field, because it’s more interesting. It has more real people in it.’ We’re slowly picking up mainstream readers, and also the opposite is happening -- mainstream is picking up science fiction themes and tropes and concerns, as the world becomes more futuristic. So I think mainstream and SF are moving closer together, and we’re in a period of transition right now, not a period of total loss, which is what the gloomy people (including my husband) say.

‘‘We want people to read what we call good science fiction, but the sophisticated end of any genre has always had a smaller audience. The number of people reading Anne Tyler and Toni Morrison and John Updike is a lot smaller than the number of people reading Danielle Steele and Tom Clancy. Sophisticated readers have always been at the far end and in smaller numbers. When we get hot and bothered that more people are reading the low end than are reading the sophisticated stuff -- that’s just human nature! We’re not going to change human nature, no matter how the genre changes.

‘‘Some might say Octavia Butler believes the opposite. She’s done it with aliens coming in, and with Earthseed the religion. I would argue, though, that Parable of the Talents -- which I thought was a wonderful book -- proves exactly the opposite because, despite Earthseed taking place and despite people looking at change differently, by the end of that book the human nature of conflict between mother and daughter, between brother and sister, is unchanged. I would argue that her characters, and the way their individual destinies work out, prove that human nature doesn’t change. And I don’t think it does except over long evolutionary periods, because a lot of it is genetically determined. An individual can change his behavior if he wants to, but a statistically large enough group can’t."

© 2000 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.