Nancy Kress makes the short fiction thing look easy. Her latest collection is Fountain of Age (2012), an attractive trade paperback from Small Beer Press that gathers nine well crafted, entertaining stories published between 2007 and 2009, primarily from Asimov’s.
Most of the stories are core science fiction, set in gritty futures facing environmental catastrophe or suffering in the wake of alien invasion. While there’s no hard and fast theme under which all the stories fall, the title is relevant; Fountain of Age features more than your average share of older characters confronting aging and the challenges of inexorable change. This is particularly evident in the two long pieces that bookend the collection. “The Erdmann Nexus” is an SF mystery about an epidemic of cosmic proportions that strikes the world’s senior community, while “Fountain of Age” tells the tale of a cantankerous old man who leverages his vast wealth and rejuvenation science to recapture the spirit of his youth. Both are smart, smooth, and entertaining reads about human reactions to nearing the end.
My favorite pieces, though, were some of the shorter selections. With its vivid near-future setting and particularly well developed characters, “First Rites” is the quite striking story of a genetically modified boy born with startling new mental capabilities. “End Game” is a provocative thought experiment about a scientist whose dogged pursuit of a way to focus the power of the human mind has unexpected consequences, while “Safeguard” is a nifty, nonlinear techno-thriller about children raised as biological weapons. As usual, Kress’s SFnal thinking is rigorous and interesting, often combining immediate world concerns with a broader, cosmic sense of wonder. Perhaps surprisingly, my favorite story in the collection is “Images of Anna,” a perfectly structured contemporary fantasy about a professional photographer whose latest subject has a bizarre effect on his camera; it’s a beautiful, highly effective character piece about the lengths people will go to transform themselves for love. Overall, a thought-provoking collection full of first-class story-telling and intriguing genre concepts.