Short Story Reviews: Nancy Kress’ “The Earth Dwellers” (1976), “A Delicate Shade of Kipney” (1978), and “And Whether Pigs Have Wings” (1979)

Back in December 2019, I read An Alien Light (1987), my first science fiction work by Nancy Kress (1948-). I was so impressed with the novel, a “bleak and powerful rumination on violence” within a “new alien architecture,” that I placed it on my Best Reads of 2019 list. Like my recent rumination on Melisa Michaels’ first three published short stories, I thought I’d do the same with Kress. I relentlessly seek to map another feature in the fascinating territory of 50s-70s SF.

Let me know which Kress fictions–perhaps from much later in her career–resonate with you.

3.5/5 (Good)

“The Earth Dwellers” first appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. James Baen (December 1976). You can read it online here.

Kress’ fist published science fiction story is a compelling, if flawed, rumination on the emotional toll on those left behind when the younger generation heads for the stars. Duncan and Rachel attempt to rationalize and understand their daughter Susan’s choice to leave Earth (with her husband and son) on a sixteen-year voyage in suspended animation to Sirius V. The departure is final. No future communication is possible. Rachel struggles to identify the moment where Susan no longer felt connected to her planet and family. Duncan, while consoling, appears to understand Susan’s drive for the “hard pioneer life” awaiting them (19).

There are nice touches throughout. Kress’ future Earth has all its secrets laid bare. There’s nothing left to discover. Rachel attempts to refashion her own connection to the “stale and insipid” Earth where with “not inch of it left we don’t know everything about” (23) by joining causes that reconjure memories of her childhood (21). Duncan seems to see something of himself in Susan–he too had joined “early astronaut training” (23) but the pull of Earth (and fears of a rootless life) kept him tethered to the planet.

This theme of generational divergence–the child confronting the parent, the parent attempting to understand the choices of the child, crop up to lesser effect in her next published story, “A Delicate Shade of Kipney” (1978). I did not find “The Earth Dwellers” as compelling as it could have been despite the seductive premise. The childhood memories that Rachel sifts through remembering her daughter feel like a list of common movie scenes rather than the vibrant operations of memory.

Somewhat recommended. Perhaps only for fans of Kress interested in her first steps into science fictional futures.

3/5 (Average)

“A Delicate Shade of Kipney” first appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, ed. George H. Scithers (January-February 1978). You can read it online here.

A few huts cluster around the remnants of a crashed spaceship. Their forty-nine inhabitants eek out an existence in a perpetually gray and foggy alien world. The colonists survived the crash through sheer force of will, without modern technology, and with only four surviving books from a hold full of precious Earth artifacts. Wade, born on the planet, represents the new generation who yearn to celebrate their world, despite the extreme challenges. Wade paints the delicate variations of grey that appear under leaves and throughout day’s changing lights. His sister, with her “too-thin face, and with the awkward way she stood” (93) that resulted from complications in the birth of her first child, and his mother attempt prevent conflict with his grandfather, the only survivor who remembers Earth.

The grandfather never emerges from his hut. He plasters the interior walls with the surviving vivid fragments of images of modern art cannibalized from one of the books. He imagines their suffering as a religious test, as a test of humanity’s will to preserve the “cultural heritage” of the mother planet (96). He resents Wade’s art inspired by the new world. Instead, he desperately wants Wade to recreate the old to prove to himself that his own life had purpose.

“A Delicate Shade of Kipney” explores the narratives that anchor us to our pasts and generate our futures. Wade is the tragic victim of the oppressive forces of family. His grandfather feels his life slipping away and tries to imprint himself for a final time on the new generation. A sad story of generational clash and all the forces that shape our lives and crush our dreams.

2.5/5 (Bad)

“And Whether Pigs Have Wings” first appeared in Omni, ed. Ben Bova and Frank Kendig (January 1979). You can read it online here.

Far more experimental in structure than her first two short stories, “And Whether Pigs Have Wings” transpires in a similar conceptual future as “The Earth Dwellers”–an Earth without wonder and the unknown as everything has already been mapped out and quantified. Two angels (Uriel and Gabriel), or aliens that have taken on the names of angels, attempt to reintroduce wonder into the human mind. Taking on various guises, one of the angels appears as a strange rabbit in front of a toddler stumbling away from a distressing scene of domestic violence, a mermaid in front of a business man determined to ignore environmental activists and develop oil fields, and as a UFO for a child obsessed with science fiction.

Not sure what to make of this one. I found Kress’ attempt to formulate a secular philosophy of wonder–i.e. three concentric circles of knowledge: 1) sensory world, 2) the systems of the mind, and 3) ambiguities and questions without answers explored only by “poets and mystics” (137)–clashes with a bizarre suggestion of Christian salvation theology.

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20 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Nancy Kress’ “The Earth Dwellers” (1976), “A Delicate Shade of Kipney” (1978), and “And Whether Pigs Have Wings” (1979)

  1. I have that issue of Galaxy — I was a subscriber.

    Kress hit her stride a bit later. After a dozen or so OK short stories, and a pretty fine novella (“Trinity”, from 1984) she published “Out of All Them Bright Stars” in the March 1985 F&SF, which was astonishing — I still rank it as one of the greatest SF stories of all time. Lots of strong stories followed (“The Price of Oranges”, “And Wild for to Hold”, “The Flowers of Aulit Prison”, more.)

    As with many SF writers, never quite as good at novel length, but many or her novels are pretty enjoyable.

  2. I suspect I’ve read a story or two of hers just because of the collections of short stories I’ve read over the years, but I couldn’t point to any story and say “That’s a Kress story”.

    Best of luck on this new road of exploration!

      • Only if it was in a collection before ’97. That’s when I graduated and life got busy for a couple of years before I started keeping track again in ’00.
        Looking at the wiki page doesn’t ring any bells. So even if I did, it would be a brand new experience again 🙂

        • It’s tedious, I know, when people tell you that if you hated one story be a writer you might like another one because it’s completely different! (I tried that with Jo Walton and Philip Dick, on the grounds that THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is completely different from most of his better known novels (which she hates) … but — no dice.)

          So, I apologize in advance, but “Out of All Them Bright Stars” really is quite different from “Beggars in Spain”. (That said, I liked “Beggars in Spain” the novella, though I don’t think the novel was as good.) “Out of All Them Bright Stars” is a lot shorter, for one thing.

          But sometimes a writer just isn’t your cup of tea, and that’s cool.

  3. I seem to recall an interview with Kress (in Locus maybe) in which she noted how many sf stories don’t feature families, particularly parents with children. It’s interesting to see that, even in her early work, she was working with themes of generational conflict.

    Haven’t read a lot of Kress, but enjoyed most of what I’ve read. I do think she had a problem with endings in her earlier work that I’ve read. But she hit her stride later, particularly when she specialized in biological engineering speculation. I would guess she has probably done more with that idea than anyone else except Brian Stableford.

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