Like “Bullet In The Brain,” “Dancing On Air,” by Nancy Kress is another old favorite of mine. This Nebula and Hugo nominee from 1993 is a compelling glimpse into the competitive backstage of ballet: the injuries, the competition, the starvation, all showing the lengths (mostly) women will go to become ballerinas. They even use illegal bio-engineering to enable their bodies to sustain the impossible perfection that contemporary ballet can only suggest. Perhaps because this hasn’t quite happened yet, the story holds up well. America is still a place where the government is holding back on genetic research, especially on humanity. Ballerinas hacking their bodies is a good counterpoint to athletes taking drugs. And notice that sports fans are mostly too swayed by home runs and great games to really care about doping.
But what I really like is the dog.
The dog is Angel, one of the two narrators. Getting half the story in Angel’s voice makes it fun to read aloud. Angel is a bio-enhanced guard dog, whose job is to protect the ballerina, Caroline Olsen. Though she insults and ignores him, Angel says:
I am a dog.
I must love Caroline.
The other narrator is Susan Matthews, a reporter whose daughter, Deborah, is going to the School of American Ballet. Deborah desperately longs to dance for the New York City Ballet, but time is running out on her. And she’s not even seventeen. Susan fears for her daughter’s heart if she fails, and for her body if she succeeds. I sympathize with Susan’s desire to protect her daughter, but I never really warmed toward her.
In fact, when I look at the other Nancy Kress stories I’ve read recently, I realize I don’t like most of the people in those, either. My favorite character remains Angel. His presence engages me, which helps me enjoy the thoughtful way this story addresses what people will do for art, and how easily audiences are swayed. His devotion and simple joys help me see the other characters in the better light of his eyes. He turns a good story into a gem. In short, Angel teaches the three most important things about writing: sympathetic characters, sympathetic characters, sympathetic characters.