After being disappointed by her recent runs at the Hugo, I was pleasantly surprised that I liked “Act One,” by Nancy Kress. The story asks interesting questions, raises intriguing ideas, and involves you in a world where real people might live. The characters are all grumpy in one way or another but they care about each other. The story is about an effort to make everyone care more about each other.
Barry Tenler is the manager for an aging Norma Jeane, I mean Jayne Meadows, I mean, those are the actors that our heroine Jane Snow reminds me of. Barry and Jane contact the Group, an organization that is trying to encourage genetic modification for avowedly positive purposes. They have modified several children to have Aren’s Syndrome, only they call it an Advantage, as it gives them unusually keen emotional perception. Later, when we meet two twins with Aren’s, we see that it doesn’t necessory make them nice people.
Barry has had his own run-in with genetic modification. He and his wife, Leila, were born with achondroplasia, the most common variant of dwarfism. We learn quite a bit about how it affects Barry, especially how painful it is. Their efforts to ensure that their son, Ethan, would be born the way they wanted ended up driving his family apart.
Jane was just doing research for a movie about the Group, but she and Barry are caught up in the Group’s effort to spread a new modification, one that increases your receptivity to oxytorin (“a close relative to oxytocin” ), which leads to nurturing behavior. When word gets out about this, L.A. breaks out in mindless rioting and havoc. I really didn’t like this appearance of your basic SF/X-men kill-the-muties meme. Tea Party style protests would be just as outraged and a lot more believable. (Not that anything the Tea Party does is believable.)
There’s a fair amount of speculations about how these various modifications would change human society, but based on what we see it doing to people, I’d say not much. Aren’s doesn’t make anyone nicer. Barry’s son didn’t turn out such a nice guy. Oxytorin just makes people afraid of being nice. Three strikes, and you’re out, Genes.