Who Goes There?
Ncany Kress debuted nearly half a century ago (you can actually find her first short stories in Baen-era Galaxy), but despite her longevity she continues to feel like a “modern” author. She’s been a mainstay of Asimov’s Science Fiction for almost as long, being evidently one of Gardner Dozois’s favorites. She was, for a short time, married to fellow SF author Charles Sheffield. My first encounter with Kress was some years back, with her 1984 novella “Trinity,” with combines the SF premise of cloning with a believable and slightly demented human drama. Much more recently I read her Nebula-winning short story “Out of All Them Bright Stars,” which I have to admit I was less impressed with. Ah, but today’s story is a good ‘un.
What I like about Kress is that she seems fond of writing in the novella mode, which (warm take) I would say is the ideal length for SF. Not too long, but just long enough to give a few major characters their due and also give the reader a neat idea. Quite a few of Kress’s novellas have been up for awards, with her 1991 novella “Beggars in Spain” (later turned into a novel) being one of the most acclaimed SF novellas of the ’90s. “Dancing on Air” was itself up for the Hugo and Nebula, and even placed #1 in the Asimov’s Readers’ poll for Best Novella. There’s a good reason for this.
From the July 1993 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. It’s been reprinted a decent number of times. It appeared in the 1994 edition of Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction. It got a chapbook edition at one point from Tachyon Publications. Then there’s the Nancy Kress collection Beaker’s Dozen. If you’re in a collecting mood there’s The Best of Nancy Kress from Subterrainean Press, a fancy hardcover that goes for, hmm, over $60 on average used. Have fun!
We begin with a murder myster of sorts. Two ballet dancers in New York have been found dead in the past month; both cases seemed to be foul play. Aside from being dancers, both women were discovered to have been bioenhanced—their bodies modified artificially (and illegally) so as to make them sturdier and more refined performers, with the latter dancer she had apparently gotten bioenhanced shortly before her death. The head of the New York City Ballet, Anton Privitera, is staunchly anti-bioenhancement; he has a reputation to uphold, which immediately makes him a suspect. I’ll say here and now, though, that if you’re reading “Dancing on Air” with the specific expectation of it being a murder mystery, you’ll probably be disappointed. Luckily for the rest of us, Kress has different aims in mind.
The plot is split in two. First we have a first-person narrative by Susan, a reporter whose teen daughter Deborah is a hopeful in the School of American Ballet, “the juvenile province of Anton Privitera’s kingdom.” Susan is worried about Deborah for a few reasons: she’s been hanging out with Susan’s deadbeat ex-husband, and of more urgent importance, she’s been curious about bioenhancement. The other half of the story is about Caroline, one of the top dancers at the New York City Ballet, practically a living legend in her field, and already looking to be washed out at 26. Caroline, being a star in the dance world and a possible target for these recent murders, is given a bodyguard in the form of Angel, an uplifted dog. Yes, Angel can talk, and it freaks everyone out whenever he does that. Angel is of course bioenhanced, but people don’t think as much about engineering an animal like this. Bioenhancement for humans is a good deal riskier, both in the legality of it and possible unknown effects.
There were several kinds of bioenhancement. All of them were experimental, all of them were illegal in the United States, all of them were constantly in flux as new discoveries were made and rushed onto the European, South American, and Japanese markets. It was a new science, chaotic and contradictory, like physics at the start of the last century, or cancer cures at the start of this one. No bioenhancements had been developed specifically for ballet dancers, who were an insignificant portion of the population. But European dancers submitted to experimental versions, as did American dancers who could travel to Berlin or Copenhagen or Rio for the very expensive privilege of injecting their bodies with tiny, unproven biological “machines.”
Something odd about the Carolina thread is that it’s narrated from Angel’s perspective. Like with Susan it’s first-person narration, but it’s in the present tense, presumably because while he is smarter than the average dog, Angel doesn’t seem to have the concept of time nailed down. He’s also hardwired to only respond to certain commands from Caroline, which Caroline finds out much to her own dismay. Anton and his business manager John Cole, who had Angel uplifted in the first place, are a shady pair.
It’s the ’90s, and while “Dancing on Air” isn’t cyberpunk it does happen to cover one of the hallmarks of that movement. We’re at the point where we’re a good deal past Greg Bear’s “Blood Music” but Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age was still two years off. The technological breakthrough of the story is nanotechnology, and you know what that means…
At first glance it reads like Suspiria but with nanomachines, but while there’s a good amount of suspense for most of the story, it’s far from horror. Rather the suspense comes less from the murder mystery and more from uneasy parental relationships on both ends. Susan tries and fails to reason with Deborah, who seems too caught up in her own childish ambition to see the danger; meanwhile, as Susan investigates the dance academy, and finds out more about Caroline, things don’t look so good for that woman’s personal life. Of course what Susan doesn’t find out is then revealed to us via Angel’s narration, and it’s in these scenes where Caroline is at her most candid. There’s some dramatic irony at play, since we get to know things about each of the two leads that one does not know about the other.
This two-pronged narrative would be more difficult to pull off with a short story, and as a novel there would be the temptation to add an extra subplot, but at about 20,000 words “Dancing on Air” feels just right in terms of how it’s structured. Each thread has what the other lacks, basically. Susan’s plot reads almost like what you’d see in a film noir or police procedural, while Caroline’s plot is more akin to a character study; the scenes with Caroline and Angel are shorter and punchier than Susan’s.
Now, about those nanomachines. Bioenhancement in the story is more or less replacing one’s own cells with these tiny little weirdos. If you’ve read “Blood Music” where, SPOILERS, the scientist who experiments on himself with the nanomachines gets taken over by them, then you can sort of predict the downside of nanotechnology in this story. I won’t get into specifics right now, though, because how exactly Kress decides to show the monkey’s paw curling with the nanomachines is interesting in the context of what amounts to a family drama. Susan’s relationship with her daughter and Caroline’s with her mother are the focal points of the story, not so much the nanomachines; the science-fictional element exists in service of a human narrative that could potentially happen even without anything science-fictional.
One last thing to mention before we get to spoilers (because I don’t think this is much of a spoiler) is that Caroline’s mother, Anna, is terrible. She and Caroline don’t interact for nearly all of the latter’s plot thread, but we run into her from Susan’s perspective and she’s a nasty piece of work. While Anton comes off the most suspicious, Anna is shown to be a crass, selfish, insensitive old woman who doesn’t seem to care about her daughter’s wellbeing. You might be thinking, “Well she can’t be that bad, right?” Oh, just you wait! You’re gonna “love” what happens in the climax.
There Be Spoilers Here
I wish more stories introduced a murder mystery only to use the mystery itself as a red herring. Anton is introduced as an obvious suspect and by extension an obvious red herring, but not only is it not Anton who killed those women, it’s not anyone among the cast that we know either; it’s just some guy. It’s like Kress was misdirecting us with that thread, and I think she did that pretty well, because the mystery was interesting enough, the thread of familial turmoil is not only more interesting but also ultimately more relevant with regards to the technology Kress has given us.
Caroline may have been saved by a crazy murderer, but her dancing career is coming to an end regardless: for reasons she can’t grasp she has been underperforming horribly as of late, with critics taking note. Unbeknownst to herself (at first), Caroline is an experiment. Dancers are routinely tested for bioenhancement (bioenhancement seeming having replaced steroids for dancers and other athletic types in-story), and it’d be easy enough to do because you could compare the original cells to the nanomachines. It’s here that Kress brings in a rather scary question: What if there were no original cells to compare the nanomachines to? Adults have been known to get bioenhanced, but what about children? Or, even scarier, what about fetuses? It would be possible to experiment on fetuses meant to be aborted anyway, but what if these fetuses… weren’t?
Am I the only one who’s reminded of Greg Egan right now?
Upon attending a science conference in Paris that’s supposed to reveal some crucial info about bioenhancement, Susan finds out two things: bioenhancement is basically a death sentence, and also that there were fetuses some three decades ago who were subjected to bioenhancement in vitro, with some still walking around as adults. One of the scientists who was set to make this public announcement killed himself right before the conference, apparently out of guilt.
Caroline Olson, Deborah said, had been fired because she missed rehearsals and performances. The Times had called her last performance “a travesty.” Because her body was eating itself at a genetic level, undetectable by the City Ballet bioscans that assumed you could compare new DNA patterns to the body’s original, which no procedure completely erased. But for Caroline, the original itself had carried the hidden blueprint for destruction. For twenty-six years.
The reason why Carolina tested negative for bioenhancement is because her whole body has been replaced by nanomachines—probably before she had even left the womb. She’s kind of a cyborg if you think about it. It would also explain why her body has become conspicuously fragile as of late despite her age; the nanomachines are slowly eating her body from the inside. Caroline has an expiration date, although when that is exactly is unknown. Her mother, in wanting to create the perfect dancer that she herself could not be, used her daughter like a guinea pig and, unbeknownst to Caroline, gave her a short lifespan. Which sounds monstrous, because it is. Caroline is not happy to hear that her mother has used her like some tool her whole life, so in the climax she orders Angel to KILL THAT BITCH! YEAH! FUCKIN’ GET HER ASS! Which, look, I know it’s supposed to be tragic, but it’s pretty hard to feel sorry for Anna when Angel goes after her.
The ending is bittersweet, although it leans more on being simply a downer. Sure, the murderer had been caught and the world now knows about the risks with bioenhancement. Angel even lives at the end! Albeit minus a leg, on account of Susan’s intervention. But Caroline is institutionalized and Deborah, being too young and ambitious, throws caution to the wind and gets herself bioenhanced. It’s a dumb risk to take, but as Susan points out, in her bitterness, ballet dancers tend to wreck their bodies in pursuit of their art—only not as dramatically as this. Withered knees. Hip replacements. Arthritis. Why not bioenhancement, the new cancer of the digital age? The pain may be worth it, if it means being perfect for a few years…
A Step Farther Out
“Dancing on Air” is a two-pronged family drama, and pretty good family drama at that. The nanotechnology at the heart of the story causes issues, but ultimately the problem is a people problem. The technology is science fiction but the human anguish is not. Ultimately it’s a story about abuse; it’s about parents forcing their wills on their children, with cruel and horrible results. Susan, Caroline, and the others aren’t perfect, but they (except for Caroline’s mother) remain sympathetic because their desires are sympathetic. The narrative of parental abuse may hit home for some people, but for others (like me) it’s an effective allegory about the uneasy partnership between science and artistry. The ending is more bitter than sweet, but Kress is never less than humane with this outing.
And of course, Angel is a good boy.
See you next time.