"Who gets to define 'human'?" Lillie, the protagonist in Nothing Human by Nancy Kress, asks. Lillie later lists several possibilities: genes, intelligence, love, culture, evolution. And she asks, "Does it matter?"
Who gets to define "good science fiction"? And does it matter? If the answer is that any story that is science fiction that is liked by someone somewhere is good for that reader, then standards don't matter. Here's an alternative answer: it has to be good science (sound and understood by the reader) and good fiction (well-developed characters within a plausible character-driven plot) and the two must mesh (the science must not simply be a backdrop to the story or, worse, the characters must not simply be vehicles to talk about science and/or its social or philosophical implications).
With that definition, it's hard to imagine there's a better writer of science fiction in America today than Nancy Kress.
Most of Nothing Human takes place in a New Mexico several decades into the future, when the once-desert has changed to allow the small community of Wenton to thrive. The same changes that helped the southeastern corner of New Mexico bloom, however, have brought destruction to much of the rest of the world. And it was all brought on by humanity's stupidity. War, global warming, ecological disaster. Can humanity adapt? Well, maybe, if it gets a little help from the pribir.
Which brings us back to 1999, when dozens of women are aided in becoming pregnant in a clinic in New York. Those children are born and 13 years later, they go into comas, and later they come out of the comas and say, all of them, "The pribir are coming." The pribir are an alien race who have human DNA, and who want to help Earth humans by engineering their genes so they can withstand the climatic and other catastrophes brought about by human stupidity.
Some of the children agree to go on a pribir space ship, where they receive messages through smelling. They engage in a great deal of sex, become pregnant, and are returned to Earth. Because the pribir ship traveled so fast, close to the speed of light, the children have aged months while people on Earth aged 40 years, an inevitable result of Einsteinian physics.
Then the scene shifts to a New Mexico ranch: "The mesquite and yucca gave way to blue grama grasses and yellow columbines. The desert had always had the odd cottonwood or cedar growing along its intermittent waterways, but now these dusty trees were joined by young groves of oak, juniper, and pinion. The arroyos and playas, most of them anyway, stayed wet year-round, and in some years of heavy winter runoff the ranch even developed a temporary through-flowing river." One of Kress's many strong points is her ability to summarize vast, sweeping details with carefully selected, representative facts.
It's an example of Hemingway's iceberg principle, a few good details allow the reader to accurately imagine the rest. (I've talked to Kress about this and, perhaps ironically, she emphasizes she is not a Hemingway fan).
Where she most excels, however, is in the completeness of her characters. Lillie is a remarkable literary creation, developing from a likable but not quite lovable child, one who seems a bit too capable of rational calculation, into a grown woman who makes an incredible sacrifice (the key moral choice in the novel). We are told the child, "had always felt different. Nobody understood that. They all thought she was a normal girl, interested in movies and her friends and her grades and her clothes. And she was. But underneath, all the time and for as long as she could remember, was this other longing. She thought about things, like death and God and the pointlessness of people being born and living their lives and then dying. What was the point of being alive?"
The pribir think the point is to make the human species survive anything. The species is more important than any individual member of the species, so the pribir have no hesitation in making genetic manipulations that produce a few highly adaptable humans. But they change so much, are they truly human? At one point, for example, a child lost in the desert grows a taproot that allows him to survive.
Lillie, at the end of the story, will make a decision that blends Earth humans' emphasis on the value of the individual with the pribir value (which is much like a controlled evolution) of species survival.
Focusing the reader's attention on moral choice with fully developed characters sets Kress apart from most other science fiction writers today. In fact, while there's absolutely nothing wrong with science fiction as a genre, to call Kress a science fiction writer seems too limiting. She's one of our best writers.
— Martin Naparsteck, The Salt Lake Tribune