Hugo Nominee: “The Erdmann Nexus”

The story is here; so, on with the commentary.

Rich Horton:

“The Erdmann Nexus” seems a bit old-fashioned: almost explicitly channeling Theodore Sturgeon. Indeed elsewhere I called it, a bit meanly, “warmed-over Sturgeon”. But mean or not, read “To Marry Medusa” and “The [Widget], the [Wadget], and Boff”, let’s say, then read “The Erdmann Nexus”. For all that both Sturgeon stories marry moments, whole sequences, of utter brilliance with some real disappointing elements, there’s just something special about them that isn’t present here. Anyway, Henry Erdmann is an aging physicist living in a nursing home, who is scared by brief strokelike incidents — but no brain damage is involved, and eventually there are apparent links to the memories of other residents of the home. And soon he learns that many of his fellow residents are indeed having similar episodes. The resolution — signaled from the beginning — is not surprising: elderly people are evolving into a higher consciousness. Kress does take this familiar idea in a slightly unexpected direction at the end — and there is a subplot involving a young attendant and her abusive husband that I found involving — but there’s no denying that not much really new is going on here.

So: what’s good: slightly unexpected ending. (But even so, one that didn’t thrill me.) And an interesting subplot that alas wasn’t enough of the story. What’s bad — not enough here new. A certain inevitability of the working out of things.

Ian Sales:

Unfortunately, hiding the extraordinary’s explanation, and only revealing it at the end, doesn’t work because it makes for an uninvolving narrative. And, for all its many viewpoints, ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ is pretty dull. […]

Kress throws in a framing narrative, describing a sentient spaceship approaching Earth, but it seems entirely gratuitous. The plot certainly doesn’t require it. And the mentions of split photons, quantum entanglement and emergent complexity just obfuscate. When an author holds the explanation close to their chest, it has to be a damned impressive explanation to redeem the story. Kress’s isn’t. We’ve seen it before, in both science fiction and fantasy. […]

The single-note characterisation in ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ doesn’t help either – gossipy granny, bible-basher, ex-ballerina who pines for her past, blue-collar retiree out of his depth…. And detective Geraci – Kress might as well have named him Goren since he’s plainly based on Vince D’Onofrio’s character in Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Val Grimm, at The Fix:

I haven’t seen Cocoon or anything else most folks would probably compare Nancy Kress’s “The Erdmann Nexus” to, so bear with my cultural illiteracy. Although I haven’t seen this specific plot before, it feels familiar and a bit predictable (I can’t reveal quite why without spoilers, so bear with me). That said, I didn’t particularly care because the characterization was so strong. I don’t usually get attached to characters in novellas the way Kress managed to get my empathy engaged here; there usually isn’t enough room. But what she tells us about Henry and Carrie and some of the other central characters makes them solid and interesting, and the interactions between her dramatis personae are ultimately what make the story. In a way, and not just because it is a mystery, it feels like The Westing Game, with each character or group of characters getting their own moment in the spotlight, each vignette fitting into the whole neatly.

Russ Allbery:

Kress isn’t a writer I particularly look for, but she’s a competent writer and rarely writes a bad story. This is one of her better ones, mostly because of the detailed and varied characterization of the residents of a nursing home. The focus is Henry Erdmann, a retired physicist, who takes the role of detective in figuring out mysterious ailments linked with visions and apparent mental powers that the residents begin to experience. It’s a Nancy Kress story, so unsurprisingly there’s a theme of human evolution and transcendence, but there are also moments of character conflict that reminded me of Connie Willis. That’s a rather good mix. I found the ending a bit unsatisfying, but the story was solid entertainment. (7)

SF Gospel:

In the story’s final pages, our third-person omnipotent grants us some glimpses inside several characters’ minds as they are given the choice to join the group mind or continue their . For Erin Bass, the experience is defined within the terms of her spirituality. It is “satori… oneness with all reality.” Similarly, a nameless woman in Shanghai interprets the experience of joining the transcendent mind as “the gods entering her soul.” What, then, does Gina Martinelli experience? Unlike Bass, she does not see the experience through the lens of her faith. She experiences transcendence, but does not see Jesus there. She concludes: “If Christ was not there, then this wasn’t Heaven. It was a trick of the Cunning One, of Satan who knows a million disguises and sends his demons to mislead the faithful.” She rejects the group mind, opting to wait for the Second Coming outside of the collective intelligence.

What does this say about faith and religious experience? If two non-Christian characters are allowed to interpret their experiences in the vocabulary of their faith, why isn’t the Christian character allowed the same leeway? My guess is that Kress’s intention was to show that non-Western religions have provided a vocabulary that is better suited to describing transcendent experiences than Christianity has. But that simply isn’t true—from Pseudo-Dionysius to Meister Eckhart to Philip K. Dick, Christianity is chock full of mysticism that would allow for the kind of collective experience this story describes to be described quite well. Of course, Gina is presented as having a particularly narrow kind of faith. Perhaps I’m splitting hairs here—after all, I complain about the close-mindedness of conservative Christianity pretty frequently, and ignorance of the history of mysticism is certainly part of that close-mindedness. But even I will allow that conservative Christians have their own strands of mysticism, as the growing popularity of Pentecostalism shows. I would expect that even as stereotypical a Bible-thumper as Gina Martinelli would be able to see her faith reflected in the totality of all existence. To describe a transcendent experience with culturally-specific terms—”satori,” “the gods”—and to refuse to allow a character from a different faith-tradition to have the same kind of culturally-specific interpretation strikes me as a double-standard. It’s a quibble, really: Martinelli is a pretty minor character, and Kress’s story is characteristically good. Nevertheless, that kind of detail does tends to rankle.

Elsewhere, Colin Harvey liked it and Nicholas Whyte was unconvinced. Your thoughts?

4 thoughts on “Hugo Nominee: “The Erdmann Nexus”

  1. What, nobody has anything to say on this one? C’mon! (Or is it just RUMIR?)

    Here are the things that struck me, second time around, and some responses to the above reviews.

    I’m somewhat perplexed by Ian’s comments. To the extent that an sf story requires an “open mechanism” — and I’m not sure that’s really as solid a rule for sf as he suggests, but let’s go with it — I don’t really see that “The Erdmann Nexus” fails to meet that requirement. What the events are and what is causing them is apparent from the very beginning; the approaching spaceship (and, tangentially, I liked that way that was imagined: as information and radiation, rather than something traditionally corporeal) is hardly gratuitous, it is an up-front explicit acknowledgement of what is going to happen: “Something, far away, was struggling to be born.” Even the more specific explanation that it’s a critical mass of old people that’s triggered the nexus is more a confirmation of what appeared to be happening than a revelation.

    I would tend to agree with Rich, in fact, that there is “a certain inevitability” to the way the story unfolds. As most of the reviewers above note, this is not a science-fictionally new story: quite the opposite. The tension between humans-as-individuals and humans-as-organism is one I’m partial to in my sf, though (perhaps why I’m more favourably disposed to Baxter’s Destiny’s Children than many?), so I didn’t mind that per se. Moreover it seems clear that our focus is not meant to be on the event itself, or its nature, but on the process of it happening, and the people it is happening too.

    This is, in itself, all well and good. As a piece of sf about being old and again, I certainly prefer it to “Alastair Baffle“. And one of the reasons I’m partial to the collective-organism trope is that it allows — encourages, in fact — the introduction of multiple perspectives, which always seems to me to be one good way to deal with experiences beyond or in some sense larger than normal human experience.

    The problem in this story — and here I do agree with Ian — is that the characters don’t seem to me to be particularly exciting. The most interesting by some way, I felt, was Anna Chernov, the ex-ballet dancer, precisely because of the contrast she offered, as a person whose life has been geared towards physical expression, in a story that is about the evolution of mind, with the implicit separation-and-prioritisation of mind over body that that implies. I liked, and was convinced by, her choice to join the overmind as a way of escaping an existence without dancing; a nice contrast to Erdmann’s predictably stubborn attachment to his individuality. I could, in fact, have done with a bit more of Anna, possibly an expansion on the suggestion that, for her, physical action had taken the place of religion.

    The rest of the characters were rather less interesting. Carrie, I guess, functions as another contrasting figure, young to Erdmann’s old, and driven — desperate, perhaps — to be part of something bigger than herself (a relationship), rather than comfortable in her individuality; but she seemed not particularly convincing, more a useful enabler of plot development. The rest of the cast felt even thinner. Their value, perhaps aptly, mostly exists precisely to the extent that they function in aggregate (“usually the young regarded the old as a separate species”), giving different interpretations of what is happening to them, for instance. Though here I wouldn’t have minded being a bit less firmly seated in Erdmann’s perspective, a bit more encouraged to try out other viewpoints.

    Other scattered thoughts: SF Gospel’s criticism of Gina seems reasonable — it’s an easy move to make the Christian the dogmatic one. I wasn’t wild about the humanity-is-a-special-snowflake aspect of the ending. I did like that it’s something that’s going to keep happening, although “How would it go next time?” seems more ominous than is really warranted (though ominousness is preferable to old-people-will-get-to-go-and-live-their-sf-dreams-after-all! wish fulfillment).

    And that’s my lot. I’m sure Martin will be, once again, astounded at my long-windedness for what is, after all, RUMIR.

  2. I was either distracted or particularly dense when I read this, but I didn’t get the connection between the ship and the emerging organism till very late on. In fact, reading the first chapter I thought it was going to be about a new method of space travel which grew out of the Manhattan Project with Erdmann as the inventor, so the actual plot was a bit of a disappointment. (And if someone would like to write me a story about interstellar travel emerging from some kind of alternate history Manhattan project then please please do.) I hadn’t heard the RUMIR term before, but it does fit – it’s quite entertaining, and it all feels quite comfortable and predictable and has characters who just rise above cliche (with a few exceptions – I too liked Anna Chernov), but it didn’t set the world on fire and I think it could have been done at much shorter length. It’s certainly a better set of elderly protagonists than “Alastair Baffle”, but that is not really saying much.

  3. I’m sure Martin will be, once again, astounded at my long-windedness for what is, after all, RUMIR.

    Printing off and reading a novella is more of a chore than a novellette and those quotes didn’t make ‘The Erdmann Nexus’ sound particularly exciting so I skipped it. I am, of course, still astounded by your long-windedness.

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