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