Kress, Nancy. 1998. Maximum Light. New York: Tor.

Reviewed 10 April 1998

Maximum Light (cover) I must admit some hesitancy in reviewing Ms. Kress's latest novel. Her writing is ordinarily quite a bit better than the average—but her best writing by far has been her short fiction. Her novels often seem to suffer from a failure of the imagination as they near the climax. I found Beggars in Spain particularly troublesome in this regard. Maximum Light is an improvement, because its failure of imagination is actually a charming naïveté.

Maximum Light's premise is neither overly complex nor hidden from the reader. Basically, the book conjectures that continued use of "synthetic endocrine disrupters" found in just about everything synthetic have led to a serious fertility crisis. The government, in the tradition of governments everywhere, stonewalls, because the economic ramifications of doing anything about the sources of these disrupters will result in loss of power for the entrenched few. The novel, however, isn't so much about the government as about three people caught up, in various ways, in the whole situation.

Shana Walders is an ill-disciplined youth—and, as one of only a few youths, a "precious natural resource." Cameron Atuli is a gay dancer recovering from a memory wipe. Dr. Nick Clementi is a leading scientist, and a very old one. Through a set of coincidences worthy of Dickens, these three are thrown together with not quite all the pieces of the puzzle (although the picture should be obvious from the beginning to an observant reader).

Ms. Kress's speculation is quite plausible. Her characters are well-developed, and each remains consistent both inside and outside the shifting viewpoints. The failure of imagination and naivete, however, come toward the end of the novel, and were a great disappointment. Not to give away too much, but whistleblowers don't get off that easily, and their "we'll fix it by going public" plot simply could not have hatched given the surveillance technology and use presented elsewhere in the book.

One last observation: Maximum Light's resolution is also incomplete. One must wonder whether Ms. Kress will return to this problem with a new set of characters and advance beyond the climactic news conference.

Overall rating: 3
Maximum Light should not win any awards, although it probably will. Nonetheless, it's distinctly superior to most ecoterror books and most science fiction novels being written today. As a bonus, it's actually a reasonable length. Let's hope that sequelitis doesn't catch up with it.

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