The Erdmann Nexus, by Nancy Kress

The Ludlum-esque title to the always entertaining Nancy Kress’s latest nominee gives the reader the impression he’s in for some sort of espionage thriller, but in fact what you have is “Physicists in Love”, as she assembles a varied and true-to-life cast of chracters trying to cope with a new phenomenon that is outside what their scientific beliefs can explain. The title character is a 90-year old professor of physics who starts having episodes of some kind of heightened brain activity, coming as a flash that leaves him disoriented. Other old people in his retirement community start experiencing the same symptoms at the same time, to the point that they can collectively and inadvertently cause things to happen, the opening of a locked safe or brining down a small plane. The reader gets the explanation before the characters do, that there’s some sort of gestalt mind power going on here that’s starting to manifest itself on Earth because of the increasing numbers of older people, and some alien intelligence is racing towards the earth to investigate.

Mixed in with all this is Erdmann’s home health aide, Carrie, who has an abusive boyfriend; Evelyn, who talks a mile a minute to anyone who will listen, and everyone is too polite to tell her to stop; Anna, a aging former ballet dancer with a broken leg who has to face up to the fact that she’ll never dance again; Detective Garaci, who starts out investigating the safe cracking but ends up getting embroiled in the whole group mind thing; the list goes on. The story might be a little long, but Kress does a great job of pulling different threads along, with a strong cast making the unknown force acting on them seem truly upsetting, and getting into their heads individually about their fears around aging, their feelings towards the other characters, and so on.

In the end, you can’t help thinking of the movie Cocoon, where the old folks have the opportunity to join the aliens. While the science is prominent in the story, it doesn’t take over the story, which is a good thing. What happens to this little group of people is happening all over the world, it just happened to them first, and the only reason given is that somebody had to be first, and Dr. Erdmann is not so much the nexus as the first to recognize that something strange is happening. Despite the title, a strong effort from Kress with the best and most varied cast of any sf story I’ve read in a while.

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