Nancy Kress's first novel, recently reprinted, is a clever and moving Fairy Tale Quest. (I mean "fairy tale" in the same way as I explain about John Barnes' One for the Morning Glory, although TPoMB is slightly less knowing than OftMG.) Princess Kirila decides to go on a Quest for the Heart of the World, and is soon joined by Chessie, a talking purple labrador who explains that he is an enchanted prince. Before the conclusion they suffer a sequence of enchantments that attempt to divert Kirila from her quest. What makes the story for me is the inventiveness and interest of these enchantments (although quantum chromodynamics has moved on a little in the decades since publication), and the developing characters of Kirila and Chessie.
This is a first novel, and there are a few rough edges (I never did understand the point about the bat, for example). But the virtues well outweigh the vices, and I certainly shed a tear during the final scene.
This welcome reprint has obviously been done by scanning and recognising an earlier print, because there are occasional glitches not caught by the proof-reading: a "we11" rather than a "well", an "0h" rather than an "Oh", some spurious hyphens, and so on. These are mildly irritating (they jolt me out of the story when they occur), but a few typos are a relatively small price to pay for having this book back in print.
Enigmatic aliens, the "Atoners", have arrived on the moon. They advertise for people to "Witness" the terrible thing they did to humanity ten thousand years ago. The witnesses they choose seem to be a totally random selection of Earth's youth. Off they go to other planets, do their witnessing, and gradually realise what has been done to humanity. Then they return to Earth to report on all this. So, what are the Atoners going to do about it?
I enjoyed reading this, but was ultimately left unsatisfied. Unless this is a set-up for a sequel (and it doesn't really have that feel), absolutely nothing is explained. We never learn why the Atoners did what they did to humanity (I can "understand" why they did what they did on the other planets, by why to the Earth?). We never learn why they chose that particular set of Witnesses. We never learn why the Atoners wouldn't let Frank keep his souvenir, despite similar information being made available many times on Earth. (I'm being deliberately vague here, to try not to introduce spoilers -- but my biggest complaint can't be explained without a spoiler -- so look for it here only if you don't mind spoilers.)
So, well written and engaging, but ultimately unsatisfying (unless I've missed the point?)
No one knows why the Tesslies attacked in 2014, devastated the environment, and nearly destroyed humanity. Or why the aliens imprisoned twenty-six survivors in a sterile enclosure built on the barren remains of the Earth.
Fifteen-year-old Pete, one of only six children born in the Shell, is determined to lead humanity to a new beginning. But Pete struggles to control his anger as, one by one, the survivors sicken and die. Though the Earth appears to be slowly healing, the Shell’s inhabitants may not live long enough to see it. The only chance for humanity lies within brief time portals. Pete and the survivors hatch a desperate plan: to increase their numbers by abducting children from the past.
In 2013, a brilliant FBI consultant sees a pattern in seemingly unrelated kidnappings. As Julie Kahn’s predictive algorithms reveal that the world is in imminent danger, she discovers that she might also play a role in its possible rebirth. Julie and Pete are rapidly converging in time—a chance encounter between them may be the Earth’s only hope.
Kress unpacks the future the way DNA investigators unravelled the double helix: one gene at a time. In many of these stories gene sculpting is illegal yet commonplace and the effects range between slow catastrophe (“End Game”), cosmic (“First Rites”), and tragic (“Safeguard”). Then there’s the morning Rochester disappears and Jenny has to rely on “The Kindness of Strangers.” And Jill, kidnapped by aliens, trying to learn the “Laws of Survival.” And Hope, whose Grandma is regretting the world built “By Fools Like Me.”
The news is not good.
Geneticist Marianne Jenner is at the top of her field, but her family has hit rock bottom. Two of her children, Elizabeth and Ryan, are paranoid and constantly bickering—though they agree an alien conspiracy is in the works. Her youngest, Noah, is addicted to a drug that keeps temporarily altering his identity. Yet between the four of them, the course of human history will be forever changed.
Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent a disaster—and not everyone is willing to wait.
[This novella forms the opening section of the 2017 novel Tomorrow’s Kin]
They’ve landed their embassy ship on a platform in New York Harbor, and will only speak with the United Nations. They say that their world is so different from Earth, in terms of gravity and atmosphere, that they cannot leave their ship. The population of Earth has erupted in fear and speculation.
One day, Dr. Marianne Jenner, an obscure scientist working with the human genome, receives an invitation that she cannot refuse. The Secret Service arrives at her college to escort her to New York. She has been invited, along with the secretary general of the UN and a few other ambassadors, to visit the alien embassy.
The truth is about to be revealed. Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent a disaster—and not everyone is willing to wait.
[The 2014 novella “Yesterday’s Kin” forms the opening section of this novel.]
Instead of the expected instantaneous jump between worlds, more than ten years have passed.
The scientists find themselves in a race against time to save humanity from a deadly virus while a clock of a different sort runs down on a military solution no less deadly to all.
But while the passengers experience only a few days in transit, twenty-eight years have passed on Earth since their departure. When Friendship arrives home, Jenner and her team find an Earth changed almost beyond recognition. The spore-cloud plague has devastated the population, and the human race has been reduced to a few million isolated survivors fighting bitterly for resources. The knowledge brought back by Marianne Jenner and her team may not be enough to turn the tide of ongoing warfare.