YESTERDAY’S KIN is an ingenious first contact story
Nancy Kress’ Yesterday’s Kin received two stellar reviews in the September 2014 Locus.
From Gardner Dozois:
This is an ingenious first contact story, as technologically advanced aliens come to Earth to warn us about our imminent collision with a deadly spore cloud which will wipe out all human life on the planet in eight months’ time. They set up a floating Embassy in the harbor of New York City, where human and alien scientists work together day and night to find a defense against the spores, or a vaccine against the fatal disease the spores carry, or a cure for it, while the clock is running out and the Embassy suffers attacks from terrorists and fanatical anti-alien factions who believe that the aliens are Up To No Good, probably in cahoots with the Federal Government. As with all of Kress’s work, this is very nicely crafted, with well-paced prose that carries you through the story, complex human characters, a compelling and conflict-driven human story, a clever twist partway through, and an even cleverer twist at the end.
And Gary K. Wolfe:
Nancy Kress may be less interested in baroque world-building, but as one of the most accomplished craftspeople in SF, she seems to have come to view the classic tropes less as themes to be revisited than as instruments to be orchestrated. Certainly the key elements in her novella Yesterday’s Kin at first seem thoroughly off-the-shelf – an enormous alien spacecraft appearing in New York Harbor, a mysterious force field surrounding the ship, an approaching cloud of space dust threatening all life on Earth, a desperate crash research program to mitigate the oncoming catastrophe, even the discovery of a new human haplogroup with far-ranging implications about the origins of humanity. We could almost be reading a mash-up of everything from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt and Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud (Hoyle is even mentioned), to Clarke’s Childhood’s End and The Day the Earth Stood Still, and even a few bits of Bear’s Darwin’s Radio. But Kress also invokes more recent themes that suggest the neurobiological SF of writers like Daryl Gregory, such as a popular drug that temporarily changes the user’s identity, and her own familiar themes involving evolutionary biology and the possible roles of junk DNA.
Kress has no problem making all this entertaining – that’s the nature of her professionalism – but how does she make it new? Even the opening scene is familiar, as the brilliant but unprepossessing biologist Marianne Jenner is whisked off from a faculty party by taciturn FBI agents, who reveal to her that the mysterious alien visitors want to meet her because of her discovery of a new human haplogroup. The relevance of that apparently unconnected research becomes clear as she finally meets the aliens and finds herself in a secret re-search project with some of the world’s top scientists. It turns out that the aliens, called Denebs, have identified a drifting cloud of spores which are fatal to human life and which will envelop the Earth in less that a year’s time. The mission of Marianne’s team is to – well, to Do Something.
Somehow it all works, and Yesterday’s Kin offers the efficient pleasures of a short novel told with almost brutal efficiency, recalling at times those old paperbacks sold as full-length novels, though they were barely longer than this one. Kress could easily have pumped this up to three times its length – it has enough ideas to sustain it – but she chooses instead to offer brief family encounters punctuated by brief synopses of major developments; a riot that could easily fill a chapter is dismissed in a couple of pages, but still manages to get in a major plot point concerning Noah.
Kress’s clear prose and deft strokes of character add to the sense of a much larger canvas done almost in miniature, and her ideas, even when somewhat familiar, are as compelling as always. She is, as I mentioned earlier, a hard SF writer in the classic mold, and she shows us that the form still has a lot of life in it.
Read the rest of Dozois’ and Wolfe’s reviews in the September 2014 issue of Locus.
For more info on Yesterday’s Kin, visit the Tachyon page.
Cover by Thomas Canty.