In the near future a group of Aliens make contact with Earth. To make their wishes known, the put up a site on the Internet with a message saying they have wronged the human race in the distant past and with to atone for their actions. They are looking for twenty-one volunteers to visit seven planetary systems and 'witness' for them. What they mean by that remains unclear but there certainly is no lack of volunteers. Soon the Witnesses are on their way to see what the aliens have to atone for. It's a trip that will change the travelers as well as the rest of humanity profoundly.
Steal Across the Sky is a remarkably fast read. It's the kind of book you can read in one sitting. That is not to say it is a light read. Kress packs a lot of information into the text, alternating chapters seen from the point of view of several different characters with short texts showing the response of society to the revelation the aliens bring. It's one of the ways in which you can tell she is good at making the most of the space available. In fact, the novel is more or less structured like a series three of linked novellas, rounded off with a short epilogue.
The core concept of the novel is that the Atoners, as the aliens are referred to, taken something out of the human genome in the distant past, thereby changing the course of history and human evolution. They proceeded to set up a series of double blind experiments with human populations with and without the trait. It is a monstrous crime to steal a part of someone's heritage. Kress links it to the loss of one of the five senses, although after millennia, the loss is not felt as clearly it would be if the entire human population suddenly went blind.
Unraveling the motives of the aliens could have been the main subject of this novel, in fact, Kress has written stories like that before. It is only part of what she is interested in however. One could even say it is a minor part. The largest part of the novel deals with the effect this revelation about the human genome has on the population. Earth has changed and dealing with this change is hard on society. The Witnesses are protected and most of them are shielded from the worst of it but various groups who see the message of the Atoners as support for their previously held beliefs create quite a stir. From terrorist assaults to increased rates of suicide, the level of violence unleashed by the Atoners' revelation weighs on the Witnesses.
Seen as a novel of ideas, the story works quite well but with Kress' attention spread out over a number of point of view characters, most of them are very much in the service of the plot. Lucca for instance feels like twp dimensional rich kid who feels he is held back by his obligations to his family. I couldn't really feel form him despite the loss he suffered. Cam is elevated to a level of fame and influence beyond what her intelligence and education can support. She knows this and yet falls into the same trap time and again. Frank is holding a grudge and just about everything he does is motivated by how society, or rather the police force, wronged him. The only character who I felt was a little better fleshed out was Soledad.
In some ways Kress presents the bare bones of a novel here. John Clute calls it sober in his entry for Nancy Kress in the SF encyclopedia. That is a fitting description. In some respects it is a very well written piece. The style reminded me a bit of The Secret City by Carol Emshwiller I recently read. It is effective in the way it works what the reader needs to know to understand what is going on in the story. Many readers will prefer a novel with a little more meat on its bones though. I enjoyed it, but where I think many of Kress' shorter pieces are exceptional, this novel is merely very good. It is well worth reading but not the best Kress has to offer.
Title: Steal Across the Sky
Author: Nancy Kress
First published: 2009