Saturday, July 7, 2012

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall - Nancy Kress

Recently, I won a copy of Nancy Kress' latest novel After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall over at the Little Red Reviewer. It arrived in record time (thank you Andrea!) but unfortunately I lost it almost as quickly, when my girlfriend snapped it up to read. She has developed a real appreciation of Kress' writing, quite unusual for someone who doesn't read a lot of science fiction. Fortunately it is a quick read so I got it back in a few days and have managed to read it myself. It is an interesting novel(la?), one that can't have been easy to sell given its length, but I do have some reservations about it. I think it is not her strongest work by a long shot but certainly worth reading.

In 2035 a handful of survivors are all that remain of humanity. Rounded up in a structure called the Shell, they are protected from the radioactive wasteland that is all that remains of the earth. A race of aliens known as the Tesslies built this shelter and has provided the inhabitants with the basics necessary for survival. Despite their best efforts, prospects are not good. Too few to prevent inbreeding in the long run and crippled by radiation related genetic damage, humanity looks doomed. One piece of Tesslie technology that may change all this is a time travelling device that allows the survivors to travel to before the fall and snatch children or supplies. The Grabs, as these expeditions are called are getting closer together and more frantic. Time is clearly running out for the survivors.

In 2013, the kidnappings have not gone unnoticed. Brilliant mathematician Julie Khan is working with he police on finding the perpetrator. She believes there is a connection between the disappearances, a mathematical pattern that allows her to predict the next attempt. As she gets closer to the truth, her mathematics leads her to even more disturbing discoveries.

After she finished the novel, my girlfriend said there were a few things I should ignore to really enjoy the book and she was right. Kress does two things in this novel I don't like. It all comes down to personal preferences mind you, it doesn't necessarily make the book a poor one.

First, Kress wrote a time travel story. I generally don't like those, simply because they always lead to paradoxes and other impossible situations. It generally makes my suspension of disbelief collapse pretty quickly. I kept wondering why nobody in the shell ever thought of trying to warn people in the past for instance. Time travel stories somehow always tie themselves in knots. I must admit Kress writes a structurally beautiful story though. The switches between the sections in 2013/4 and 2035 are woven into each other in such a way that it appears to be told in a chronological fashion. A very odd experience when you think about it and it also shows how unfair I am being towards this book. If Kress had separated the characters spatially rather than in time, and then introduced a way of quickly covering this distance, it wouldn't have made think twice.

The next bit is spoilerish.

The second thing about this story I don't like is how Kress uses of Gaia theory. Gaia theory, the idea that the organic and inorganic parts of the earth are a closely integrated, self regulating system, is very attractive. It is such an elegant idea that you almost want it to be true. I guess scientifically the jury is still out on that but many of the feedback mechanisms that could be considered part of this huge system have been identified in a variety of scientific fields ranging from microbiology to climatology. Unfortunately Gaia theory has never quite been able to shake the pseudo religious aspect often associated with this idea. The earth as a goddess in a more literal sense. Or at least some sort of intelligence guiding the process.

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall features a lot of characters with a scientific background. Someone smart enough to realize that these feedback mechanisms in themselves are not proof that the earth's environment is somehow guided or even that there is only one more or less stable state. Personally I think the Earth's environment is only stable in the (geologically speaking) short run and if you allow for quite a big bandwidth for certain parameters but that is a matter of definition I guess. Whatever you may think of the scientific status of Gaia theory, I felt that the rather abrupt manner  in which Julie embraces it is a bit out of character. The way Kress portrays Gaia's attempt to right centuries of environmental abuse at the hands of humanity in a single violent blow, strikes me as the stuff of bad disaster movies, a comparison the author uses herself towards the end of the story. The poor planet trying to undo the damage (again this suggestion of an intelligence behind it) and humanity in its death throws managing to wreck things even further. As end of the word scenarios go, I thought this was quite a disappointing one.

That is not to say there is nothing to like about the book. One thing I liked about the book was how Kress handled the main characters. The teenager Pete, the main character in the 2035 story line,  is one big barrel of frustrations really. Locked up in the Shell except for the brief, frantic expeditions to the past, confined to a small society where personal possessions do not exist and sex is part of a strategy to maximize the potential of the group to recolonize the earth. Pete's selfish streak rebels leading him to do all manner of dangerous things. There is a huge gap between the inhabitants of the Shell who remember the earth as it once was, and enjoyed a thorough academic education, and those who grew up knowing only the Shell and the barest outline of what human society used to be. It turns the Shell into something of a pressure cooker and leaves Pete with very few options to let off some steam.

In sharp contrast, Julie's actions are often more rational, or if they aren't, at least more premeditated. The way she goes about restructuring her life after her unexpected pregnancy is almost a story worth telling on its own. She is clearly not afraid of making some drastic changes to her life or taking responsibility (in some cases perhaps a bit more than she should) for her actions. They are very different characters offering the reader two very distinct points of view. The way the two story lines are eventually connected is a very nice touch. In a way much more satisfying than finding out how humanity got into so much trouble. I've been spoilerish enough in this review so you can go and find that out for yourself.

I enjoyed After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall a lot but I don't think it is a brilliant work. It surely has a lot to offer to the reader but some of the elements of this story didn't quite work for me. As science fiction novels go, you could do a lot worse though. Kress is writer who is always keenly aware of the impact of environment or technology on her characters, always adding a personal touch to what are usually stories that have a very large impact, often on a global scale. Even when not every element of the story falls into place, Kress is well worth reading. For someone who likes time travel stories or isn't bothered by Kress' use of Gaia theory, this book will probably be an excellent read.

Book Details
Title: After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall
Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 185
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: paperback
ISBN: 978-1-61693-065-0
First published: 2012


  1. Sorry it took me so long to find this post, Happy to see that everyone got a chance to read the book, eventually. ;)

    I'm a total sucker for time travel stories.

    I wish After the Fall had been longer, I know that's the point of short novels, but I was intrigued by the characters and wanted to learn more about them. I think I saw aliens or humans from the future where you saw Gaia theory, so I had a completely different reaction.

    1. I tried to get my girlfriend to write the review but she wouldn't so I had to read it myself in the end ;)

      Focussing on the environmental issue is kind of an occupational hazard for me :P I can never stay away from it though. And Gaia does make for good material if you handle it a bit differently.

      A bit more on after the fall might make for a good story too but I think it would have to be another story. I think it would have disrupted the balance between the present and future strands of the story to elaborate on what comes after.