Sunday, August 31, 2014

Yesterday's Kin - Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is one of those writers who, in my opinion, does better at writing short fiction than novels. Her best length appears to be the novella, of which she has produced a number of memorable ones. The best known is probably Beggars in Spain, which formed the basis for the novel of the same name. A few years back I also read Act One, which garnered her a number of award nominations. I was quite pleased that I was able to get an advance copy of her new project Yesterday's Kin through NetGalley. Like After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall it is either a short novel or a novella. I don't have an exact wordcount but I think it falls short of most definitions of a novel. Novel or novella, it doesn't really matter.  Yesterday's Kin is a very interesting read.

Aliens have made contact with Earth and parked a spaceship in New York City. Talks between the United Nations and the aliens have been going on for a while but what they actually want remains unclear. Geneticist Marianne Jenner has paid little attention to these events, absorbed as she is in her work. With the publication of her latest article, announcing the discovery of a thirtyfirst haplogroup in humans, she is suddenly contacted by the aliens. Slowly, the reason for their visit becomes apparent, Earth is about to pass through a cloud of alien spores that could drive humanity to extinction. A race against the clock to find a treatment for the virus begins.

The Jenner family, Marianne and her three children, represent the full range of responses to the arrival of the aliens. They are seen as an invasive species, a threat to public security, a source of information on how to deal with the oncoming crisis or a new culture to be embraced completely. In short, Earth is hopelessly divided on how to deal with the situation. Kress keeps a strong focus on the impact events have on the family. It's one of the things that set her writing apart. Where many writers would be tempted to zoom out, look at the political drama in the background or include more action scenes. Kress keeps things closer to her characters, making the tale more intimate and also more focused. It's not a style suitable for sprawling novels but for the novella length it works very well.

Kress again drew inspiration from genetics in this novella. The genetic research the main character is involved in does not only shed light on the development of humanity but also has a link to the aliens. There is quite a bit of population genetics in the story. Concepts such as haplogroups, mitochondrial Eve and the population bottleneck of 70,000 years ago show up in the story. When you read this story it really hits home how much genetics have been able to contribute to our knowledge of the development of the species, supplementing branches of science such as archaeology and paleontology.

The author doesn't limit the science to genetics though. A fair bit of ecology sneaks in between the lines as well. I do think that Kress didn't quite manage to integrate the view of the aliens as an invasive species (in the ecological sense). With transport of people and goods around the globe at an all time high, accidental introductions of species that can upset an entire ecosystem is becoming a huge problem. That is on top of the trouble already caused by the species that have been purposefully introduced. A single species not involved in a particular ecosystem can alter it radically, usually leading to great losses in biodiversity. The idea that an alien species might cause something like that is plausible but we don't get to see any of that. Social disruption yes, but no ecological havoc. In fact, considering what Kress tells us of the origin of this alien race and the speed at which evolution takes place in complex organisms, it may not be all that big a risk. When Kress eventually reveals why she included that particular idea, it made sense but didn't come across as particularly convincing.

That being said, I did enjoy the science Kress put into this story an awful lot. The use of genetics in science fiction is widespread but I can't think of any other author in the field who takes her inspiration from recent scientific research in the field like Kress does. The life sciences are a very important part of her story but she consistently manages to keep her stories quite close to the everyday life of the characters. It is not the sense of wonder Kress is looking for, but the impact on everyday life. They are a combination of fascinating science and well drawn characters. Stories that are both emotionally powerful and thought provoking. In many ways Yesterday's Kin is a signature Kress novella. If you liked her other work, you can't really go wrong with this one.  I have read Kress stories where the elements of the story fall into place more convincingly but it is still a high quality read. I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up on a few award shortlists next year.

Book Details
Title: Yesterday's Kin
Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 192
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61686-176-3
First published: 2014

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