Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress
I find myself faintly annoyed by Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress. The set-up is simple. Aliens appear on the moon and announce that they wronged humanity ten thousand years ago. Ten thousand years is an awfully long time. Even allowing for the relativistic time issues of interstellar travel, ten thousand years on Earth has seen a rise from basic agricultural communities to relative technological sophistication in an urbanised environment. I suppose, because they are alien, it does not matter that they do not explain why they feel the need to atone. We are left to speculate what might cause them to feel the need to seek forgiveness. In human cultures, the ethical situation would be more pragmatic. If people have managed for ten thousand years without understanding what happened, no-one would consider the need to supply that information now. They have adapted and adjusted to the new reality. If the original acts ten thousand years ago were ethically bad, why is disturbing the status quo any better today?
The aliens seem to have been conducting a piece of research, setting up socio-cultural experiments using groups of humans they removed from Earth. They paired planets and put matching groups of humans, modified and unmodified on each pair. Presumably, they then monitored each group’s development and, in line with their hypothesis, used the evidence gathered to determine whether the hypothesis was proved. I suppose it was a proposition testing which groups would produce better societies. On the evidence we have, the progress has been stunningly poor. After ten thousand years (or however long it has been on the distant worlds given the time dilation effect) one group has reached stasis as Eskimos on a “cold” planet while the other seems to be a kind of Aztec empire. Frankly, I’m not impressed by the transplanted humanity’s ability to transcend climatic constraints or despotic rulers after ten thousand years (or so). We seem to be doing better on Earth.
Nevertheless, the aliens feel the need to apologise to us and, perhaps, to repair the damage they believe has been caused. What alarming arrogance (typical of aliens who have superior technology and can more or less do what they want)! Who are they to say Earth has done badly and needs to be repaired? Frankly, if this means resetting the cultural clock to an idyllic agrarian culture or reimposing militaristic monarchy, I wish they would go home immediately. I accept we do not know how or why these transplanted communities turned out so slow in their development, but Earth is definitely making better progress with whatever it was the aliens left us with (or without).
Then we come to the witnessing — quite why the aliens should decide to “tell” the Earth what they had done by using this particular group of individuals is typically alien, i.e. incomprehensible. If their moral imperative is so strong that they have to atone in some way, they could just sneak in and make whatever changes they feel are expedient, or they could make an open admission with scientifically verifiable evidence from the outset. Allowing Earth the chance to dispute and debate the quality of the information the witnesses provide simply opens the door to chaos. If the aliens had acted covertly, Earth would evolve as if this was a natural human development. As it is, Earth could be destabilised.
The key people the aliens pick to discover the “truth” of what has been done are, to put it mildly, an odd bunch. We meet three of them. Camilla Mary O’Kane is a loose cannon, happy to pull out a gun and shoot defenceless natives and, although her breaking the rules to carry a dying native from one paired world to another does help identify the “truth” of what the aliens did, she proves to be a narrow-minded and unstable spokesperson for the aliens on her return to Earth. Fortunately for her, it seems not to be the crime of murder if she kills humans on another world. Lucca Giancarlo Maduro is also intellectually stubborn and somewhat crippled emotionally. Unlike Camilla, he goes into retreat when he returns to Earth and hardly speaks to anyone about what happened. Frank Olenik is a police officer manqué and such a strict Roman Catholic that everything he does is seen through the fixed-focus lens of his religion. Of the others who were sent into space, the only other of significance is Soledad who stays on the shuttle to co-ordinate the witnessing while Camilla and Lucca go down to their respective planets. I assume the aliens picked people so predominantly from the US so that an American author could pitch a book at the US market. The result is distinctly monochrome when it comes to characterisation.
Although the writing is clear and the plot moves along at a good clip, the result is only interesting if you switch off your brain and stop worrying about the credibility of what the characters (including the aliens) do. I understand that, in a science fiction novel, the readers are expected to go with the flow and just accept impossibility as possibility. But here the different individuals and factional interests have remarkable abilities to discover what each other are doing and seem not afraid of shooting first and asking questions later.
I suppose I was mildly interested to read it through to the end, but saddened that unilateral action had potentially destabilised the Earth for no good reason and left a trail of bodies on several worlds in the process. I offer no more than a tepid recommendation.
As an added note, Steal Across the Sky was a finalist in the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, 2010.
For the review of another book by Nancy Kress, see Yesterday’s Kin.