Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress
Back in the 1950s when I was growing up, one section of the world’s population became fixated by the possibility of nuclear armageddon. Wherever you turned, the media was full of news stories about what Russia was supposed to be doing and the countermeasures being taken by the West. In fiction, words and images bombarded us with alien invasions and other apocalyptic shenanigans as metaphors for what mutually assured destruction would achieve if either side pressed the button to signal the commencement of hostilities. So from the earliest age, I was immersed in every conceivable form of plot involving the arrival of aliens. Some were Greeks bearing gifts, others made no bones about their intention to wipe out humanity, while a very small percentage actually proved benign. Having endured sixty years plus reading years of watching this trope played out in all the media, it doesn’t exactly light my fire to see Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications, 2014) arriving on my to-read pile. These aliens turn up, claim to have peaceful intentions, and then just sit there for two months not doing anything serious except exchanging a few ideas with the United Nations.
I mean, just how boring are these guys! There’s none of the gung-ho, shoot them from the skies aggression we’ve come to expect from either side. Of course, the politicians talk while the conspiracy theorists go nuts trying to work out why they have really come all this way. Surely it can’t just be to say, “We come in peace. Take us to your leaders.” I mean, what civilisation would spend all that cash to send such a wimpy crew to do nothing but sit there?
So our author has to do something to make all this passivity interesting. She has this family of a mother (the father was a drunk who passed on some years ago) and her three children. She’s a top research scientist in genetics, and her children are a border guard, an environmentalist, and a dropout. Notice the subtle hints. One keeps illegal aliens from coming into America from the south. One deals with invading species which disrupt the local ecology. And the other does a new type of street drug and experiences an acute form of empathy. Wow, are those going to be useful skills, or what?
Needless to say, the story quickly resolves itself into mother and dropout versus the aliens. After the first few chapters, I guessed the plot. Although the detail has some degree of originality, the core is simply a different version of duplicitous aliens. So the end result is rather sad. Perhaps in another writer’s hands, there would have been more tension, or the characters, both human and alien, would have emerged to engage our sympathies or other relevant emotions. But what we have here is purely functional storytelling. This author has had a reasonably good idea and wants to get it down on paper with the minimum fuss and bother. The result is a predictable plot and characters that failed to offer any connection. The workaholic and somewhat socially dysfunctional mother failed to connect with the dropout before the aliens arrived. After their dramatic appearance, the young man gets on rather well with the aliens. Indeed, it turns out he shares something quite important with them. But, like most dropouts, he was not particularly likeable to his fellow humans. He did rather better with the aliens, managing to get one of them pregnant. So this is a quick read to see whether your guess as to the reason for the aliens’ arrival is correct. If you fail to get the right answer, keep reading for another fifty years when all such plots will be transparent to you. Overall this is a pedestrian effort and not really worth your time and attention.
For the review of another book by Nancy Kress, see Steal Across the Sky