Happy New Year! And what better way to spend it than with a glimpse into our future with Nancy Kress in her new novel Yesterday’s Kin. Before I get into the review, I admit that I was familiar with Nancy Kress’ name prior to reading this novel. Other than the fact that she’s won/been nominated for Nebula and Hugo awards, published over twenty-six books, and is just a generally amazing human being, she is featured in the 2015 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide published this January by Dreaming Robot Press. My middle grade short story appears alongside Kress’ in this anthology that dedicates itself to diversity in children’s science fiction. So yeah, she’s super cool. And so is her slim but powerful novel.
As the book comes in at a meager 183 pages, I was skeptical that a fully realized science fiction story could contain a conflict, build a world, and reach a conclusion within its teeny word count. This is probably due to the saturation of the science fiction market with works normally over 300 or 400 pages long. But for the most part, Kress pulls is off and does so in a narrative that alternates between the perspectives of the main character and her youngest son.
First of all, the story has an intriguing premise: aliens land on Earth and create a fortified embassy in a New York harbor. No one glimpses the aliens and the embassy itself is locked to humans. The aliens communicate with Earth via electronic messages that translate into computerized English. Initially, all they say is that they have come in peace to make contact with human kind .
At the center of Kress’ story lies a family: the Jenners (and we’re not talking about the Kardashian-Jenners). These Jenners are headed by the familial matriarch and famous scientist, Dr. Marianne Jenner. Marianne is everything you want in a kick-ass heroine. She’s humble, driven, and ambitious. And, she works hard enough to support her children while also creating a stellar career for herself. Her three children – adults in the novel named Ryan, Elizabeth, and Noah – are all key players in the story.
But how does Marianne Jenner, a talented evolutionary biologist, find herself in the middle of an aliens-invade-Earth story? Her involvement stems from a paper she published in a scientific journal that provides evidence of a 31st haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA known as L7. If, like me, you stopped taking science after an intro physics class in college, what I just said probably sounded like nonsense jargon. But it’s not. It essentially means that there was a 31st group of DNA shared by people across the world that originates from a single ancestral mother. Like an “Eve” equivalent in the origin stories.
As the novel is short and I don’t want to give away any major plot points, I’ll stick with overarching themes and the characterizations of Marianne’s three children. The oldest is Ryan, an even-keeled environmental advocate concerned about saving a species of flower in Canada. The middle child is Elizabeth, a military police officer with a short-temper and an unbounded hatred for the aliens who loves arguing with Ryan. The youngest is Noah, an aimless drifter and user of a drug called sugarcane which essentially allows him to inhabit other personalities. Noah’s voice adds texture to the novel in the sections he narrates. His life is one of an outsider who never felt comfortable in his own skin. In a way, he identifies with the aliens much more than the other three members of his family.
Dr. Jenner is brought on board the embassy by the FBI and UN at the request of the aliens. Her job is to test volunteers on Earth for matches to that L7 mitochondrial group. Simultaneously, the aliens inform Earth of a fast approaching dust cloud that bears a disease that would make humans extinct in 12 months if they do not find a vaccine. As such, Dr. Jenner finds herself within the scientific community as they race to find a cure.
The main theme of Kress’ novel is the human tendency toward selfishness. Seeing their survival at risk, Earthen men and women pour all of their resources into finding a cure. It’s a narcissistic endeavor and is juxtaposed with Ryan’s own race toward saving his special Canadian flower. In a way, his crusade is noted as meaningless because humans believe the worth of a flower is less than their own worth as a surviving species. Given the hard scifi roots of the work, I think we are meant to notice that fundamentally, all species on Earth are organisms. Just like other groups that suffer from extinction, a lack of survival is a real threat for Kress’ world and drives its inhabitants to extremes.
Similarly, the arrival of an “invasive” species like aliens also polarizes attitudes across the country in Kress’ novel. Certain sects see the aliens as “savior” figures and endeavor to become more like them while others (like Elizabeth’s group) see them as a military threat and are concerned only with the potential technology they could provide for Earth. All cause utter chaos on the Earth’s surface as people come to terms, in their own selfish way, with something they cannot understand. The danger, Kress suggests, is seeing ourselves as the center of everyone’s universe. People on Earth rationalize that the aliens are only here because of humans: that they want something from humans or seek to destroy them. But this view is narrow-minded and detrimental to the entire mass-thinking psychology of Kress’ players.
Ultimately, Kress provides damning evidence for human psychology in the face of an undetermined potential threat and we are meant to look introspectively at ourselves and wonder what we are capable of in both a selfish and “good samaritan” light. Everything is, in fact, not all about us.
4.5 out of 5 stars. Brilliant