Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Yesterday's KinTitle: Yesterday’s Kin
Author: Nancy Kress
Published: 9 September 2014
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 4/10

Four months ago, an alien ship parked in Earth’s orbit. Contact was made, and while the aliens remained reticent, they assured humanity that they were there on a mission of peace. Two months later the UN granted the aliens – known as Denebs – permission to set up an Embassy in New York Harbor.

Geneticist Marianne Jenner has just published an important paper on mitochondrial DNA, and because of her discovery she is invited to the Embassy to meet the aliens when they finally decide to share their reasons for visiting. A deadly spore cloud wiped out the populations of two of their colony planets, and in ten months that spore cloud will hit Earth, before heading for the Denebs’ home planet. What the Denebs want is to work together with Earth’s scientists to find a vaccine for the spores, which will otherwise cause everyone to die a horrible death. Although their technology is mostly superior, their medical technology is less advanced, so they need the help of local scientists.

Marianne is invited to join the researchers at the Embassy. With three grown children and a grandchild on the way, she feels deeply invested in saving humanity. Nevertheless, she has some very conflictual relationships with her children. Elizabeth, who works in Border Patrol, is an isolationist and doesn’t want aliens on Earth any more than she wants immigrants in America. Ryan, a botanist considers the aliens an invasive species. Both of them believe the aliens are actually conspiring to do something sinister. Noah, the youngest, doesn’t seem to care, but then again he’s the kind of person who considers topics like politics, religion and isolationism to be inconsequential. Noah is primarily concerned with sustaining his addiction to sugarcane, a drug that allows him to feel like a different person every time he takes it.

Yesterday’s Kin is a quick read with a clear story and ideas. It feels like sf for beginners. It’s got some hard science, but whether or not you understand it the basic concepts are easy to grasp and it’s easy to understand what they mean for the narrative. It’s got some great, thought-provoking ideas. The characters’ motives are very clear where necessary. It makes family and motherhood an integral part of a story about aliens and an impending apocalypse, dispelling the stereotype that non-fans have of sf, that it’s all about tech/science/aliens/rayguns etc. rather than human relationships.

It’s all very simple and very neat but it’s actually what made me dislike Yesterday’s Kin. Simplicity can be beautiful and elegant, but it can also mean rudimentary or unrefined, and I feel that this book belongs in the latter category.

There is a lot of clunky infodumping. It’s set in New York and barely looks outward, even though the plot is of international concern and the aliens’ presence is public knowledge. Although the aliens have some interesting aspects, and we get some idea of their monocultural way of living, they’re pretty flat and dull. They refer to their planet, very prosaically, as “World”.

The human characters are more vivid at least, but there’s still something perfunctory about them. Each of them has one or two definitive characteristics: Ryan and Elizabeth are combative xenophobes, Noah is a drug addict desperate to be anyone but himself, Marianne is a scientist and mother, her friend Evan is a cheerful and encouraging gay man. I think the problem is that these attributes fail to make the characters seem like real people. They’re little more than tools shaped to serve the purposes of the plot as opposed to well-rounded individuals. As a result, their personal conflicts feel like cheap melodrama, especially all Marianne’s prosaic blathering about motherhood.

Then there are a couple of characters whose only purpose seems to be to die tragically. The book treats this as something serious, and Marianne expresses grief, but it’s hard to care when the characters were so lifeless to begin with.

An additional problem is a twist in the plot that I saw coming from such a long way off that it seemed like I spent half the book waiting impatiently for the characters to catch up. It’s not something that you’d only notice from your privileged perspective as a reader – plenty of characters are privy to the enough information to at least ask the right questions. It’s ridiculous then, that a bunch of award-winning, world-class scientists don’t notice it.

Consequently, the ending is anticlimactic, with a bunch of trite criticisms about the nature of humanity and American society to wrap up the themes running throughout the book. Quite frankly, the whole point of the book seems to be to provide a vehicle for those criticisms. While I’m inclined to agree with them, it does absolutely nothing to make this uninspired story enjoyable. This really shouldn’t have been my first Kress.

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory

We Are All Completely FineTitle: We Are All Completely Fine
Author: Daryl Gregory
Published: 12 August 2014
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: horror
Rating: 7/10

Daryl Gregory’s novella is only 192 pages long, and I finished it all in a rather enjoyable rainy Sunday morning. It’s horror, but it’s fairly light horror. It’s got monsters and suffering and appalling torture, but it’s also got lots of humour and hope.

It begins with six unusual people coming together for group therapy. Harrison became famous as ‘The Monster Detective’, a hero who inspired a series of novels. Stan became equally famous after being imprisoned by a family of cannibals who ate his limbs (and his friends). Barbara claims that someone known as the Scrimshander cut her open and peeled back her flesh to carve messages on her bones. Greta’s body is covered in dense, intricately carved scars. Martin refuses to ever take off his sunglasses, but sees things others don’t.

Each of these patients are sole survivors, marked by scars inside and out. They’ve all faced monsters, but Dr. Jan Sayer is the only therapist who has not dismissed their experiences as delusion. She’s brought them together, hoping that their knowledge of a monstrous other world will enable them to help each other live in the normal one.

I requested this book because the blurb suggested that it could be a fantastic character study, and the novella certainly delivers on that point. For the first half or so, there isn’t much of a plot. The characters just tell their stories and we get brief glances into their current lives. And it works very, very well.

Gregory’s writing is excellent, masterfully detailing the characters – Harrison’s awkward tendency to overthink everything; the polite, well-groomed appearance that covers Barbara’s tortured past; the way Martin immediately develops an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the group. For a while Greta is noticeable only because of her persistent silence, while Stan, on the other hand, dominates every session with indulgent monologues about his suffering.

Whether I liked these characters I can’t quite say, but I was instantly invested in hearing their stories, understanding who they were, and how the hidden world of demons and monsters had shaped them. We Are All Completely Fine is, first and foremost, a character-driven story and it works brilliantly as such.

But there is a plot and, unfortunately, when this starts to develop about halfway through, the novella begins to falter. This is partly because it’s not a great plot. Although it ties the characters individual stories together quite neatly and gives us a bit of action, it’s just so… dull. Like something from a B-grade horror movie.

A second problem is that the plot comes to dominate the story when it’s actually the weakest element. The characters, who were strong enough to drive a narrative on their own, fade into the background of a plot that’s not nearly as interesting as they were. I still enjoyed reading about them, especially as Martin comes out of his shell and Stan’s old-man grumpiness lends a  wonderful dose of humour, but it just wasn’t the same.

The novel starts out feeling fresh and well-crafted, and then degenerates into something totally forgettable. I was left with the odd feeling of being very pleased and terribly disappointed at the same time. Since it’s so short though, I’d say it’s worth giving it a shot.