After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is a short book about the apocalypse by science fiction and fantasy writer Nancy Kress. Nancy Kress has won awards and accolades for many of her short stories and is also well known for her science fiction novels, particularly her Beggars/Sleepless trilogy beginning with Beggars In Spain. (On a personal note, Beggars In Spain is both an excellent book and the first science fiction book I read since it is one of my husband’s favorites that he has read numerous times. Nancy Kress was also the first author to participate in my Women in SF&F event in April.)
In the year 2035, humanity is nearly nonexistent and struggling to survive as a race. Several years ago, the Earth was destroyed by aliens the remaining humans nicknamed “Tesslies.” The Tesslies placed twenty-six humans in an enclosed area that protects them from the ruined environment. As the years have gone by, the number of the original survivors has dwindled until very few remain. They also had difficulties with having children: only six of their children survived and most of them are sickly, deformed, and/or infertile. Yet they have some hope since the Tesslies left behind machines that allow the adolescent humans to visit the past, and they bring back healthy children who should be able to help continue the human race once they are older.
However, these missing children in the time before the apocalypse have not gone unnoticed. Distraught parents have reported strange stories of a stranger snatching their children and then disappearing into a flash of light. Although many dismiss these stories as hysteria, mathematician Julie Kahn knows better. Her algorithms have been getting closer to accurately predicting when and where the next of these kidnappings will occur, and she is determined to discover the truth behind the missing children.
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is exactly what it sounds like – a story that covers what happens before, during, and after an apocalypse. It doesn’t follow them in that order, though, and actually sets up some rather compelling suspense about exactly what happened and will happen with all the three different timelines. This may sound confusing, but it’s actually quite simple to read and follow even though it does contain a lot for its short length. This is part of what makes it so impressive – that despite its page count, it manages to contain so much.
This is one of those books that pulled me in when I didn’t seem to be in the mood to read anything. I started a few books and put them down before reading the first chapter of this, which is only 5 pages long. That quickly, I was hooked. It starts with an abduction of two children by Pete, one of the adolescents born after the apocalypse, which sets up all kinds of questions. Why could he travel back in time? Who is this McAllister he keeps thinking of who instructed him on his mission? Why can he only go back in time for ten minutes? In addition to making me want to know more, these few pages also gave a glimpse into the world after the apocalypse with Pete’s wonder in seeing the ocean. Because he was born after the apocalypse, Pete has only seen the ocean in storybooks until he finds himself near a beach. The opening to After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is so strong just because so much happens in those few pages – it sets the tone and sets up questions without sacrificing pacing.
It remains well-paced and suspenseful throughout, and the way it built off the three different timelines was very well handled. Even the timeline before the apocalypse managed to remain suspenseful since I kept wondering if Julie would ever get to the bottom of the kidnappings or if she would end up meeting the Tesslies. An even bigger surprise is that the early sections that were just dedicated to simply describing bacteria growing on plant roots kept me riveted. For one, these sections were really short, generally not even taking up an entire page. For another, I found them creepy since they had to be tied to the apocalypse somehow even though I wasn’t entirely sure how. From now on, I will be eying plants with suspicion and wondering what sinister happenings are going on beneath the soil’s surface!
I especially loved how life after the apocalypse was portrayed and felt that how this small group of humanity would behave was treated realistically. While the book never seemed slow to me, it also didn’t gloss over their everyday lives including the blandness of their environment and the work they had to do to make sure they had soy to eat. It wasn’t always pleasant to live in a society without modern conveniences or even much privacy, and this small community tended to handle everything from shit-bucket duty to sex matter-of-factly. Yet in spite being taught they must serve the greater good and do whatever they can to preserve humanity, these people are still human with all the emotions, rivalries, and desires that come with this condition. Through fifteen-year-old Pete we see firsthand the struggle to balance the needs of all with the wishes of the individual.
This book was very simply written to the point of seeming stilted a few times, but it conveyed what it needed to. Even though my personal preference leans toward more poetic prose, a leaner prose style probably worked better for this book and its quickly-moving story. The most major problem I had with this book was some people in the story made an assumption I did not think made sense with the facts they had. However, neither this nor the writing style greatly hindered my enjoyment of this book since I was very absorbed in the story and could hardly put it down.
If this short book is at all representative of her short stories, I can see why Nancy Kress is often awarded for them. In a story that is less than 200 pages long with rather large print, the author managed to keep it exciting with both strong storytelling and fast pacing. Often with shorter stories that move quickly like this one, there is some emotional distance but there were still scenes that were quite affecting. In addition to that, there was a look at society’s reaction to the end of the world and a little bit of actual science fiction based on biology and geology – yet it was never dry or at all difficult to read. The more I think about the scope this story had even with its short length, the more impressed I am by both how readable and memorable it is.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: I bought a copy (for my husband’s birthday although I read it before he did!).