Yesterday’s Kin is the newest science fiction book by award-winning author Nancy Kress. She has won two Hugo Awards and five Nebula Awards, and her fairly recent novella After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall was both a Nebula winner and a Hugo nominee.
Four months ago, life on Earth was changed forever when an alien ship arrived and settled near the moon. The aliens were quick to convey the message that their mission was peaceful, and two months later they were granted permission to set up an embassy in New York Harbor in exchange for sharing the physics of their star drive. Once they settled on Earth, they continued to communicate with the UN, but they refused to show themselves—until the day they request the presence of Dr. Marianne Jenner.
Marianne, a geneticist who recently discovered a thirty-first haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA, is quite surprised when the university’s celebration of her achievement is interrupted by the FBI. She’s even more flummoxed to learn they have come to escort her to the UN Headquarters in New York, which she can only assume is somehow connected to the aliens since no one will give her details about what is going on. After her arrival, she and a small party are the first to actually board the Embassy and meet the aliens, who finally reveal the terrifying reason for their visit to Earth. They came to warn that this planet will encounter the same fate that befell two of their own planets, and all humans will die in ten months—unless the humans and aliens together can find a way to save them.
Nancy Kress is an excellent writer, and she seems to be particularly skilled at novella-length science fiction. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall was riveting, and Yesterday’s Kin shares many of the same strengths. While the two stories are very different, they are both easy to become immersed in and difficult to put down with their simple but effective prose and wonderful storytelling. They’re both page-turners with interesting characters and situations, and like After the Fall, Before the Fall During the Fall, I enjoyed Yesterday’s Kin immensely.
Yesterday’s Kin is what I consider to be hard science fiction done right. Science is blended into the story well by being integral to the plot and adding to the story being told. Marianne’s perspective contains focus on the scientific research that takes place on the Embassy, and there is a lot of discussion of biological concepts in her storyline. Sometimes I struggle with this in hard science fiction and find it boring when there are paragraphs of infodumps and explanation, but this is seamlessly woven into Yesterday’s Kin. A substantial portion of the science is told through dialogue, but it’s also a natural part of the discussion instead of seeming as though the author is trying to jam explanation into the conversation for the sole benefit of readers.
In general, I was very impressed by how practical, logical, and believable events in Yesterday’s Kin are. It’s a succinct book yet it’s full of little details, such as the different reactions to the appearance of the aliens and the news they eventually reveal. For instance, Marianne’s reflections on the alien’s arrival give a clear idea of the effect they had without details on specific incidents, especially in the last line which so wonderfully portrays the mix of hope and despair they brought with them:
When it was announced that the asteroid was in fact an alien vessel, panic had decreased in some quarters and increased in others. A ship? Aliens? Armed forces across the world mobilized. Communications strategies were formed, and immediately hacked by the curious and technologically sophisticated. Seven different religions declared the end of the world. The stock and bond markets crashed, rallied, soared, crashed again, and generally behaved like a reed buffeted by a hurricane. Governments put the world’s top linguists, biologists, mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists on top-priority standby. Psychics blossomed. People rejoiced and feared and prayed and committed suicide and sent up balloons in the general direction of the moon, where the alien ship eventually parked itself in orbit. [pp. 20-21]
In addition to being about aliens and scientists, Yesterday’s Kin is also the story of the Jenner family told through the viewpoints of Marianne and her youngest son Noah. It begins with Marianne’s perspective and only takes a few pages to become interesting since it’s not long before she’s off to the Embassy to meet the aliens, but it captured my attention even before that with its wry glimpse at Marianne’s publication party that is “supposed to be an honor.” I found Marianne to be an intriguing and realistically drawn character. She’s not as young as many protagonists I’ve encountered in science fiction since she has three grown children, and her story revolves around both her career and her family. I’d say there’s more emphasis on her career, which seems to be a pattern from her past since at least one of her children felt she was too involved with her work when they were younger. While she is focused on her work, it’s still clear that she cares deeply about all of her children—the thought that haunts her most about the potential end of the world is their deaths—and her relationships with each are different and complicated. She gets along well with her older son, Ryan, but she’s always arguing with her daughter Elizabeth and rarely in contact with the youngest, Noah.
Noah keeps to himself more than the rest of the family and has never felt like he truly belonged. His mother, brother, and sister each excel at their chosen careers, but Noah has not had clear goals in his life and feels lost. He uses the drug sugarcane to create a false sense of identity, but it’s destructive to his personal relationships and ability to keep a job since this artificial identity changes every time he takes the drug. After the aliens arrive, Noah learns more about himself and his part of the story is both about his search for identity and the aliens. I preferred Marianne’s storyline since I thought it was instantly engaging, and I also thought she had more personality and more compelling observations. Noah’s part of the story takes longer to get going, and it took me a little while to warm to him since his behavior did not endear him to those around him. The first glimpse into his life shows him getting kicked out of his apartment due to sugarcane use, and his family doesn’t seem any happier with him than the woman who made him leave because she’d had enough. His side of the story is important, though, and even if I preferred Marianne’s story I was never bored by his story, especially since it was told in small chunks interspersed with Marianne’s.
Yesterday’s Kin is a wonderful science fiction book, and it’s impressive how full the story is despite its succinctness. It’s satisfying and intense from beginning to end, and it weaves science into the plot while thoughtfully examining what might happen if the world were faced with the arrival of aliens bringing bad news to humanity. While I wasn’t quite as emotionally invested as I may have liked and found one storyline weaker than the other, I enjoyed it very much and highly recommend Yesterday’s Kin.
My Rating: 8.5/10
Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.