Tomorrow’s Kin, Nancy Kress’ latest novel, is the first installment in a science fiction trilogy expanding on her superb Nebula Award–winning novella Yesterday’s Kin (my review). In its entirety, this novel spans about ten years: the first part contains the previously published story, which revolves around a geneticist whose interesting (though rather unremarkable) discovery leads to her being among the first to meet aliens, and the last two thirds continues after the end of the original novella. Though I did feel that the first third was stronger than the new additions, Tomorrow’s Kin as a whole is both smart and engaging—once I started reading it, I had a difficult time putting it down!

Four months ago, humanity was divided between relief and panic: the object heading toward Earth originally thought to be an asteroid actually turned out to be an alien spacecraft. For some time, the ship remained near the moon and the aliens remained out of sight, only communicating with the United Nations via mechanical voice technology. Though the public knew little of these discussions, the visitors’ response to being asked why they came was heard around the world: “To make contact with humanity. A peace mission.”

After two months of tranquil relations, the aliens received permission to launch a floating embassy in New York Harbor in exchange for sharing the physics of their star drive. However, they continued to wait to show themselves to the world even after settling on Earth—until two months later, when they requested a face-to-face meeting with some United Nations ambassadors and Dr. Marianne Jenner, a geneticist of little renown.

After two years of hard work and research, Marianne is finally celebrating the publication of her paper on the thirty-first haplogroup of mitochondrial DNA she discovered. However, the party honoring her success is abruptly interrupted by FBI agents following orders to take her to UN Special Mission Headquarters, though they cannot provide any further information as to why. Marianne can only conclude it’s related to the aliens and her research, but she has no idea how the two are connected: while proud of her accomplishment, she’s aware that her discovery is not exactly an earth-shattering scientific breakthrough.

When the aliens reveal themselves for the first time, everyone is shocked by the revelation of who they truly are and the warning they bring—a disaster is heading for Earth, and the scientists who may be able to help only have ten months to find a solution…

Like Yesterday’s Kin before it, Tomorrow’s Kin is exemplary of why Nancy Kress is one of my favorite authors of science fiction: once again, I find myself in awe of her ability to seamlessly blend science and fiction together to create a book that’s both intelligent and compulsively readable from beginning to end. Science, particularly biological fields such as genetics and ecology, is integral to the plot and woven in without overwhelming the story with dry infodumps. As well done as this is, the novel’s biggest success is its focus on humanity and the main protagonist at its center—Dr. Marianne Jenner, a geneticist, mother, grandmother, and overall fully rounded character complete with strengths and flaws.

Tomorrow’s Kin is quite believable and thoughtfully plotted, and it’s easy to envision events unfolding as they do as a result of aliens visiting Earth. The work of scientists is essential to the plot, and scientific explanations are clear, concise, and important to the story—they are not window-dressing to make it seem more like “science fiction.” The way it’s incorporated into the novel is fascinating without being too detailed or dry, and part of the reason it works so well is that it also explores how events effect societal groups and individuals. Different groups and people have different beliefs about the aliens even if they agree on the basics. For instance, Marianne’s daughter Elizabeth and son Ryan are not fond of the aliens but for different reasons: Elizabeth is a border patrol officer devoted to American isolationism and Ryan is an ecologist who views them as an invasive species. Throughout the novel, there are different factions and responses to circumstances, including those who ignore science and the facts, and some people change their views based on new experiences while others remain steadfast in their beliefs no matter what.

In addition to its plausibleness and sheer readability, one of the best aspects of Tomorrow’s Kin is its main protagonist. Marianne is around fifty years old at the beginning of the book’s ten-year span, has three grown children and a grandchild on the way, and is a geneticist working at a second-rate university—in other words, she’s a fairly ordinary person, not an action heroine or the world’s only hope for salvation as one of the best scientists in the world. She makes a not-particularly-momentous discovery that leads to a rare opportunity to be involved in some major events, but she doesn’t even specialize in a branch of science that would allow her to save the world from the calamity it will face. I loved that is focused on a very real heroine who has successes and failures, who has struggles and makes mistakes, and continues to learn and grow, but never becomes anything other than who she is to suit the story. Though Marianne does not follow the same career path through the entire story, she still follows a path that’s natural to her background, using skills she would have learned as a lecturer to stand up for what she believes in and make her voice heard, and there’s still plenty of tension and excitement to be had when following a heroine who is the center of the story but not the universe.

Though many of them had interesting qualities, I didn’t think the other characters were anywhere near as multi-dimensional as Marianne (which is probably inevitable since she’s the only character with a lot of focus in all three sections of the novel). For the most part, this didn’t bother me since Marianne was such a fantastic character, but I did think a couple of characters’ arcs could have been handled better: there are one notable gay character and one notable black character, and it was rather glaring that both of their stories follow such similar courses.

Other than this, I just have one other criticism: the first third (the original novella) did seem a little stronger than the two parts that followed, although I found all of them rather compelling. The first section is more focused on the Jenner family as a whole, and I found Marianne’s complex relationships with her three adult children one of the more memorable aspects. In the second part, Marianne’s family does not play as big a part and that lack was noticeable, even though I did find learning about the aftermath of the aliens’ warning quite intriguing. The final section has more focus on the family, mainly following Marianne and one of her grandsons as it delves into the aftereffects for the generation of children born after this event, and this section also has more mystery and excitement than the middle portion.

Tomorrow’s Kin is a skillfully written novel: while it’s not an action-packed book, it’s extremely readable, and the science is incorporated into the novel naturally without slowing it down or making it into a slog to read. The simple but effective prose helps it move quickly, and it follows an interesting, true-to-life heroine. Though the book is not without its flaws, it’s thoughtfully plotted and entertaining, and I’m looking forward to the next book in the trilogy.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

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