Completed 5/27/2019, Reviewed 5/27/2019
I loved this novella. It was quick to capture my attention with a plot about aliens coming to earth with messages of hope and doom and the Earth’s response to them. It was paced well, and had good character development. It had the right amounts of alien-ness and humanity. It’s my first book by Nancy Kress who has won several awards, including a Nebula for Novella for this work.
The story revolves around Marianne Jenner, a microbiologist who just had a paper published in Nature magazine. This is a huge deal because she’s a scientist working at a relatively small college. Suddenly, she is whisked to New York to meet with the aliens who landed in the harbor some two months prior, because of this paper. She meets them with the Secretary-General of the UN and representatives from China and Russia. They come in peace, but also have a message of doom. The Earth is about to pass through a cloud of dangerous spores, spores that the aliens have come across before, and want to work with Earth’s greatest scientists to try to discover a vaccine or a cure for it. Earth’s response is of course it will help. At the same time, people’s responses are not that great: the market swings wildly, death cults form, religions tout the end of the world, suicides increase, and conspiracy theories and anger abound.
Threaded throughout this narrative is a second story line, that of Marianne’s three grown children. There’s the successful and pleasant ecologist Ryan, the abrasive immigrations officer Elizabeth, and the drug addicted loser Noah. Interactions with the three not only play a role in Marianne’s life, but also have implications with the relations with the aliens.
I thought the way the stories of the three children weave through the main narrative was brilliantly done. Marianne and Noah are the main characters, so of course, they are the best developed characters. Elizabeth is rather one-note, and Ryan is just sort of nice. But they all work to create a wonderfully dysfunctional family. If this were a longer novel, I’d bet that Elizabeth and Ryan would have been more fleshed out as well.
The aliens were very interesting. They are very human-like, but going beyond that gives too much away in this short piece. They are much more advanced than us – they have interstellar travel after all – but they are not advanced enough in the biological sciences to conquer this doomsday threat. It has already wiped out two of their colonies that were in the path of this spore cloud. There’s nothing that would indicate that they had any nefarious intentions with us, but of course, we as suspicious humans can’t handle that and people rebel. I really liked the aliens, as well as Kress’ depictions of how we would react to them.
The biology is very interesting as well. There’s just enough to make it harder science fiction, but Kress explains it well enough that I didn’t need to be a biologist to follow it.
I kind of saw the end coming, but I was surprised by the reason why. I thought it was a wonderful twist. I give the book five stars out of five because it had me breathless for most of it and I couldn’t wait to get to the end. I was glad I read this on my day off and could finish it in a few sittings, with breaks for a walk and food.