There are interesting parallels between this and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Both deal with humanity’s contact with aliens, and with the repercussions for humanity especially in the realm of religion. There are vast differences, of course – how contact is achieved, the type of people involved, and so on. I think Russell’s is better, overall; I appreciated the characters more, and I think it’s overall a more sober look at the repercussions for humanity. But I also think the two books are trying to do different things, and Kress has achieved something impressive in her novel.
Aliens have contacted humanity with the sole intention of Atoning for some crime they committed against us… ten thousand years ago. They don’t reveal what that crime is, nor how they intend to atone for it. Instead, they talk to anyone who can get the bandwidth to reach the moon, and set up a boring website asking for volunteers to act as Witnesses. Predictably, they get millions of applicants, of whom 21 are chosen to go to seven different planets – planets inhabited by the descendants of humanity kidnapped ten thousand years ago (cue Stargate music). This, however, is not the crime. Almost the first half of the novel focusses on Cam and Lucca, Witnesses sent to a binary planet system to live with their many-times-removed cousins in order to discover the thing that they will ‘know when they see it’, according to the Atoners. Intriguingly, numerous chapters are also given to one of those whom the Witnesses interact with, providing an at time painful glimpse into the arrogance and cluelessness of one Witness. Slight spoiler, which really isn’t: they discover the thing. They don’t really know it when they first see it. But, as the blurb promises – or threatens – the knowledge does change them, and at least some people back on Earth. The rest of the novel is working through the repercussions of that knowledge, this time largely switching focus to other Witnesses, and only occasionally returning to Cam and Lucca. And, similar to Kim Stanley Robinson so gloriously in 2312, chapters are punctuated with ephemera: conversation transcripts, Oprah interviews, advertisements, etc. These add a wonderful verisimilitude to the world that Kress imagines, only a decade away from now: many thing similar (yes, Oprah; also internet trolls); and some different. Kress throws in some lovely SF-ish moments – just enough to be incongruent, to remind the reader that this is not today.
What this book is not is an alien contact story. Yes, it deals with first contact, and yes the aliens are pivotal. But that’s exactly what they are: a pivot, a lever, a fulcrum. They are a point about which the plot revolves, but not the focus. They are almost completely opaque and don’t exist as characters at all. Rather, the focus is on humanity: how humans react, how humans interact. For an SF novel involving aliens and space travel this is a distinctly earthly novel. It’s also a bit depressing, but perhaps that’s a reflection of a near-future novel published in 2009. That’s not to say that it’s without hope, but… it’s not especially upbeat. Nonetheless, I did enjoy it overall. As mentioned above, Kress deals with the repercussions of the Witness discoveries on religion, as well as on other aspects of society. For this, and the fact that she treats religion seriously (even if it is only through Catholicism, which isn’t completely representative of Christianity let alone all religions on the planet… perhaps it is the most prevalent religion in the US, where it’s largely set? I don’t know), definite kudos. I still think Russell did it in a more nuanced manner, but it was also more of a focus for Russell than for Kress, who is writing a story that’s closer to thriller than philosophical treatise, whereas Russell is the opposite. And Kress does what I presume she set out to do: write an engaging, enjoyable, intriguing novel that combines off-beat characters – not all of whom are likeable – with a plot that keeps you flicking pages (I read it in a day…) and, cliches ahoy, a serious kicker at the end.
Steal Across the Sky can be bought at Fishpond.