BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After aliens land in New York Harbor, a contingent of scientists are welcomed make first contact with the enigmatic aliens.
PROS: Engaging story; alternating viewpoints accentuate the alien contact and the family drama; realistic characters; straightforward delivery of genetic science grounds the story in sf;
CONS: Maybe not a huge con, but the ending was ever-so-slightly slightly predictable.
BOTTOM LINE: A thoughtful and solid story with some excellent underlying themes.
Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress is a story of first contact with aliens, or perhaps more accurately, about the year following first contact.
Aliens have landed in New York, ostensibly on a mission of peace, yet surrounded by a protective shield. A team of scientists is pulled together to visit the “Embassy” at the behest of the aliens for reasons unknown. Geneticist Marianne Jenner, one of the two main protagonists of the story, is one of them. Her recent scientific discovery, modest by her standards but nonetheless noteworthy, makes her an ideal candidate for the scientific team. Marianne is happy to go — it’s the chance of a thousand lifetimes — but she also has many other things to deal with, notably her three children: Ryan, whose work to save Earth’s ecology is of most paramount importance to him; Elizabeth, a short-tempered military police officer who subscribes to the widely held belief (in this slightly paranoid near future) that American isolationism is the solution to its failing economy; and Noah, the misfit of the family, whose addiction to a drug called Sugarcane allows him to temporarily feel like someone else. Noah, the other main protagonist, in particular is a lot for the other family members to handle.
However, the author juggles family and national matters with expert precision in Yesterday’s Kin, mostly through the way story perspective switches between Marianne and Noah for the length of the story. She expertly teases readers along with one revelation after another. Some of those reveals are central to the aliens’ reason for visiting, while others are more personal to the characters themselves, who are realistically drawn with varying degrees of likability, but always with imperfections. Kress also does an excellent job portraying the impact that the aliens arrival has on society, not just via humorous-but-probably-accurate pop culture influences, but also in reactions caused by fear and uncertainty. Can the aliens be trusted? If they are lying, what is their true motive?
These are some of the interesting questions posed by the novella-length Yesterday’s Kin while it dabbles in themes of selfishness vs. cooperation and delivers a cool science fictional premise (along with a lot of genetic science) in the process. The ending has the dual benefit of being one that is (mostly) unexpected and wholly satisfying. Nicely done.