I had a lot of fun last Summer working with youth librarian Adrienne Butler on October’s Teen Read Month. The theme was “Read Beyond Reality.” The focus of the project was speculative fiction, everything from hard sci-fi to wispy fantasies.
One of our lesson plans for the project was on the big “What-if” of science fiction, and it challenged young people to come up with their own “what-if” scenarios that could form the basis of a story. You know, things like, “what if we were visited by aliens,” and “what if humans began to develop telepathic abilities,” and “what if the machines really did take over?”
The possibilities are endless, really, and it’s one reason why science fiction is such a rich genre. Of course, the best sci-fi, like the best of all fiction, isn’t just about the idea; it’s about the characters and how they react in their environment.
The big idea in Nancy Kress‘s new novel, Steal Across the Sky, is really big. Aliens do come, and they tell us that ten thousand years ago they committed a crime against humanity. The aliens wish to atone for this crime, and they select a group of people to travel to other human-inhabited planets in order to discover for themselves the nature of this wrongdoing. The aliens can’t just tell us, we have to see it for ourselves. The aliens need witnesses to their crime. Humanity needs to hear the devastating news from their own kind. (But you won’t hear it from me; I’m not going to tell you what the crime was. And stay away from reviews that purport to keep you spoil-free while revealing too much.)
I fully expected the novel to revolve around the revelation of this crime, and that the main characters—young, emotional Cam; grieving scientist Lucca; and cautious, responsible Soledad— wouldn’t discover the truth until the next to last chapter. But Kress throws us a curve ball. The actual crime is discovered less than half way through the book, and the remainder of the novel deals with the impact of the truth on the sentient inhabitants of Planet Earth, and, ultimately, deals with the act of atonement by the aliens.
A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”
And so, following the revelation, we see the emergence of a deadly cult; the celebrity of witness Cam; the targeting of the witnesses by extremists; the romantic thawing of Soledad; the isolation of rational Lucca; and the imperturbability of humanity as it goes on about the business of life of death, despite the startling revelation about our true nature. For some readers, the last part of the book won’t be able to live up to the first part; for others, the subsequent chapters give the book its heart and soul.
Never read sci-fi? “What-if” you try it?