"Steal Across the Sky" by Nancy Kress (2009)
"Silence on the other side of the commlink. Lucca heard his own tone, lingering in the air like miasma. Finally Cam said, 'Well excuse me for not having a college education. And you're taking all this way too personally, Lucca. I thought anthropologists were supposed to be objective."
Nancy Kress has written a whole heapin' lot of books, and won a whole heapin' lot of awards. Before reading Steal Across the Sky, I came across a couple of her short stories in The Year's Best Science Fiction collections. Her story "Ej-es" was one of the best entries in the 21st edition.
In Steal Across the Sky, a group of extraterrestrials called The Atoners make first contact with the human race in the near future. They claim to have "committed a great sin" against our species, and as a way of righting former wrongs they recruit several people (the "Witnesses") to observe branches of humanity removed to a distant planet at some point in our ancient history.
It sounds kind of silly, right? And yes, if you stop to think about the physics of intergalactic travel, it doesn't quite work, but then again you could say the same about almost any novel involving intergalactic travel. "By the time X got back to Y, everyone he or she knew would be dead" runs a common refrain, but in this instance the mechanics of travel to distant stars isn't too central to the plot, and for this reason I was able to overlook it.
What's more, the characterization in Steal Across the Sky is a vast improvement over the last novel I read, Vernor Vinge's Across Realtime. The people in Steal Across the Sky feel like living, breathing people as opposed to plot devices. Their emotional reactions their experiences are believable, and their motivations are clear. To be sure, this novel is heavy on the fiction and light on the science, but it's still a much better story than anything found in Across Realtime. I found myself caring about the people Steal Across the Sky, and I wanted them to prosper.
With this said, I could see how Steal Across the Sky might rub more "scientifically oriented" readers the wrong way. Parts of it border on the supernatural, even though most of the characters strive to maintain a scientific worldview. I don't want to give too much away here, but what the Witnesses see off-planet shakes their understanding of human nature to its very foundations, and calls into question some aspects of the current trend toward Atheism in relation to scientific inquiry. It's not a leap that most science fiction writers would make, and I admire the author for having the guts to do it.
Yet allowing for the supernatural, there's a gaping plot hole at the center of this book. And no, it has nothing to do with intergalactic travel or genetics. It's something a lot more obvious than that.
Why does everyone on Earth believe what the Witnesses have to say about their experiences? The Witnesses return to Earth with NO evidence, and despite this small complication everyone - right down to governments and the world's leading scientists - believes everything they have to say. Given the technological disparity between the Atoners and Earth's civilization, the Witnesses might as well have hidden in a room for the duration of their stay on the moon, or been placed inside of a virtual reality simulation. How does anyone know that it wasn't some kind of hoax? How does anyone know that the "Witnesses" weren't the subjects of some elaborate mind control experiment? There are people who still can't believe that the moon landing happened, so why would anyone take the Witnesses' word it?
Steal Across the Sky really should have addressed this problem, but I have the feeling that Nancy Kress was, by that point, on to writing her next of many novels. She couldn't be bothered to add that chapter. And this is unfortunate, because such a chapter would have elevated the book to another level. It would have made Steal Across the Sky feel so much more real, and so much more immediate.
It's a good book, and I'd be happy to read more of Nancy Kress's output in the future. I just wish she had taken a bit more time with this one. A greater attention to detail would have made the difference between a simply good book and one that's definitely great.