Nancy Kress’ new novel Tomorrow’s Kin is remarkable as much for what it isn’t as for what it is. This fascinating novel re-tells that old chestnut, the all-too-familiar “Aliens visit Earth- what do they want?” storyline, but does so in an unconventional manner that embraces most sci-fi tropes while at the same time shoving them aside. In the shadow of so many great (and less-than-great) recent books and films covering similar subject matter, Tomorrow’s Kin nonetheless distinguishes itself by unabashedly refusing to simply be a standard sci-fi story.
The novel’s opening revolves around the appearance of an alien spacecraft in Earth’s orbit, and the newcomers providing limited explanation for their presence. The Denebs, as the aliens are inaccurately dubbed on Earth, will communicate only with the United Nations and will say little other than that their intent is a peaceful one. As the novel proceeds, the Denebs provide the alleged purpose of their visit. They claim that Earth is on an unavoidable collision course with a spore cloud that will decimate most life on the planet. Their basis of this knowledge is that they have seen the spore cloud destroy one of their own colonies, and they also know that the cloud will reach their own home world within a number of years. As both species have no immunity against the cloud’s effects, and no way to avoid its path, the Denebs propose that they work together to find a vaccine that will save them both.
In this context, we meet the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Marianne Jenner, a rich, complex character, but not the kind one might expect to find as the hero in typical sci-fi fare. She is a capable geneticist and researcher, but knows little about immunology or disease. She cannot conceive what assistance she could provide if the Denebs’ story is true, and even less so if they are lying. Nonetheless, Dr. Jenner and her immediate family are unexpectedly drawn into the centre of these events, and it quickly becomes apparent that their decisions will have significant effects upon the relationship between the two species, and possibly the survival of either of their worlds.
Dr. Jenner is a paradox of a character, calm and reassuring to those she works with, and a voice of reason when events start to spiral out of control. She wants to believe the Denebs’ story, and welcome these apparently well-intentioned visitors, but she cannot help but see there is more going on than the Denebs are revealing. On the other hand, Dr. Jenner’s personal life is an utter disaster. She is haunted by the memories of a horrific marriage to an abusive alcoholic. She is rife with insecurities about her abilities as a mother, identifying each of her children’s failings as her own. This is particularly true with respect to her youngest child Noah, who has become a lost wandering soul who feels he has no place in the world, least of all in the company of his family. When Noah himself becomes entangled within the Denebs’ intricate plots, she is faced with the most unimaginable decision for any parent- stop working and potentially doom her planet, or sacrifice her own child to an unknown fate among an alien race.
Before going any further, I must confess my affection for the Amy Adams tour-de-force film Arrival. I consider Arrival to be easily the finest film of last year, possibly of this decade, which has undoubtedly coloured my view of this novel. A comparison between the two is almost inevitable. The setup of Tomorrow’s Kin– alien spacecraft suddenly and inexplicably appearing in a near-future Earth, no certainty about the aliens’ intent, and a woman who could not reasonably have expected such a responsibility being tasked with a vital role in solving this riddle- perfectly mirrors the starting narrative of Arrival.
However, Arrival is fundamentally a story about the power and meaning of language. It relates this theme to its audience through a deeply personal story of loss, grief, and choice, but paradoxically keeps the audience somewhat at arm’s length in so doing, rarely allowing us to glimpse the complete thoughts of its protagonist.
Tomorrow’s Kin is both more and less ambitious in scope. It tells a story that encompasses millennia of human history and seeks an understanding of the values and ideas that have driven the evolution of our species. On the other hand, Tomorrow’s Kin does not seek through its narrative (as Arrival does) to grapple with fundamental questions of metaphysics or the human mind. Rather, it tells the story of one woman and her family, all of whom become wrapped up in events much larger than themselves. It does not push the reader away, however, allowing us powerful glimpses of the fears and hopes of its point of view characters. The magnitude of the novel’s events, juxtaposed with the very human flaws of its protagonists, helps us to empathize with Dr. Jenner and realize that we too would feel unequal to the demands she faces.
Tomorrow’s Kin is unique in that it functions on numerous levels and succeeds (often brilliantly) in most of them. Most obviously, the novel serves brilliantly as a traditional page-turner. It is a thriller in the truest sense with the reader wondering at every turn which way Kress will take us next. The novel simply refuses to do what we anticipate. The narrative that we likely expect takes a sharp right turn about a hundred pages and never looks back. The story we thought we were reading was merely act one of a much more complex tale. Subsequent acts largely keep up the frenetic pace of the opening but with large shifts in tone, in keeping with the shifting perspective of the main characters. At times these tonal shifts make the story-telling a bit uneven but at no point does this diminish interest in what will happen next.
Tomorrow’s Kin also functions very well as a pure science fiction story, providing a tantalizing, complex scenario that echoes the best the genre has to offer. The science underlying the narrative appears sufficiently technical and well researched but is still very accessible. It helps that while Dr. Jenner herself is a successful and respected scientist, she acknowledges that the science in play is largely outside her area of expertise, providing the reader with only a partial degree of inside knowledge. The novel combines this accessible science with the sort of speculative fiction that asks far more questions than it answers. The novel’s events are at once foreign and relatable, allowing the reader to place themselves in the characters’ shoes but still making those shoes a thoroughly terrifying place. In other words, Nancy Kress really gets science fiction.
Above even this, however, Tomorrow’s Kin magnificently succeeds as a family drama. The divisions and tensions between Dr. Jenner and various family members are clearly (if somewhat bluntly) drawn and consistently in evidence. These differing viewpoints are clearly intended to represent the broader perspectives of the public at-large. But analysis of social discourse is not necessarily this novel’s forte. Where Tomorrow’s Kin truly succeeds is in presenting a realistic portrayal of a damaged family. The novel elevates the very concept of family and holds it in something approaching reverence. Against all odds, individuals in Tomorrow’s Kin refuse to see their familial bonds broken, in utter defiance of distance, tragedy, and even reason itself.
The novel’s ambition reaches further still, entering the realm of political commentary, but here its reach exceeds its grasp. The events of the story certainly lend themselves to asking important political questions, many of which are particularly relevant in the contemporary political climate. However, while the novel presents some fascinating issues, its portrayal of the political factions themselves lack nuance. Viewpoints are presented with a cartoonish simplicity and the commentary feels heavy handed. Characters are inserted for the purpose of representing particular ideologies with a bluntness that makes Atlas Shrugged seem like a model of subtlety. Tomorrow’s Kin succeeds the most when it avoids such lazy clichés and keeps its focus upon telling a compelling story. Fortunately for readers, it does that more often than not.
Tomorrow’s Kin, while not perfect by any means, is a fascinating read. It is particularly so for any true science fiction fan, if for no other reason than the novel’s refusal to fit comfortably within the genre’s typical mould. Tomorrow’s Kin takes an unusual angle for the first book in a trilogy, but this novel approach succeeds admirably, distinguishing it from standard sci-fi fare. The novel’s elegant ambition has comfortably placed its subsequent chapters onto my “must read” list going forward. I was not familiar with Nancy Kress or her award-winning work prior to reading this novel, but I am now very interested to delve deeper. If Tomorrow’s Kin is any indication, I will not be disappointed.