After spending a fair amount of time reading non-fiction and fiction that isn’t speculative this year, I decided that I wanted to dive back into some science fiction. Of course, our library here is fairly small, and while I could have reserved something on the larger library system, I didn’t really know what I wanted to read, so I was forced into browsing the shelves…
Fortunately, I found something interesting: Tomorrow’s Kin, by Nancy Kress. This is the first of a trilogy, and I will definitely be going back to read books two and three.
I really enjoyed this book. I was introduced to Kress many years ago when I read her Beggars Trilogy, which I highly recommend as well. Kress has a fairly crisp style that keeps everything moving right along, and the plot of Tomorrow’s Kin was pretty tight. She does jump around between a lot of POV characters, sometimes within the same chapter, but it’s always clear where the breaks are. Tomorrow’s Kin is also somewhat eerily prescient as it was published in 2017 and concerns, in part, a pandemic. Reading it in hindsight was really interesting; more about that in a minute.
The Reading Experience
As I said, the book is fairly crisp, and the pacing is good. Kress’ dialogue is sharp, and it’s easy to tell who is talking. I like that each character has a distinct voice, and I really enjoyed when she wrote from the young boy’s POV in this book. I think she captured a 6yo boy pretty well. The book is about 350 pages, and it moves right along. I don’t think I felt like any sections or chapters were slow.
An Intriguing Premise
The premise of this book is really kind of fascinating. Dr. Marianne Jenner is a geneticist working with the human genome. She discovers a new haplogroup that came from “Mitochondrial Eve”–a common female ancestor who lived approximately 150,000 years ago. During her publication celebration in the first chapter, the FBI shows up to… uh, appropriate Jenner to go “meet with the aliens.”
Um. The what now?
Jenner “accepts” the alien invitation, because what scientist in her right mind wouldn’t? Once on board the ship, she meets the head “alien,” Ambassador “Smith,” who asks her a bunch of questions about her research. It turns out that these aliens are actually human. They share the same DNA, but they were taken from earth 70,000 years before and seeded on another planet near Deneb.
If that doesn’t get you interested, I don’t know what will.
I am not a believer in panspermia for a whole bunch of reasons, but I really liked this twist–the idea that the population of earth actually seeded other planets. The book delves into the adaptive differences between the two human groups, and it suggests that those humans who were taken from earth had different behavioral leanings that led to a more peaceful culture on their new world. (We’ll see if this is borne out in future books.)
Family In The Time of Plague
The “aliens” in Tomorrow’s Kin have journeyed to earth, they claim, to save both themselves and their cousins on earth from an approaching spore cloud. They claim to have already encountered the same cloud, and it wiped out two of their colonies. In addition to the warning, they want the earth cousins to put everything into developing a vaccine for the approaching cloud. The humans on earth have about ten months to come up with this vaccine.
And there, ladies and gentlemen, is the set-up for a plague story.
As I mentioned, this book was published in 2017, and while there was tacit agreement among brainy sorts of folks that we were due for some kind of pandemic, no one could have predicted the precise time and place of said pandemic. Because this book was published not long before COVID-19, the technology mentioned in the book is familiar–not outdated and not too futuristic. People have smart phones. Descriptions of labs feel familiar. Governments entities and structures are generally what they are now, in 2023.
What was really quite prescient, I thought, was the way Kress painted a picture of a culture and society pressed to the breaking point. No one is forced into lockdown or quarantine in this book, but the scientists are racing against a very similar clock that ran during 2020 and 2021. The social upheaval, the unrest, the different perspectives on the aliens, the spore cloud, the virus–these were all very similar to the kinds of public discord we saw throughout our own pandemic.
This kind of prescience is exactly the reason I love science fiction, and Kress’ account of a world pressed to the breaking point serves as a reminder that, for good or for ill, humans really don’t change that much.
Scientist, Mom/Grandma, Human
One thing Kress does especially well in this book, I think, is present Marianne Jenner as a well-rounded person who could be any woman my age. She is, of course, a scientist–a geneticist with a PhD–but rather than just paint her as one-dimensional, Kress gave her multiple complications. Marianne has strained relationships with all three of her adult children, one of whom was adopted under less-than-ideal circumstances. She is widowed, but her marriage was already falling apart due to her husband’s addiction issues. When one son falls into a deep depression after his wife’s death, Marianne is pressed into choosing between her own safety and the wellbeing of her grandsons (spoiler: she chooses the grandsons).
At one point, Marianne reflects on her children and all of the changes, struggles, and obstacles they’ve experienced, and she thinks:
This was the way it was with one’s children; all the versions of them lived simultaneously in your heart.
That sentiment shows up several times throughout the book, and every single time, I teared up. It’s so true. When I look at my children, I hold every version of them in my heart at the same time. Even as they’re driving me nuts, I’ll be remember baby smiles or first words or school victories.
The way Marianne interacts with other scientists is also recognizable. When told how brilliant she is, she demurs and says that she’s a workhorse, basically–downplaying her own achievements in a way that I could completely relate to and that did not come off as Mary Sue-like. Kress gave Jenner a community of scientists with a variety of their own accolades, including Nobel prizes, and they all learn to navigate egos and personalities in normal, adult ways.
And finally, there’s Marianne’s love life. She seems to prefer the company of non-threatening men for most of the book; there’s a sense that she feels “past all that” romantically. Despite her preferences, though, she ends up having two affairs–one that makes sense, and one that… doesn’t. BUT–both served to show her as a well-rounded character with a great deal of depth and nuance–a human who is basically a pretty good person, but makes some odd or wrong choices along the way.
You know. Just a normal, human person.
Would I Recommend?
Yes, I do recommend. This is a great summer read. Not too heavy, not hard science fiction, it’s the kind of thing you can take on vacation and either consume in a day or read a chapter or two at a time. The chapters are fairly short, too, and some have good section breaks, so it’s possible to put it down for a bit.
Will I Read More of This Author?
Absolutely. I will definitely finish this trilogy, and I may go back and re-read the Beggars trilogy. Or I may check out some of Kress’ other work. We’ll see.
What’s Next on My List?
I’m currently reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is lovely, and I’ve got a couple more library books and a non-fiction business book queued up. Still trying to catch up on that reading challenge… How is it already August?
Next week, some reflections on the Muse and her sudden appearances… Let’s just say she’s been very chatty lately…