Good morning, all, and happy Reformation Day! Or Halloween. Or All Hallow’s Eve. Or Samhain.
Earlier this year, I read and reviewed Tomorrow’s Kin, by Nancy Kress. Since I enjoyed it so much, I read the rest of the trilogy and thought I’d review it as a whole story. The three books of the trilogy are Tomorrow’s Kin, If Tomorrow Comes, and Terran Tomorrow.
This trilogy is very good. Kress does a great job of balancing hard science fiction with strong character development, and she writes science in a very accessible way. She also very capably blends real-world concerns and challenges with “what if” scenarios, and she seems to do her research on matters of, say, military procedures and protocols. As with the first book, I found books two and three crisply paced and easy to follow.
The Reading Experience
I’ll reiterate what I said about the first book–the books are fairly crisp, pacing is good, and dialogue is sharp. One thing that I do appreciate is that Kress doesn’t feel obligated to keep all of the same characters from each book, instead allowing them to move on to other things (including death) between the events of the novels. I get so attached to even minor characters that I try to keep them around as long as possible, and Kress doesn’t fall prey to that. On the flip side, her willingness to let some characters go does mean that she introduces new characters, so that could be a bit confusing to some readers. There are significant time jumps between novels, though, so new characters make sense.
Plague, Death, and Societal Collapse
To review quickly, in the first book, geneticist Dr. Marianne Jenner discovers a new haplogroup that came from “Mitochondrial Eve”–a common female ancestor who lived approximately 150,000 years ago. The humans who had this particular haplogroup were taken from earth 140,000 years before modern day (I think I said 70,000 years before in my previous post–my mistake) to seed another planet, and they are back to ask for help in avoiding complete annihilation from an approaching spore cloud.
Book one deals with the race to save earth’s population from the spore cloud. Book two jumps ahead ten years to a point when the Terrans (earth humans) travel to “World,” the planet where the alien humans live, to help them survive the spore cloud. What the humans find on World is a society that’s much smaller and much less developed than they assumed, given the space travel.
We also get a few more clues about the super-aliens who must have seeded World and left their tech behind.
In book three, Marianne Jenner and some of her surviving crewmates return to earth to find that the cascade of events begun in book one have now resulted in near-annihilation of humanity and complete societal collapse. Her grandsons are now adults with very different ideological leanings. Book three introduces yet another plague, but this one ties together all the threads of the trilogy and results in a fairly satisfying ending.
A Series of Unfortunate Events…
Possibly the best thing about this trilogy was the way that Kress explored how both black swan events and human intervention can result in a cascade of unintended consequences. In all three books, humans intervene in naturally occurring events, and in every case, something happens ecologically to change everything going forward.
But what’s interesting about Kress’ approach is that she doesn’t assume the worst about people, nor does she assume the best. The scientists want to save as many human lives as possible, which is a noble and worthwhile goal. Unfortunately, some of the choices they make result in various levels of disaster that lead to other disasters. Other humans choose to operate maliciously, essentially poisoning earth for all but about 4% of humans, but creating an environmental near-utopia for flora and fauna.
I think the way that Kress is looking at these events and interventions is one of the most honest ways of thinking through these kinds of events that I’ve read. Often in a dystopian novel, we just get a synopsis of some bad action or unclear event that just “happened” and led to the break up of society.
The Yesterday’s Kin trilogy looks at how an apocalypse happens as it’s happening. We get to see how one attempt to do something good leads to bad consequences, and one attempt to destroy everything leads to some good consequences, and so forth.
In many ways, I feel like Kress is being more honest about following threads to a logical conclusion than most of the people who tried to control the COVID-19 response. But this is what writers are good at, I guess–asking question after question until we get to the logical end.
A Conspicuous Absence
One quibble I have with this series is that Kress really didn’t include much religion at all. There was probably more in the second book when she explored the culture of World, but it was less religious and more cultural (though one Terran doctor was at least nominally Muslim, I think). In the books that took place on earth, there was very little inclusion of any religion other than an occasional passing glance, though there is a sort of cult of “Gaiists” mentioned in the third book. They’ve already done their mischief and mostly left the scene, though.
It’s possible that with all of the politics, culture, and science that Kress was dealing with in these books, she just sort of felt like putting in anything significant about religion would make the story too big to deal with. I get that. Adding religion to anything makes it infinitely more complicated.
However, when one is dealing with any potential end-of-the-world scenario, doesn’t it seem like religion would take on a lot more significance for most people?
I don’t just mean that people might rediscover Christianity. I mean that there would likely be huge religious clashes between not only the world’s major religions, but also potentially smaller sects, offshoots, extremes, or cults of those religions. I find it hard to believe that even with large swathes of humanity gone, there are essentially zero believers of the world’s major religions remaining, or that they’re being so quiet as to not make even an impact in the world.
One More Tiny Quibble…
I have one last quibble, and this one is more worldview-related than anything else.
The big premise of the trilogy is that a race of super-aliens came to earth 140,000 years ago and selected a group of humans to seed another planet. The humans who seeded the other planet are genetically pre-disposed to be more cooperative–to work together better, to get along, to find common ground, etc. On World, the humans create a matrilineal world controlled by “mothers.” They all cooperate to keep their population smallish, and they carefully manage resources so that the ecology of World stays balanced and clean and healthy.
I think this is probably a fundamental disagreement about human nature between me and Ms. Kress. I don’t fault her for it; she’s obviously coming at this from a different place than I am. And this is probably slightly related to the conspicuous absence of religion in the series. I’m coming at this from a Christian belief in original sin and total human depravity, and maybe Ms. Kress isn’t.
While it would be nice to think that it would be possible to sort of genetically select a more cooperative human genome that could create a cooperative, matriarchal world, I just don’t think it’s possible. I don’t think it’s a genetic thing, really, because I’m not sure that human nature is based on genetics. I think that wherever humans gather, someone will want power. There will be some level of competition, healthy or not. Someone will need to solve a problem that leads to a technological innovation, and that will inevitably have unintended consequences, for good or for ill.
Also, I just don’t believe that a matriarchal world is better than a patriarchal one. I think it would be different, certainly, but people who think that if women ran things, everyone would be more peaceful have never worked in a female-dominated office.
Would I Recommend?
Despite my quibbles, I do recommend this series. It’s quite an enjoyable, thought-provoking read.
Will I Read More of This Author?
Yes, for sure. I was looking up her bibliography, and I had no idea she’d written so many novels. I’ll have to add a bunch of them to my never-ending TBR list.
What’s Next on My List?
At the moment, I’m reading Night, by Elie Wiesel, but it’s very short and won’t take long. I am going to attempt to slog through Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon, when I’m done with this one. I don’t really want to read Outlander, but it’s on my master list, and I feel like I should at least give it a chance. Review likely forthcoming.
Next week, I’m going to delve into some thoughts about side characters. These thoughts may turn into a few posts, and there may be a little bit of writing advice involved…