No one writes a first-contact novel quite like Nancy Kress. In novels like Nothing Human (2003) and this spring’s Steal Across the Sky, it doesn’t much matter what the aliens look like or where they come from. Kress stresses how a significant group of individuals reacts to the encounter and the long-range effects on the human race.
Nothing Human was a dandy book in which only the next step in evolution will allow humanity to continue to exist on an ecologically devastated world. The aliens are merely a catalyst. One of the questions the book poses is whether a significantly altered genome retains its humanity.
In Steal Across the Sky first contact actually happened 10,000 years ago, when aliens that call themselves the “Atoners” first visited primitive people on Earth. Now the Atoners have returned and set up a base on the moon. They claim they have come only to atone for crimes against humanity they committed when they first influenced early man. Among other things they kidnapped human beings and used them to seed other worlds.
The aliens take out an ad on the Internet asking for volunteers to go to these far-away planets and witness what their distant cousins are doing there. Out of the millions of volunteers, twenty-one young people are chosen to make the make the trek to the stars. Those chosen have little in common save what seems to be a lack of qualifications for such a mission.
Three of these witnesses tell their stories, both of what happened to them in their vastly different alien cultures, and how their lives are changed once they return to Earth. Eventually, readers learn the real crime for which the aliens are trying to atone.
Kress is a master story teller, but her strongest attributes lie in characterization and her ability to create believable cultures. Steal Across the Sky demonstrates those talents to the fullest.
My major complaint about the novel is one I rarely voice: the book is too short. Twenty-one young people visited other planets; we really hear from only three. Kress left us wondering what happened to the other eighteen. I wanted to know.