Nothing Human by Nancy Kress
Golden Gryphon Press HCVR: ISBN 1930846185 PubDate: 09/15/03
Review by Ernest Lilley
300 pgs. List price $ 27
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Golden Gryphon continues to turn our high quality works that may be a little offbeat for the big publishers, and so attracts well known authors that want to step out of their sellable midlist bookwriting shoes and turn out something more for their own head.
Nancy Kress's latest novel, Nothing Human, is a case in point. Though she has a perfectly good relationship with a big publisher, this story of posthuman evolution didn't find a home there, perhaps because while the elements may not be too unusual in SF, or even in Ms. Kress' own canon, the tone and outcome may stray from far enough from right-speak for some.
The themes in this book are meat and potatoes to SF. The earth is visited by aliens with advanced technologies that offer a way to prevent the coming collapse of the biosphere. We don't know it's coming, or at least we're pretending we don't know, and mankind in essentially the very near future, considers his biggest problem a power shortage. To this end we're building nuclear power plants in orbit, and beaming the energy down by microwave. It's a classic ploy, albeit normally proposed with solar collectors. The author selected nuclear power to drive home her point, however, that the machine-centric ways of mankind will lead to nothing good. So when the aliens show up, after seeding a generation of modified humans in the population that can receive their pheremonicly tendered messages, they're appalled by the perversions humanity is committing, and show their displeasure by blowing up the first orbital power station. While this does not sit well with Earth's governments, the alien emissaries are shocked to learn that we didn't heed their warning. Evidentially, aliens have gotten a lot more naive since Michael Rennie stepped out onto the DC Mall in The Day The Earth Stood Still.
Just before the alien "pribir" arrive, a group of children approaching adolescence slip into a mysterious coma, aking weeks later as though nothing had happened, and bearing the message that, "Oh by the way...the pribir are coming." The story's main character, Lillie, is one of the first generation modified is the main character, for the most part, starting out at birth and following her life through the ensuing failure of Earth's systems. Though she starts out believing in the alien's benevolence, she comes to realize that they're indifferent to the fates and wishes of intervals or even humanity as a whole and the first generation rebels against the alien meddling. The author mess up th a clever device for anyone intent on changing a world, and in a move reminiscent of the ending of Joe Haldeman's Forever War, the aliens take off at near light speed for a short hop away, then back to the solar system, using time dilation to effectively jump forward into the future. It's a good trick, and I don't think it's been used before. Over time, Lilie is forced to weigh her distrust of the aliens agenda with the fate of humanity. The result was, for me, disturbing and thought provoking, in equal measures
The aliens, look pretty much as SF has led us to expect...perfect Earth humans...modeled after early prime time TV types. After a while they mention the obligatory, "we're descended from human stock taken from Earth millennia ago...." or something like that. While we easily believed that of folks like Gary Seven (Star Trek TOS: Assignment Earth) these folks are a little harder to trust. Their claim to be human evokes memories of Frederick Pohl's Homecoming, in which the "human" sent to parley with mankind ultimately learns that he's actually a genetically engineered alien...and not even the same race as the aliens running the show...actually, he's closer to an alien cow. But does that mean he's not human?
In Kress's book, like much of SF, that's the real question. What makes us human? Is it some numerical count based on the similarity of genetic material? Is it our compassion, luck, indomitable will, creativity, or some special characteristic that will only show up under extreme stress? In each successive generation of alien modified human, which isn't the same thing as your alien -human hybrid, Kress strips more and more of the external trappings of humanity away, making it harder and harder for the unmodified and the reader to accept the result as anything human. Ultimately, she winds up with a creature able to survive on a devastated Earth that only, or not even, a mother could love. But is it human? That's up to you top decide, but the author's stake is planted firmly in the sand.