Yesterday's Kin - Nancy Kress

Yesterday’s Kin

Nancy Kress


The aliens arrived four months ago. They touched down next to NYC and immediately shielded the ship with an opaque wall of energy. No one has seen them. No one has conversed with them. All they will say, over and over, is that they are here

“To make contact with humanity. A peace mission.”

Despite the innocuous reassurances, they’ve been rather shy about actually making said contact--at least, until now, when an obscure paper in genetics finally breaks the loop. Marianne was thrilled enough to have her paper on evolutionary genetics accepted into Nature, but she cannot even begin to imagine the ramifications of her work or the bombshell that the aliens are about to drop on Earth.


One of the aspects that I really enjoyed in Yesterday’s Kin is the science. The plot involves everything from panspermia to the mitochondrial Eve to the bottleneck event theory. The story itself centres around Marianne and her children, the belligerent Elizabeth, the passionate Ryan, and the hapless Noah. Yet although the story is about families, I felt distanced from all of the characters, unable to connect or empathise with any of them. This strange sense of isolation is oddly fitting: in some ways, the characters are cut adrift from one another, trapped in mutual incomprehension of each others’ minds and hearts. Marianne’s emotional and mental distance from her children, her closest family, serves to reinforce and intensify the book’s overall theme of biological kinship. As Marianne thinks,

“Yes, she had seen her grandchild. But whatever comfort or connection that had been supposed to bring her, it hadn’t. It seemed to her, perhaps irrationally, that never had she felt so alone.”

As always seems to be the case with alien stories, much of the plot focuses on determining which side of the trope these particular aliens fall on. While the overall story is promising, I think this would have worked better as a short story rather than a novel. For me at least, it felt as though much of the book’s volume was taken up with rambling or repetitious scenes, and while these may have served to increase the tension, I found them rather tedious. While the ending is interesting, it is eminently guessable from about halfway through. Perhaps my disconnect from the characters warped my viewpoint, but I felt that given the rather limited worldbuilding, the story was too drawn out for the meagre payoff.

Given the length of the book, it’s amazing how little we end up knowing about the Denebs. We are given a rosy-tinted, idealistic portrait of a smiling, family-oriented, incredibly cooperative species. We hear some weird words and we learn that they have rather different colours, but the aspects of their culture seem very general and rather hackneyed to me, and entirely at odds with the utterly sick cruelty of their actions towards the humans. What about these planets that they colonized? Why couldn’t they just move their population from their world until the spore cloud passed? If their energy shields really did work so well, why not block off a whole or a part of the planet with them? And other than a very general “absent watchmaker” story, we never get any explanation of *how* or *why* the humans were moved to a new planet. While in general, I love it when authors do not completely reveal the rich background and history of their worlds, I couldn’t shake the feeling that no deeper story existed and that the Denebs consisted only of the superficial glimpse we saw. And sure, I understand the symbolism of Noah--the name is obvious enough, even if he doesn’t end up bringing two of each animal with him into space--but I didn’t really feel like he added much, either as a character or as a viewpoint into the Deneb culture.  But I have to admit that I find the “happy cooperative native society” trope rather irritating.


In terms of the twist itself, it was unfortunately all too obvious rather early in the book, at which point the characters’ obtuseness became frustrating. The argument that this was the only way of obtaining top resources is awfully tenuous. Can you imagine a single academic who would relinquish the chance of being the first to save an alien species? I also utterly disagree with the claim that this was the “best” way to go about things. In general, desperation, terror, and panic are not actually great motivators in a scientific endeavor. Scientific curiosity, on the other hand, is. They’re freaking scientists. As is amply demonstrated in the book, this threat put the scientists in tremendous danger, locked off their resources, and halted potentially useful collaborations. I also think that the aliens’ behavior is utterly contradictory to their supposed cooperative, family-oriented society. Given that they planned this method because they considered humans to be savage, how could they not have predicted the backlash that caused the deaths of thousands? If they were so much into cooperation, how did they not sacrifice the few for the good of the many by testing on themselves? This could be an interesting twist, as it might imply that the Denebs see one of their lives as more valuable than the thousands of humans that died from the despair and violence that the Denebs caused, but this comparison doesn’t seem to occur to anyone at the end. How do none of the characters notice that the Deneb plan caused a significant number of deaths? I very much agree with the ending:

“Humans did not forgive easily, and they resented being bought off, even with a star drive. Smith should have left a different gift, one that would not let Terrans come to World, that peaceful and rich planet so unaccustomed to revenge or war.”

(show spoiler)


At the same time, the book is a fast and enjoyable read. I loved the way that Kress intertwined the themes of alien-human ties with family ones. Some of the characters' thoughts about relationships were especially poignant; for example:

“When your children were small you worried that they would die and you would lose them, and then they grew up and you ended up losing the children they’d been, anyway.”

“He had always been selfish. He’d known that about himself. Only before now, he’d called it ‘independent.’”

Overall, while I think the story could have benefited from a certain amount of judicious cutting, I still found it an enjoyable read, and would recommend it for fans of slow-building plots and scientifically-detailed alien tales.


 ~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Tachyon Publications, in exchange for my honest review.  ~~