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Monday, February 16, 2009

“Steal Across the Sky” by Nancy Kress (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

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INTRODUCTION: Years ago I read a science fiction novel with a superb idea that asked the simple question: What if there were humans that did not need to sleep? How would they interact with the rest of us and what would be the consequences for society at large? The novel of course was the acclaimed “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress, and it is justly one of the most famous “what if” sf novels ever. The author released some sequels that were good, but they could never quite measure up to the masterpiece that was “Beggars in Spain”, and I eventually stopped following Ms. Kress over the years. Until now, when another “what if” novel was announced. I had great expectations for “Steal Across the Sky” and they were not only met, but exceeded...

SETTING: The year is 2020 and mysterious aliens have set up a base on the Moon and put a Web ad asking for volunteers for a mission. Calling themselves The Atoners, the aliens claim to have done a grievous wrong to humanity ten thousand years ago, and now they want some humans to go to colonies where transplanted humans live, and “Witness” something. The assumed wrong is not kidnapping humans thousands of years ago and resettling them among the stars, but something else although the Observers are assured that they will know what they have to see when they see it, as well as being guaranteed safety and return transport.

Millions apply, but only twenty-one young people of diverse background, gender, marital/social status, skills, and education are selected. In turn, these twenty-one individuals are divided into seven groups over seven pairs of planets with one person attending each planet and one supervising from orbit per pair. “Steal Across the Sky” is the story of one such trio, of what they find on the two planets they are observing—one is pastoral semi-bliss, the other a primitive despotism based on a chess-like game—and then what happens when the Observers return to Earth with the second and much more shattering “what if” revelation. The last short, epilogue-like part pulls together the threads of the novel in a great ending, though there is clear scope for a sequel.

FORMAT/INFO:Steal Across the Sky” stands at 320 pages divided into four named parts and 77 short chapters. The first part, The Crime, deals with the Observers’ adventures, following the wealthy, widowed, and skeptical Oxford-educated Italian-Canadian Lucca on the strange pastoral Kular A; the trash-talking, lower class American, high school dropout Cam on the despotic Kular B; and the Manhattanite observer Soledad in orbit coordinating. There are also POV chapters starring Aveo, an elderly scholar and dissident of the Kular B despotism.

The second and third parts, Amicus Curiae and The Atonement, take place on Earth after the return of the Observers and form the core of the novel, which explores the implications of the shattering “what if” discovered on the colonies. Soledad and Cam are the main POVs of this part with the addition of another A-planet observer, former US policeman and devout Catholic Frank, while the recluse Lucca also has a very important part to play. The final short epilogue-like part, The Verdict, brings closure to the novel. Throughout the novel, the POV chapters are interspersed with “non-fiction” like background material, including transcripts of government meetings, book reviews, ads and other similar stuff that add a lot of depth to the novel by showing the general society’s reaction, first to the aliens and their request, and then to the extraordinary “what if” claim proven by the Observers, although skeptics still remain.

February 17, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Steal Across the Sky” via
Tor Books. Cover art provided by John Jude Palencar.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS: Much of “Steal Across the Sky’s” enjoyment stems from figuring out the book’s main “what if” idea, the one that the Atoners want humanity to Observe on their trip, and since I do not want to spoil the novel for you, I will be quite brief in the remainder of this review. Basically, many intriguing things follow from the novel’s central question, including for example an assessment of the price of progress and civilization, or if you want to look at it backward, the price of pastoral semi-bliss...

Considering that the novel stands at 300 pages, takes place mainly on Earth apart from the time spent on the two strange planets, and includes quite a few “how society responds” short chapters as mentioned above, the scope for world-building and characterization is limited.

However, the main characters (Lucca, Cam, Soledad), and to a lesser extent Aveo and Frank, are very believable, and they change and grow with their strange experiences. Soledad in particular, is perfectly positioned to both act and react to what happens. The prose meanwhile, is very clear and easy to follow.

While similar sf novels in the past have used newspaper quotes or newsgroup-like postings to convey the reactions of the world at large, “Steal Across the Sky” is a fully oriented Web 2.0 novel as evidenced by the original Atoners Web-ad throughout all of the “non-fiction”-like chapters.

Overall, “Steal Across the Sky” is really compelling and a page turner to boot, though after a while it becomes clear on what direction the book is going. However, there are still lots of twists and turns, and the implications of the main “what if” are just starting to be explored, so I would welcome a sequel. The first superb sf novel of 2009 for me, “Steal Across the Sky” should be considered for all genre awards and is highly, highly recommended...


Zoe said...

What a great site you have here, I'll shall have to settle down for a good browse :)

Anonymous said...

It is very interesting for me to read that article. Thanx for it. I like such themes and everything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.

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