REVIEW: YESTERDAY’S KIN / AUTHOR: NANCY KRESS / PUBLISHER: TACHYON / RELEASE DATE: SEPTEMBER 9TH
After discovering an ancient mitochondrial subgroup, geneticist Marianne Jenner is whisked off to New York City with an assortment of the international science community’s greatest minds to meet the aliens who arrived there several months ago and only just revealed the purpose of their visit. An interstellar cloud of viral spores is heading towards the Earth, and unless a vaccine can be developed in the few months before its arrival, everyone on the planet will die.
Hard sci-fi is defined by its focus on the science aspect of the genre as much as the fiction, and as the science is such an integral part of Yesterday’s Kin the book approaches industrial diamond durability. The inherent problem of explaining the numerous biology and virology concepts to the reader without sloppy “as you know” declarations is neatly sidestepped by the relevant information being imparted “for the benefit of the astronomers” during several group meetings recounting the frustratingly slow pace of the virus research.
The story perspective alternates between Marianne’s work in the alien ship and suspicions of their hidden agenda, and that of her youngest son Noah, who from his feelings of isolation and lack of purpose is addicted to a drug that grants its users a temporary change in personality. From these two viewpoints we see the desperate search for a vaccine to the virus and exploration of the aliens’ culture along with its juxtaposition to humanity that comments on the state of our own existence. Marianne’s two other children, border guard Elizabeth and botanist Ryan, are representative of the diametric extremes of the US populace’s opinions on foreign policy, respectively cloistered isolationism or inclusive internationalism, and provide mutual counterpoints to arguments of how we can best develop as both a society and a species.
Although we are told of events in the world outside the ship and reactions to the encroaching apocalypse such as paranoia, rioting, terrorism, suicides and religious leaders declaring “told you so”, they largely occur during the timeskips between chapters and are recounted after the fact, as though their separation from the main plot renders them tertiary considerations.
Several twists and turns permeate the story such as the early revelation of the aliens’ origins and also exactly why the presence of a talented but unremarkable geneticist was requested along with all the biologists and virologists who could actually contribute to the production of a vaccine and the astronomers and physicists who could chart the cloud’s progress.
Yesterday’s Kin is a very short book – under 180 pages – and while its plot is recounted with deft efficiency and its primary goal of stimulating consideration of what it truly means to be human is attained, you can’t help but feel some expansion of its events and themes would have given it greater substance.