Reposting to include Tadiana’s new review.
A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel
Sylvain Neuvel’s A History of What Comes Next (2021) has both an intriguing premise and a potentially tense conflict at its core, but due to some issues with structure and style, the execution didn’t allow the book to achieve its potential.
Two women, Sara and her daughter Mia, are sort of Space Race Zeligs (look him up, youngsters), inserting themselves in key times and places to push humanity toward the stars. To that end, we see Mia go undercover in Germany at the tail end of WWII to spirit Wernher von Braun and key assistants to the US as part of Operation Paperclip (a real mission). Later, the two move to Russia where they jumpstart the Russian space program in the (correct) belief that it would spur the US into a focus on space rather just on weaponry. And finally they move back to America in the early days of NASA.
As to why they are doing this, we learn early on (so not a spoiler here) they are the 98th and 99th generations of The Kibsu, mysteriously powerful women who birth only female children (who look astonishingly like their mothers) who have from ancient times followed a list of rules, the most important for this review being “take them to the stars, before Evil comes and kills them all,” “there can never be three for long,” “don’t draw attention” and flee the Tracker, who has hunted them down the millennia. The novel offers up multiple POVs, including those from Sara, Mia, and the Tracker. As well, several chapters flash back to the ever-deeper past (AD 1608 in one, 890 BC in another) to show us prior generations of Kibsu.
As mentioned in the intro, I quite like this premise of humans in space being a millennia-long “project” by a small group finding ways to ever push progress forward to that end, even when simple flight was considered impossible, let alone entering space itself. It’s a great idea, and while the flashback scenes do a good job of fleshing out the rules and mores of the Kibsu, particularly the mother-daughter relationships and their sense of obligation, I found myself greatly desiring more flashbacks and that they were more directly connected to the mission. This felt like a real missed opportunity to me. Though this is a good point to note that A History of What Comes Next is the first book of a series, so perhaps later flashback scenes will do just that. Still, it felt lacking here.
Another positive is the inherent conflict between the Kibsu and the Tracker, which is presented as a predator-prey relationship, though that description gets greatly complicated. I did like that complication and hope to find out more in later books, but felt it also became somewhat muddy, and that the Tracker was somewhat overplayed, but that’s all I’ll say about those two issues so as to avoid spoilers.
The Space Race historical aspects were interesting and mostly well-inserted, though depending on one’s prior knowledge, some of the scenes or problems to be overcome will lack any suspense in terms of what happens or how it happens. Again, I won’t serve up examples so as to avoid spoiling events for those who, for instance, don’t know what Operation Paperclip was or how it worked.
My two biggest issues with A History of What Comes Next were structural and stylistic. I’m rarely a fan of numerous brief chapters and that holds true here. Tom Clancy and James Patterson, however, have made clear I’m a minority in this viewpoint, so I’m guessing this will be less of a hurdle for others. Stylistically, the writing is what I’d call “workmanlike” — it gets the reader from plot point to plot point smoothly and clearly enough, but that’s about it. I didn’t mark any lines or passages that struck me as particularly beautiful, original, or well-crafted. Meanwhile, the first-person present tense was fine for some scenes, but felt extremely awkward in many of the action or suspense scenes, robbing them not only of tension but often seriousness as well. Dialogue as well felt flat or clumsy. Finally, the romance in the story felt as if it were given more gravitas than it earned.
A History of What Comes Next had potential, and at times was sufficient to that potential — particularly with the mother-daughter relationship, but it missed some chances with plot, and was burdened by an overly flat and at times narrative-interrupting weakness of style.
In A History of What Comes Next, Sylvain Neuvel recasts history with a science fictional element, inserting a chain of mysterious mother-daughter teams who manipulate key events and powerful men through the ages to try to get the human race to reach toward the stars. Other than taking humans to space, “before Evil comes and kills them all,” the purpose of these women, the Kibsu, is pretty murky, even to themselves; most of their original knowledge, including about their own origins, has been lost. But they have an apparently inviolable rule that there can never be more than three Kibsu living at one time … and that many, not for long. And they know that they need to avoid drawing attention to themselves — difficult to do when they have some unusual physical and mental attributes, including that each daughter looks like a clone of her mother. They especially need to evade an equally shadowy group of men they call the Trackers, who are mercilessly hunting the Kibsu and killing them.
The main plotline follows two of the Kibsu women, Sarah and her daughter Mia. In 1945, Mia, who is then nineteen, is tasked by her mother with helping German rocket engineer Wernher von Braun to escape from Nazi Germany and get him into the hands of the Americans, to help them develop their rocketry science and bring humanity closer to space travel. Neuvel delves into the details of von Braun’s escapades during the waning days of World War II, helped along by Mia, who masquerades as his niece. This part of the plot takes almost a third of the book, too long for my taste, though it’s broken up by flashbacks that tell above lives of some of Mia’s Kibsu ancestors in ancient and medieval times.
After the war ends, Mia and Sarah make their way to the USSR and elsewhere, all in the service of their ultimate goal of fostering space travel. As Mia falls in love with Billie, a black girl living in Moscow, she has more difficulty accepting the Kibsu rules passed down to her and the way she’s expected to live her life.
Neuvel has an interesting gimmick here, following actual history, particularly the early days of the space race, quite closely, but weaving the Kibsu into it — which sheds new light on every historical event, and highlights the way women have been treated as secondary citizens through much of history. Personally, I also learned a lot about WWII and postwar rocketry history, and about monsters like Lavrentiy Beria, the influential Soviet politician who moonlighted as a sexual predator and (very likely) murderer. But WWII history isn’t my primary literary interest, so my interest flagged after a while, especially since the science fiction aspects relating to the Kibsu and the Tracker are disclosed only in small dribbles, and the flashes of humor that helped to make the THEMIS FILES books so appealing are absent here. The flashbacks were the most intriguing parts of A History of What Comes Next, but there are only a very limited number of those.
There are also a few chapters from the Tracker point of view, which tend to raise more questions than answers. Both groups, the Kibsu and the Tracker, are ruthless killers in pursuit of their goals, so it’s hard to really sympathize with anyone here. Complete answers about these people are never given, and the novel ends with the overall plot entirely unresolved. I was deeply disappointed at the time I finished the book (I really should have taken better notice of the “#1 in a new series” blurb). Neuvel also uses a quirky method of showing dialogue between characters, shades of the style he used in Sleeping Giants, but it fit better and made more sense there than it does here.
With the benefit of a little distance since I finished reading it, I’ve grown more forgiving of this book’s shortcomings, and more impressed with the amount of historic research Neuvel put into A History of What Comes Next. I don’t expect to ever love this series as much as I did the THEMIS FILES trilogy, but I’m quite curious about seeing where Neuvel goes with the next book in this new series.
I completely agree with your review. The story is intriguing, the plot line just forces you on and on. But the writing style reminds me of a person writing a telegram. It’s not a long book, and I’m afraid this might be one of those rare occasions in modern literature where the editor should have asked the author to ADD more meat to the bones.
that probably would have helped (though as you say, that should only be done rarely!)