In recent years, I’ve hesitated to pick up a hard science fiction novel. The quantum physics one must be familiar with to enjoy the novel is so far beyond me that I feel I need a physics course or two as a prerequisite. It’s hard to appreciate a novel when you haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on.
Trust Nancy Kress to write a hard science fiction novella that is so clear, so precise and so well-written that the reader is never left behind. It is no surprise that After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall has been nominated for a Nebula Award this year. It has finely drawn characters (especially Pete, from the future, and Julie, from the present), and is based (at least in the sections set “during the fall”) on solid scientific principals with a touch of imagination — just enough to power the plot.
The novella opens with Pete just beginning what we learn is a Grab: he is transported to the past for only ten minutes, during which he must grab whatever he can and bring it into the future with him. The top priority is young children, unaffected by the radiation that has poisoned his generation and rendered it mostly infertile. Pete, a young teenager, arrives near the ocean, but his delight in the scene is erased when he realizes all that has been destroyed by the Tesslies. The Tesslies, we learn, are entities about which nothing is known except that they reduced humankind to a mere handful of people eking out an existence in the Shell, a habitat the Tesslies provided for them. Pete is able to grab a toddler and a baby and bring them back with him.
In the next few pages, we switch to an omniscient point of view, narrowing in on a plateau in Brazil where bacteria is mutating at the base of the roots of coffee plants. We learn in subsequent chapters that this mutation essentially converts the bacteria to alcohol, destroying the roots, destroying plant life — and the same mutation is inexplicably happening at the same time in disparate corners of the globe.
Then we’re in the present, where Julie is working with the FBI on the kidnapping of the toddler and baby. The mother’s husband was killed in the kidnapping — not by Pete, but by the machinery that allows him to travel in time and space, through which adults may not pass. She is, understandably, hysterical, though her hysteria takes a form that makes it impossible to communicate with her. Julie has been working on a series of kidnappings, mathematically predicting where and when the next one will take place, and this brings her work closer to solving the puzzle.
As the book proceeds, we learn much more about Pete and the small community in which he lives, and the manner in which the adults are trying to preserve the good and obliterate the bad in their young charges. More than that, they are trying to rebuild the human race from a very small population. The group is scientifically oriented; the children do not even understand the religious references and hymns that the oldest member of the group often uses. They keep watch for changes in the world outside their Shell, waiting for the day when it is safe to venture out again. The one factor no one quite understands is the Tesslies. Are they aliens who invaded our world? Are they human creations? It isn’t even known if they are machines or biological organisms. We never do learn quite what their nature is, which is the only fault I find with the novella.
We also learn more about Julie, who, it turns out, is pregnant from an affair she had with the FBI agent with whom she was working. She leaves her full-time project with the FBI and prepares herself for the child she always wanted, but she continues to do independent consulting. More, she continues to work on the algorithms that she was preparing to predict the kidnappings. One of her projects, for a professor seeking to make a name for himself, reveals that big changes are coming to the world — and not for the good.
We learn more about those changes, too. They are not limited to bacterial mutation, but include enormous changes in the behavior of the Earth’s tectonic plates, increased volcanic activity, and other signs that the Earth is becoming hostile to its human infection.
Kress effectively guides the flow of all three of these narrative streams, ultimately bringing them to a confluence that is both frightening and uplifting. Kress’s skill shows in the intricacy of the plotting, the scientific knowledge, and the strong characterization. Although I’ve read only three of the Nebula-nominated novellas so far, I have to think that After the Fall has an excellent chance of claiming the rocket ship.