Nancy Kress’ Locus finalist If Tomorrow Comes (2018) follows up on Yesterday’s Kin, though works fine as a stand-alone. I hadn’t read Yesterday’s Kin, and thanks to the independent nature of If Tomorrow Comes, and some efficiently economical backstorying by Kress, I didn’t feel that lack at all.
Millennia ago, aliens took a group of humans from Earth and transplanted them to another planet, where they have since created a more peaceful, egalitarian, ecologically-responsible, and overall contented society than our own (though, as Kress is at pains to make clear, not utopian — they have crime, inequality, etc. — but they enact a far lesser toll). Ten years ago, in the events of Yesterday’s Kin, our genetic cousins arrived on Earth to warn of a deadly cloud of spores that has wiped out their only colony planet and threatens both Earth and their own home planet of Kindred. They also want help in creating a vaccine for the spores or some sort of solution. I won’t say much about what happened in the first book, save to note that while the spores didn’t wipe out Earth, they did have an impact, as did the arrival of the Kindred, who left behind plans for a starship when they departed.
Now, as If Tomorrow Comes begins, the starship has been built, it is ten years later and a small crew is leaving Earth for Kindred on a diplomatic mission. Unfortunately, things go horribly awry pretty immediately upon arrival in Kindred space and the diplomatic mission, greatly reduced in number, becomes marooned on Kindred and transforms into a dual mission of survival and rescue. That latter is because the spore cloud they’d been expecting to hit Kindred in years is actually only weeks away, putting the Earth people, working with some Kindred, into a desperate race to manufacture a vaccine that might be able to save at least some of the planet. All this even as refugees (some merely hopeful, others perhaps more violent) camp in ever-larger numbers outside the compound while inside, internal divisions and cross-cultural misunderstandings/conflicts threaten to explode.
Main POV characters in If Tomorrow Comes include Leo Brodie, a young sniper and the sole non-Ranger member of the military; the doctor Salah Bourgiba, Marianne Jenner, a scientist whose son Noah left Earth with the Kindred a decade ago; and Austin, a 13-year-old Terran who came to Kindred as a child with his mother Kayla (who hates Kindred and suffers from depression) and his aunt Isabelle (who becomes an object of romantic interest for both Leo and Salah). Other characters include Owen, the Ranger commander; soldiers Zoe Berman, Mason Kandiss, and Branch Carter; and another doctor, Claire Patel.
Leo is by far the most compelling character, and the one who takes the longest journey. He’d washed out of Ranger training when he went through it with Owen, and that, combined with his being the sole non-Ranger, and his youth, has him start out a bit unsure of himself and hesitant to take an active role (his belief he’s not cut out for “leadership” is one reason he dropped the Ranger program). But his measured demeanor, his sincere compassion for the Kindred facing the end of their world, and his curiosity and willingness to learn more about Kindred culture make him an appealing, engaging character to follow and his slow bloom into becoming a meaningful actor is a nice reward for the reader.
The rest of the characters range from solid to relatively shallow. I wished, for instance, we had seen more of Isabelle outside of the object/cause of petty jealousy between the two men or that Owen’s storyline had been less familiar, over the top, and much more set-up. Austin, meanwhile, is a mostly annoying character whose immaturity leads to some near-tragic events, and while his actions/thinking were not wholly implausible for a 13-year-old who feels out of place and disrespected, there were some moments I had a hard time buying. The rest of the characters were mostly undeveloped, which was too bad as several had some rich potential.
The plotting surrounding the race to devise a vaccine and the concerns over violence from those camped outside the compound was well done — urgent and tense throughout. Unfortunately, though, the overall narrative was greatly marred for me by some major plot conveniences that felt more than a little cheap and by one storyline that hewed too close to cliché, or at least, felt neither earned nor plausible.
The Kindred society itself was fascinating, and I would have liked to have seen more interaction with it. Sadly, thanks to the premise, the action is strictly limited to the compound where they’re working on the vaccine, so nearly everything we learn about the Kindred world comes from conversation, with one of the Terrans who has lived there (usually Isabelle) or one of the few Kindred we see for more than a moment or two, explaining how things work. As noted, it was all intriguing, but coming second-hand as it does dilute a bit of the impact. Somewhat similarly, I wish we had learned more about Kindred via more interactions between Terrans and actual Kindred versus between Terrans and transplanted Terrans. There’s a bit of this sort of thing when Leo tries to enlist some Kindred to assist in security, and those few scenes only highlighted for me just how much more such encounters could have enhanced the narrative.
In the end, I found the world itself fascinating, the attempt to craft a vaccine in time compellingly tense, the themes intriguing, and the major character engaging and strongly drawn. But the undeveloped or trite nature of many of the other characters, the limited space for true cross-cultural contact, and the reliance on overly convenient plotting worked too much against If Tomorrow Comes.