Another of my Interzone reviews, from 2012
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall
Nancy Kress, Tachyon Publications, 192pp, pb
Daily life shows us over and over that there is no such thing as a reliable, infallible witness. Ten different people may see the same event but they will interpret it in very different ways. Critically, they will read it through a set of filters based on their own knowledge and understanding of the world. The event itself remains beyond their perceptions, glimpsed but at best only partially understood and therefore open to misinterpretation. This inherent failure of understanding lies at the heart of Nancy Kress’s latest short novel.
The title may seem cumbersome but it captures not only the essential nature of the story but also something of the rhythm of its telling as three strands of plot drawn from either side of a cataclysm are braided together more and more tightly until the catastrophe itself is revealed. However, to begin with, the precise nature of this disaster is unclear, although the Survivors themselves blame mysterious beings they call the Tesslies (this because they appear in a shower of sparks). Although the Tesslies rescued the Survivors and placed them in a large, mysterious building the Survivors call the Shell, they have for the most part left the survivors to get on with their lives. The Tesslies are rarely seen and their motives are inscrutable.
The community has struggled to survive and its long-term prospects are not good. Although children have been born to the original Survivors, they have proved to be sickly. Few have survived to adolescence and not all of them are fertile. There is deep concern as to whether the community can have any long-term viability given it is so small. Its material and intellectual resources are pitifully few, and it is difficult to imagine what the group might usefully achieve in the future, assuming it can ever leave the Shell. Nonetheless, McAllister, the group’s de facto leader, is determined that the group, and humanity, will survive. The recent provision of the Grab mechanism has allowed the Survivors to travel into the past, where they steal food and other goods, but also children, girls in particular, in an effort to ensure the future prospects of the community. This poses particular moral questions for the reader; for the community members it is a purely pragmatic decision, given they already know that many will die in the events to come, so their actions are not so much theft as rescue.
Prior to the disaster, Julie Kahn, a brilliant mathematician, is working with the FBI, trying make sense of a series of kidnappings. She has linked these with some bizarre thefts from retail stores and developed an algorithm to predict where the next event might occur in the hope of preventing them. However, it is while working on a completely unrelated project that Julie, now with a baby of her own, realises that the natural world itself is under threat, something readers will already know, as they have watched bacteria mutate unnoticed in the roots of the world’s plants and the earth itself shift in unusual ways. Believing herself to be in danger as a result of having this knowledge, Julie and her young daughter go on the run, heading towards the predicted site of the next theft.
We know of course that disaster will occur; much of the novel’s fascination lies in watching how the various plotlines converge, to see how the events that, in 2035, are believed to have taken place in 2014 will actually turn out to have happened, and in particular to see how Julie will respond. Her algorithm can predict the next appearance of the Survivors but cannot interpret the rationale behind their actions, any more than the Survivors themselves understand the actions of the Tesslies. By the same token, the Survivors’ actions may seem perverse to outsiders although they know precisely what they’re doing. Even explanations fail when given in the heat of the moment and mediated by people who have no context for what is being said.
Kress also offers a portrayal of the human will to survive, so strong and powerful that people will go to extraordinary lengths to secure a future, however flimsy its prospects might be, while also showing how such qualities emerge from a pragmatic engagement with ordinary life. Both Julie and McAllister are strong and thoughtful women, determined to do what the situation demands, no matter how difficult the decisions they have to make. This is a short novel that asks tough questions and offers no easy answers. The paring away of the text focuses on the reader’s attention with brutal intensity on the ethical and ecological issues that lie at this novel’s heart.