Steal Across the Sky

Posted by : atcampbell | On : June 21, 2010

Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress

The North Reading Group met on June 21, 2010, to discuss Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress, published in 2009.  The meeting was held at the Millwood branch of the Austin Public Library.  Eight people attended, and comments were received by three others who were unable to attend.  Of these, 9 had read Kress before, 11 started the book, and 8 finished it.

Everyone who was familiar with Kress’ writing was complimentary of her earlier works, especially the novellas and short stories.  She has won 4 Nebula awards and two Hugos, among others.  Reaction to this book, though, was mixed.  One reader commented that the core concept was implausible.  Aliens arrived (“The Atoners of Neu”), and although not revealing themselves, took out ads on the internet asking for applicants to be “Witnesses” concerning an unspecified ancient wrong done by them to humans for which they wished to atone in an unspecified manner.  From a worldwide competition, 21 volunteers were selected.  Other than that most of them were Americans, there was no discernable pattern.  The most common objection mentioned by readers was that none of the principal characters were especially likeable and it was hard to identify with or care about them.

Most of the readers were willing to accept the premise that aliens might not act in ways that seem logical to us, and alien concepts of remorse and atonement could be whatever the author wanted.  So nearly everyone liked the first part of the story.  The 21 winners were split into 7 teams of three, each sent to a binary pair of planets that the aliens had set up as an experiment but not since visited.  The story followed one group, Cam O’Kane (beautiful blonde of moderate intellect), Lucca Madero (cynic from a wealthy family), and Soledad Arellano (carefully non-stereotypical Latina) to visit the planets Kular A and B.  Cam landed on Kular A, Lucca crash-landed on Kular B, and Soledad stayed in the ship to handle communications and provide assistance if needed.  The Witnesses were not told what to look for, being told that they would know it when they saw it.  Cam became friendly with an interpreter named Aveo, who attempted to teach her about Kulith, a philosophical game used on Kular A to guide personal behavior.  Cam did discover a remarkable trait the inhabitants possessed.  The inhabitants of Kular B did not exhibit this ability. When Cam was transported to Kular B along with Aveo to rescue Lucca, Lucca observed the  phenomenon, but placed an entirely different interpretation on it.

The witnesses all returned to earth and reported their observations.  The aliens explained that they had made a genetic modification to humans 10,000 years earlier, removing an ability from those on earth.  The aliens had set up the 7 pairs of planets with unmodified humans on one and modified ones on the other.  Never explained were reasons the aliens felt remorseful about this, what they meant by atonement, or any details about why they had done it to begin with, but the Witnesses were encouraged to tell everybody on earth what they had discovered.  Because some of the public reacted negatively to the revelation, the government offered a Witness protection program.  Some of the witnesses attempted to resume their normal lives, with varying success.  Cam became a video celebrity telling her story, Lucca holed up in Canada, and Soledad’s role was increased–along with a stereotypical religious witness named Frank Olenik and a gay friend named Fengamo.  The last section of the book involved an attempt to learn more about the aliens and an explanation of the form “atonement” was taking.

Several of the readers lost interest in the story after the Witnesses’ return to earth.  One comment was that it became “too anthropological.”  Another said the story “died on the vine” because none of the issues raised in the story were wound up in a logical or satisfactory way.  One comment was that “it was self-contained” and was “an interesting place even lacking interesting characters.”  Another was “good writer, interesting even with a slender foundation.”  The general consensus was that Kress is a very good writer but this was not her best work.

After the meeting, the group enjoyed dinner at Rudy’s.

—Tom Sciance