Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Nancy Kress has fast become one of my favourite science fiction authors. Like most authors I’m a fan of, her works don’t always make it on my favourites list, but they always make me think. Kress often explores how technology affects humanity’s relationship with nature and our own biology. She continues to play with these themes in After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall while adding in an ineffable alien menace and the paradoxes of time travel.
The title explains the structure: this story takes place across three times. In 2035, 26 humans survive in an artificial Shell, protected from the inhospitable Earth. They believe the Earth was ruined (and they were saved) by aliens they call Tesslies. With most of the children and adults too damaged by radiation to produce healthy offspring, the Tesslies have furnished them with machinery that allows them to travel back in time. Since adults can’t go through the portals, however, teenagers like Peter have to go on these Grabs, which seem to occur at random intervals and send them to stores or houses. In the stores, they grab as many supplies as they can before their allotted ten minutes expire. In the houses, they look for the one thing the Shell desperately needs: fresh blood, in the form of babies they can raise as their own.
In 2013/2014, a mathematician has noticed a pattern to a string of FBI kidnappings. She constructs an algorithm for the agency, hoping she can predict when the next kidnapping might occur. Her algorithm is never quite accurate enough, and eventually she leaves the investigation. It’s not until the very end, when Julie is most desperate, that she finally manages to perfect the program and ambush a time-traveller.
Meanwhile, Kress provides omniscient glimpses at mysterious mutations in bacteria and earthquakes beneath the sea floor. The implication is that these events are related, perhaps even artificial, and combine somehow to cause the eponymous Fall. McAllister and the other surviving adults in the Shell have taught Peter and the others that the Tesslies are responsible for both the Fall and the Shell. However, there’s no clear evidence for this, and as Peter learns by the end, it’s possible that humans themselves caused this to happen.
I'll return to that in a moment, but first I need to talk about the post-apocalyptic future Kress has created. I love the idea of the Shell and the way she has implemented it. Granted, it seems like even 26 healthy individuals would be hard-pressed to preserve humanity without some serious genetic issues developing. Nevertheless, they give it the old college try. Kress conveys the desperation and isolation that must develop in this community, when its children are damaged, some of them deformed and sick, and its adults are slowly dying off one-by-one.
The loss of knowledge and experiences is particularly striking. Peter has learned, thanks to his rudimentary education, about things like stars, atoms, and planets. But he has no conception of television or photography. On one Grab, he manages to steal a digital photo frame, and he sits for hours just watching the three pre-loaded promotional pictures, fascinated by this magic. It’s a small thing, but it allows Kress to show us how quickly we can lose something when we don’t have it in front of us: one generation can forget what moving pictures are like if we lose the ability to screen them. Life in the Shell is a bizarre mixture of roughing it, complete with farming, and scavenging, through the unpredictable and dangerous Grabs. There’s very little in the way of culture, leisure, and therefore, I wonder, what of civilization?
It’s not up to Kress to make a realistic attempt at preserving civilization though. That would be the Tesslies’ responsibility; hence, perhaps Kress also means to show that their grand plan (experiment?) is doomed to failure. The ending is ambiguous. Although the Shell dissolves at the end, leaving the survivors on a rehabilitated planet with all they supposedly need to start over, Kress does not provide any closure. Perhaps they succeed; perhaps they die again. The “after the fall” portion of the book is a reminder that there aren’t really endings (aside, maybe, from extinction), just new epochs.
I really like the premise of the story, and I think Kress handles time travel very well. Normally, it bothers me when authors take a “meanwhile, in the past” approach to time travel—that is, treating the past and present/future as if they are happening concurrently. There is usually little reason for this. In this case, however, Kress makes it clear that the time travellers have no control over the Grabs. Either the Tesslies or their machinery determine when the Grabs open for them and the time period to which the Grabs send them. These times/destinations are not random, because Julie recognizes a pattern and exploits her algorithm to eventually meet Pete. Kress never explains if the Tesslies have created this pattern deliberately for some reason, or if it is merely a byproduct of time travel. In general, there is a distinct lack of exposition. We never meet the Tesslies—not truly—and we never learn their motives, beyond what the survivors speculate. We never learn why, if they are interested in helping humans, they don’t use time travel to fix the past (perhaps it’s just not possible). Kress puts the reader in the position of the survivors: full of questions, short of answers. This could have been frustrating, so it’s a testament to her skill that she manages to create a story engaging enough to make you forget your relative ignorance of what’s going on.
The theory behind the Fall that the survivors eventually embrace does not sit well with me. Though they long assume the Tesslies were responsible for humanity’s destruction, Peter’s encounter with Julie suggests humanity is responsible. Eventually they raise the idea of the Gaia hypothesis, that the Earth is itself a living organism created by the interdependency of all the organisms inhabiting it. According to this hypothesis, the Earth is a deliberately self-regulating system. It’s intriguing, but it also feels out of place. The “during the fall” chapters that explain what is happening beneath Julie’s nose present the earthquakes and bacterial mutations as apparently random. And if they aren’t, it seems like a stretch that the Earth can “choose” to wipe out humanity for the greater good. Maybe I’m just not thinking of the system in abstract enough terms—but if that’s the case, I would have liked Kress to put more effort into persuading me.
If Kress has latched on to the Gaia hypothesis as a way to challenge how humanity is stewarding the Earth, then I can still agree with After the Fall’s themes, even if I’m not particularly fond of how Kress establishes it. Sustainability has put in an appearance in many of her other works. Here, Kress emphasizes how humans, despite all our advances in technology, are still at the mercy of nature and natural disasters. (She does cheat a little. Yellowstone and the tsunami from the Canary Islands earthquake do a number on the United States, but she has to cheat and use a resulting nuclear launch to trigger the global apocalypse.) If the Tesslies hadn’t stepped in, humanity would likely have gone extinct. I like it when science fiction encourages us to consider the ecological implications of trends in society.
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall has all the hallmarks I have come to expect from a Kress story. It’s clean, compelling, and its characters have a good balance of vices and virtues. The amount of thought she has put into constructing her futures and the scenarios that have brought them about is obvious from the detail and structure of the book. All this contributes to a fulfilling story, and even if I can’t endorse every aspect, it still deserves that Hugo nomination. This is one for any fan of Kress to check out, and if you are new, this would be a fine place to start.