Review: Yesterday’s Kin, by Nancy Kress

Posted: October 20, 2015 in Book Reviews, Science Fiction
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Yesterday's Kin, by Nancy Kress front cover(Yesterday’s Kin, by Nancy Kress. Tachyon, 2014, $14.95, 189 pp.)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Despite its nearly 200 pages, this is a novella rather than a novel. The story runs to only 35,000 to 40,000 words, but the publisher used a space-inefficient format to bump up the page count: a space-hog font (Georgia), a large point size with average leading (looks like 12/14.5) , and fairly generous margins; this works out to nine words per line; with approximately 24 or 25 full lines per page (out of 31, including dialogue and partial lines at the end of paragraphs), and that equals roughly 225 words per page (versus the 325 to 350 which are about average for a 5.5″x8.5″ page). Then consider that the book starts on page 11, that there are four blank pages following chapters that end on odd-numbered pages, and that the book appears to be printed on high-bulk paper (which increases width), and voila, a sub-40,000-word novella appears very much like a short novel of 60,000 words.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with this–such manipulation is quite common in the publishing industry–but it’s something to be aware of the next time you buy a book. If the font is blocky, it’s size large, the leading (spacing between lines) wide, and the margins ample, you likely won’t get as much story as you think you’re paying for.

But enough about the book’s layout–on to the tale itself.

As the book’s back cover puts it, “Aliens have landed in New York City. After several tense months, they finally reveal the reason for their arrival. The news is not good.” To be slightly more precise, they need the help of Earth to combat a problem that threatens both their extinction and that of the humans on Earth.

The tense story revolves around the experiences of geneticist Marianne Jenner, one of the scientists recruited to work to stop the potential extinction, and her three grown children, Noah (a deeply troubled drug addict), Elizabeth (an authoritarian Border Patrol agent), and Ryan (an environmental scientist). The tension in Yesterday’s Kin is a result  of the book’s “timelock” (a standard fictional device that gives protagonists a limited time to solve a problem), which provides a sense of urgency throughout the story. In addition to the timelock, Yesterday’s Kin features other sci-fi background staples, such as panspermia and faster than light flight, both necessary to the story.

It’s told in medium third person, with Marianne and Noah as the alternating point of view characters. This seems odd, but the reason for making Noah, a clearly secondary character, a p.o.v. character is revealed toward the end of the novella. Both characters are well described and their actions and reactions are believable, though as one might expect in a novella it’s not all that easy to care about them. This is especially so with Noah, who’s not as well developed as Marianne, and is simply not likable.

The positive aspects of Yesterday’s Kin are that the plot is, overall, plausible and gripping, the background in a future U.S.A. is all too believable, the dialogue seems realistic, and the characters are believable. The negative aspects are that one of the p.o.v. characters, Noah, is neither sympathetic nor interesting, and that it’s difficult to buy that aliens capable of faster than light interstellar flight, with a civilization tens of thousands of years old, are no more advanced in the biological sciences than 21st-century humans. Kress, however, quickly glosses over that problem, and once you get past it, if you even notice it, everything else falls into place.

Recommended, though it’s debatable whether a novella is worth $14.95.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals front cover

 

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