Yesterday’s Kin, by Nancy Kress

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Publication date – August 18, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Aliens have landed in New York.

A deadly cloud of spores has already infected and killed the inhabitants of two worlds. Now that plague is heading for Earth, and threatens humans and aliens alike. Can either species be trusted to find the cure?

Geneticist Marianne Jenner is immersed in the desperate race to save humanity, yet her family is tearing itself apart. Siblings Elizabeth and Ryan are strident isolationists who agree only that an alien conspiracy is in play. Marianne’s youngest, Noah, is a loner addicted to a drug that constantly changes his identity. But between the four Jenners, the course of human history will be forever altered.

Earth’s most elite scientists have ten months to prevent human extinction—and not everyone is willing to wait.

Thoughts: Aliens are here. They’re secretive, uncommunicative, and the further one goes from where they’ve landed, the fewer people even believe that they’re really here at all, because there’s no interaction and change in human lives. But one day, shortly after geneticist Marianne Jenner discovers something relatively minor but still interesting about human mitochondrial DNA, human and alien life come much closer than anyone ever expected.

Much of the science discussed in the book is presented in layman’s terms, and with the exception of the definition of a haplogroup, there was nothing that I didn’t understand the concepts behind nor found that they didn’t make sense. However, I admit that I’m an amateur geneticist and anthropologist at best, so people with more experience in these fields may find the presented scientific arguments somewhat lacking. I really can’t say. But for my part, and for what I suspect will be the vast majority of readers, the concepts are sound and present some interesting speculation about early humanity and diverging evolution. You come away from Yesterday’s Kin feeling a little bit more intelligent.

The plot hinges on a sort of spacial spore cloud that Earth is rushing toward, a spore cloud that wiped out the Deneb race (which is what the aliens are referred to as, despite not being from anywhere near Deneb, though this isn’t an oversight on the author’s part so much as an in-book mention about how names stick despite inaccuracy) and which they suspect will wipe out humanity. Thus they have come to warn humans about the threat and to work with them to study the spores and see if they can formulate a vaccine or treatment before it’s too late. Told alongside this is the story of Noah, Marianne’s adopted child who finds out that he shares something in common with the Denebs at a genetic level, and, having spent most of his life feeling like an outsider and finally turning to drugs for confidence, decides that he’s better off throwing in his lot with them and joining them when they leave Earth.

The twist ending… Actually, let me stop there. The ending has multiple twists; it’s not just one thing that you think will go in a certain way and then ends up surprising you. It’s about 3. Which was impressive on its own, since the whole story was dealing with multiple complicated issues. I’d started to suspect one of the twists about 2/3 of the way through. Another began to dawn on me thanks to a throwaway musing from early on; it took a while for me to see it for what it was, not just a throwaway thought process but an important setup in a tale that wastes no space on the unimportant. If you keep that in mind, one of the twists may not come as much of a surprise, but it is still interesting to see how it all plays out and ties together. I hesitate to give any details, though, because anything specifics would be spoilers and really would spoil some of this well-crafted story.

Yesterday’s Kin is a quick read, being more of a novella than a novel, and sadly I found that the book suffered for being so short. It got in all the salient plot points, and then some. It told an interesting story. But I couldn’t help but feel that it was a story that could have been done better justice by being expanded and lengthened. The characters were interesting enough that I wished Kress could have gone deeper into their presentation, and I’m definitely more curious about Deneb culture and language (those being 2 of my big passions to begin with; it was pretty much a given that by including realistic culture and language info that I’d enjoy Yesterday’s Kin). This, I’m sure, is entirely a personal thing. The book wasn’t bad for being short. I just wanted more. And I often feel that way about novellas because I’m much more used to reading longer things.

But if you’re looking for a quick short sci-fi read with a solid grounding in anthropology and biology, then I definitely recommend Yesterday’s Kin. Kress has some talent at cramming a complex issue into a short space, condensing events just enough to be concise while still being clear, and leaving every moment filled with appropriate tension and development. It’s a worthwhile read, and it’s bumped Kress up on the list of authors whose work I need to read more of.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

2 comments on “Yesterday’s Kin, by Nancy Kress

  1. As a student of biology currently I was actually really impressed and excited about how Kress handled the aliens genes :D and now you must read Beggars in Spain!!

  2. Pingback: September in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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