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Steal Across the Sky, Nancy Kress

2011/03/30

A while back I read an article which mentioned a science fiction novel where aliens contacted humans via a message posted on the Internet. The origins of this article now escape me, but I finally got around to picking up the book, “Steal Across the Sky.” And while it does include the aforementioned plot, it also addresses a number of different issues, including those of culture, ethics, and sociology.

They thought it was a hoax at first, another Internet conspiracy: a website written by an alien race who claim that they wronged humanity several thousand years ago, and now wish to atone for their wrongdoing. To do this, they are accepting applications for twenty-one volunteers to be transported to seven other planets, where they will “witness” for the aliens. And of course, thousands of people apply through the website. Of the twenty-one people who are selected, the novel focuses on a trio who are sent together to the Kular system — Lucca and Cam are the witnesses on the ground, while Soledad is their navigator and primary contact person while on the planets. The populations of these planets are divergent humans — planted there by the aliens prior to the act for which they wish to atone, and left to evolve. Neither Lucca or Cam are prepared to enter the cultures of the people in which they have been placed — Cam involuntarily shoots a soldier during negotiations, and Lucca witnesses what seems to be a mercy killing. And as the days progress, though they slowly come to understand the language, the customs and rituals elude them until it may be too late.

One of the things that I found fascinating about this book was that it presented two alternate views of humanity as they might have developed on other planets. One being what we would consider a primitive, even barbarian culture, but with senses keenly attuned to the supernatural, and the other a strict military society where even a simple board game is far more than it seems. Also interesting but not completely foreign is the reaction of our human society after the witnesses return from their journeys, the political entanglements which follow, the celebrity cult which springs up around them. A fresh approach to the “first contact” story which is so prevalent in science fiction.

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