Book Review: Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress
A few months ago at the annual Pacific Northwest Writers Association, I had the great please to meet with Nancy Kress and to moderate a session she gave discussing the differences between commercial and literary science fiction. In anticipation of that, I read and reviewed her Hugo nominated book, Beggars In Spain. While at the conference, I picked up one her more recent novels, Steal Across the Sky.
In Steal Across the Sky, an alien race has been found watching humanity from a hidden base on the moon, and when it is discovered, these ‘Atoners’ announce they need to atone for a crime committed against the world. Except for the cryptic communications the world receives, no one has ever laid eyes upon them. The Atoners won’t admit to what the crime is, and the only way they will, is to send small groups of untrained ‘witnesses’ out to other star systems to show them what they have done. These Witnesses must survive on these extra-terrestrial worlds long enough to bring home the details of what the aliens have done, and even then, no one may believe them.
It seems like it’s been quite a while since I’ve read hard core, non-YA, non-commercial, science fiction. The last one was probably Beggars in Spain. In fact, before sitting in on Kress’ presentation at the PNWA, I hadn’t really thought about there even being a difference between commercial and literary science fiction. Commercial sci-fi has a faster pace, with plenty of action and is usually plot driven. Literary sci-fi generally revolves more around an idea or a concept, or has a statement to make, and reads a little more slowly as the sentence structures are more dense, and the reader is forced to think a little more. In both Beggars and Steal Across the Sky, it is hard to miss the message Kress is trying to get across. In Beggars, Kress took issue with Libertarians. In Steal Across the Sky, religion and God is the target, more specifically, the Christian Evangelicals and the Christian God (at least in my opinion). In doing so, Kress makes the reader think about the consequences of knowing whether or not there is an afterlife, and whether or not that knowledge would somehow change the behaviors of people on Earth.
I enjoyed this book, but it is a more difficult read than I have recently grown accustomed. The book is divided into parts in such a way that it appears to be distinct novellas. It took a while, and a little faith, to realize that the parts would eventually come together. I had a bit of a hard time liking any of the characters, perhaps because they all seemed to be pretty weak, not the strong leads commercial sci-fi tends to drop onto the page so routinely.
For hardcore, literary science fiction aficionados, Steal Across the Sky should be required reading. For those more use to commercial or YA sci-fi, it’s a little more difficult to read. It’s not something to read when you want something light and fluffy or packed full of action (though there is some). If you fall somewhere in the middle, pick it up. At the very least, it will make you think, and that’s what good, literary sci-fi is supposed to do.