Steal Across the Sky

By NANCY KRESS

The latest volume from the prolific, award-winning science fiction author Nancy Kress bombards the reader with big ideas aplenty — but only a genre-addled birdbrain would pigeonhole Kress as yet another concept-slinging roughneck kicking around speculative turf. Her casually viscous prose smolders with a smooth, page-turning magma flow, unearthing persecuted individuals who live without sleep, bloodthirsty dogs, and morbid murders of bioengineered ballerinas. But all this imaginative bedrock gives way to deeper questions lurking beneath the tough crust of her stories. Kress mishmashes mystery with morality but never entirely drops her poker face, avoiding the literal-minded devil that lesser authors hide in too many details.

Steal Across the Sky borrows some ideas that Kress explored in her previous novel, Probability Moon. A team of diplomats is once again sent to another world with limited instructions. The difference here is that Steal‘s stout adventurers are young and lack expert qualifications — something that the careful reader will catch onto long before the team itself does — and that, where the prior novel’s characters employed telepathy, the parallel talent here involves communicating with the dead. Instead of the “Reality and Atonement” governmental branch, we’re given an unseen alien race named the Atoners. The Atoners do not stroke white cats in latent lunar lairs, nor do they appear especially interested in epistolary blackmail, but they do hope to correct a mistake they made 10,000 years ago through a very unusual agreement.

The pact is this: 21 volunteers — referred to as Witnesses — must visit seven planets and stick around until they have “witnessed something that needs witnessing.” This quest for the enigmatic smoking gun is presented through chapters containing close third-person perspectives, each devoted to individual characters, as if to suggest that humanity remains afflicted by superficial and solipsistic impulses. Additional chapters are dedicated to satirical ephemera reminiscent of an Eric Kraft novel — a New Yorker cartoon, a crossword puzzle, even a Writer’s Digest article — all referencing how the media tracks ongoing developments in unhelpful ways. We learn through these quite funny interstitials that, while the U.S. president is a woman and eBay is still around, Oprah continues to ask irrelevant questions of her guests in 2020. (Whether her book club still exists is anyone’s guess.)

The great joke here is that, on the cusp of a major cultural awakening, humanity remains ensnared by fickle celebrity culture, youthful entitlement, and a media system that would rather distort than discover. As evidenced by the Why Wait? Society, the current impatience for immediate results has escalated. Dare to introduce a concept like the “second road” — initially described as “a belief in an afterlife, probably the single largest aberration of the human mind” — and deadlier instincts burst to the surface.

So perhaps the perceptions of these amateur Witnesses are just as “savage” as the presumed primitives on Kular A, one of the planets where our heavily protected heroes touch down. But in her character accounts, Kress doesn’t provide us with too many specifics. We know more about plants mating in a royal courtyard than we do about the Kularian natives. We learn that the Kularian men each have one red-painted tooth and that most of them wear red skirts. And although it isn’t overtly stated, we get the sense that they are humanoid, but they kill children, engage in pedophiliac relationships, maintain a slave system, and participate in kulith — a deadly game reminiscent of those outlined in Iain M. Banks’s Player of Games.

But this sketchiness is deliberate, for the Witnesses’ perspectives are often compromised by an integral short-sightedness. One’s senses may depart, just as they do for a widower named Lucca, who loses his smell and his sight while waiting on the planet for further instructions. And perhaps this myopia extends into the ideological. Colonialism and racism are suggested when a Kularian clings to one Witness’s back “like a humiliated monkey.” One Kularian’s eyes are compared to “muted stars in an evening sky,” but the appropriately named and certainly not okay Cam O’Kane sees only “the bleakest things she had ever seen” through her telephoto vantage point. Upon returning to Earth, Cam becomes a media starlet, muted and childlike in insight but constantly giving interviews and working with a shy secretary who is “two years older than her but seemed to Cam like a child.” The media-industrial complex is so imposing that another lonely witness named Soledad is forced to undergo plastic surgery to evade reporters.

A government contact named Jim Thompson suggests Kress’s commitment to tough pulp subplots. And the novel’s brisk six-sided atmosphere often rolls out a number of dicey operators, such as the decidedly nonathletic Carl Lewis, a freelance journalist who offers to lay down a remarkably hefty cash sum for an exclusive interview with one of the Witnesses, and James Hinton, a seemingly debonair stranger who helps Soledad evade the press. Not only does Kress have her characters address these implausibilities with natural suspicion, but she also introduces a Catholic character named Frank to remind us that accepting a changing world is often a question of faith. This is a faith that the reader must likewise have, for the novel’s many twists and turns often causes one to wonder precisely where Kress is heading.

Because the author spends so much of her time cross-stitching together these threads, her prose is often pulpish and workmanlike. Repeated references to Lucca’s vineyards grow tedious. As Cam attempts to understand the violence on Kular A, she’s compared to “an unbroken animal that ran blindly around a room, knocking over furniture and slamming into walls.” During a cross-country rush, a car radio plays “a succession of country-and-western stations, each swelling, sustained, and then fading out, like flowers. Or lives.” When Soledad thinks of her mystery man, Kress writes, “She was a receiver tuned to one frequency: James. James. James.”

Such sentences may seem ponderous even within the hard flow of melodrama. But it all seems to work in Kress’s hands — perhaps because the rompish tone sustains the illusion that the reader is enjoying a pedestrian thriller. It’s fitting that Kress doesn’t answer all the questions she raises. Like the tales collected by Sabine Baring-Gould, her novel offers something in the nature of a curious myth for our present age.