Steal Across the Sky [NOOK Book]


The aliens appeared one day, built a base on the moon, and put an ad on the internet:

“We are an alien race you may call the Atoners. Ten thousand years ago we wronged humanity profoundly.  We cannot undo what has been done, but we wish humanity to understand it.  Therefore we request twenty-one volunteers to visit seven planets to Witness for us.  We will convey each volunteer there and back in complete ...

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Steal Across the Sky

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The aliens appeared one day, built a base on the moon, and put an ad on the internet:

“We are an alien race you may call the Atoners. Ten thousand years ago we wronged humanity profoundly.  We cannot undo what has been done, but we wish humanity to understand it.  Therefore we request twenty-one volunteers to visit seven planets to Witness for us.  We will convey each volunteer there and back in complete safety.  Volunteers must speak English. Send requests for electronic applications to"

At first, everyone thought it was a joke.  But it wasn’t.

This is the story of three of those volunteers, and what they found on Kular A and Kular B.

At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Nebula and Hugo-winner Kress (Dogs) presents a fascinating mystery in classic SF style. The alien Atoners come to Earth with a startling message: some 10,000 years ago, they committed a crime against humanity, kidnapping human beings and establishing colonies on 14 other planets. Now they are asking for 21 human Witnesses to travel to those distant worlds and uncover the nature of their crime. Cam, Lucca and Soledad head to the double planets of Kular A and Kular B, worlds where life is cheap but may not end at the moment of death. The knowledge that they bring back changes civilization dramatically. Though the novel is somewhat marred by an over-hasty conclusion that leaves a number of plot threads dangling, Kress's philosophical explorations will keep readers hooked and thoughtful. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Aliens calling themselves the Atoners have confessed to committing crimes against the human race thousands of years ago and have recruited a few individuals to travel to select worlds to "Witness" what they have done. Kress (Stinger) once again demonstrates her absolute mastery of alien-human encounters, fleshing out her characters as believable individuals while at the same time managing surprising plot twists and philosophical conundrums at every turn. For most libraries.

—Jackie Cassada
Kirkus Reviews
Kress (Dogs, 2008, etc.) returns to science fiction with this yarn about alien contact, genetic engineering and life after death. In the near future, aliens arrive on the moon and announce that they must make amends for a grave injustice they caused the human race 10,000 years ago. To that end, these Atoners need 21 Witnesses who will travel to seven planets seeded with human stock by the Atoners. In due course, Italian-English grad student Lucca and waitress Cam are chosen to visit Kular A and B respectively; mission controller Soledad remains in the mother ship and remotely pilots shuttles for Lucca and Cam. Cam encounters a monolithic, brutal and appallingly bloodthirsty culture where a game, Kulith-something like chess, monopoly and poker all rolled into one-determines everybody's destiny. On Lucca's planet, meanwhile-altogether a gentler, more peaceful place-evidence mounts that the people can perceive and converse with the recently dead . . . an explanation Lucca rejects. Once all the witnesses return to Earth, a compelling picture emerges: on half of the planets visited, the inhabitants can indeed see and chat with the recently dead. The Atoners explain that those inhabitants carry a gene that allows them to do so. On the other planets, and Earth, the Atoners deleted the gene. (They don't explain why.) On gene-less Earth, chaos ensues, as Kress skillfully explores the consequences of her ideas, evidently with sequels in mind. Arrestingly ambiguous and persuasively set forth-in the best science-fiction tradition, guaranteed provocative no matter what your personal opinions.
From the Publisher
Probability Space offers the pleasures, delivered, with all Kress’s unfailing intelligence and skill, of lovers united (though not without the possibility of future heartbreak), villains defeated (though other villains remain available and willing), actions completed (as much as they can be in a world of flux), and puzzles solved (except for the stubborn ones buried in the human, or alien, heart).” —Locus

“She is so deft in supplying background information that I had no trouble understanding the characters and the desperate situation they find themselves in....I look forward to reading more about this metaphorically rich variant in the social contract.” —New York Times on Probability Space

“Kress’s always excellent characters wrestle with a splendid array of puzzles and problems, human, alien, and scientific; another resounding success for this talented, sure-footed writer.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review) on Probability Sun

The Barnes & Noble Review
This 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. --Edward Champion

Edward Champion is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Los Angeles Times, and other distinguished and disreputable publications. He runs the cultural web site

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429967655
  • Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
  • Publication date: 2/17/2009
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 753,710
  • File size: 634 KB

Meet the Author

Nancy Kress is the author of twenty-two books: fourteen novels of science fiction or fantasy. She has won three Nebulas, a Hugo, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.  Kress is the monthly “Fiction” columnist for Writer's Digest Magazine. She teaches regularly at Clarion.

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Read an Excerpt

1:LUCCA “Well,” Cam said, rising on her toes and leaning toward the bridge’s main screen, “there they are.”
Lucca, despite the tightness in his throat, was startled into laughter. All the hoping to be chosen for this insane mission, all the agonizing over the Atoners’ unknown selection criteria, all the complicated family reactions and media furor and governmental observation, all the tension on the voyage out—and then Cam greets the alien star system with the most mundane understatement possible. And this was Cam, an Ameri­can who thrived on .amboyance like vineyards on sun. Although per­haps that was the point. Cam was making an uncharacteristic effort to be careful.
Soledad scowled. Lucca understood: Soledad had to be viewing the Kular System with mixed emotions. She was the alternate Witness, and neither Lucca nor Cam had died on the trip to Kular. Neither had fallen ill, gone insane, changed his or her mind. Cam and Lucca were going down to the twin planets below, and Soledad was not. Nonetheless, Soledad was generous enough to purge the scowl from her face and say, “I wish you both luck.” Lucca took her hand and squeezed it.
He didn’t touch Cam.
On- screen, Kular A and Kular B sparkled with the magni.cence of the remote. The binary planet system rotated around a common center of gravity, 1.4 AU from their G5 star. At some time in the unimaginable past they had formed from the same dust cloud, and their composition and gravity were similar. That much the Atoners had told their human surrogates.
Neither planet had any moons, although each would dominate the other’s sky. On Kular A, the pole end of the one giant continent was obscured by a massive dust storm, but the rest shone clear with blue seas and green .ora. Clouds drifted over the one inhabited conti­nent on B. Or maybe it wasn’t the only inhabited continent any longer. The Atoners had not, they said, visited Kular in .ve hundred Terran years. They would never visit it again. That’s what human Witnesses were for.
“Let’s go to the shuttle bay,” Cam said. More mundane speech. But she was right; commonplace words were what was needed right now. Procedural speech, unambiguous speech, careful speech that didn’t im­ply grandiose emotions that could only prove embarrassing later. Speech such as, for instance, I will love you forever.
“Yes,” Lucca said carefully, “let’s go to the shuttle bay.”
Soledad led the way; she was, as of the moment the two shuttles launched, mission coordinator. Cam followed eagerly, looking beautiful as ever but so different in the rough tunic, leggings, and boots that the Atoners had supplied, her wild black hair loose to her shoulders. He was used to her in inexpensive American clothes, trashy and sexy. But then, he probably looked just as outlandish to her. Only Soledad, her stocky body clothed in jeans and a sweater, looked normal.
Lucca trailed the two young women, glancing back once more at Ku­lar A. In a few more hours he would be down there, a Witness for the Atoners of Neu, a part of the aliens’ grand, remorseful, incomprehensible program to repent of long- ago sins against humanity, sins that humans themselves hadn’t even known had been committed.
It started to go wrong the minute the shuttle hit the atmosphere. Inser­tion was supposed to happen with the same minimum disruption to pas­sengers as all the other Atoner craft. Lucca didn’t understand Atoner engineering—nobody on Earth understood it—but he’d been assured that the shuttle would go down “smooth as good chocolate.” He’d been so startled to hear that phrase from the Atoner in the Dome on the moon—what did the Atoners know about chocolate? They must have learned the words from American tele vi sion. Smooth as good chocolate.
Lucca screamed as he was .ung violently against his webbed re­straints. The shuttle lurched crazily. On the commlink Soledad shouted, “Lucca! Lucca!” but he couldn’t answer her. Pressure closed his throat, burst capillaries in his eyes, took his ability to speak or move. I’m going to die—Ave Maria, piena di grazia...
Later, he would not remember that he had prayed.
Hewasn’t dead,even though the shuttle was now silent as the grave, and as dark. Lucca hung upside down in his webbing. His eyes burned and his left leg ached. But pressure no longer tortured him, and he was able to free his arms.
“Soledad?” he said aloud. No answer; the shuttle commlink wasn’t functioning. E che cazzo. He fumbled inside his rough woolen tunic for the portable commlink on his belt. “Soledad?”
Barely any delay; the Atoner ship empty of Atoners orbited only three hundred klicks above the planet. “Lucca! What happened? Are you all right?”
“The shuttle crashed, I think. Or not exactly crashed—” If it had, he’d be dead. “—but came down too hard. Something malfunctioned. Where am I?”
“About a thousand klicks north of where we’d planned. At the south­ern edge of the dust storm, actually. Are you hurt?”
“No, I... yes.” Lucca unfastened the last of his webbing and fell to the ceiling of the shuttle, which was now the .oor. It took all his effort not to scream again. “I think my leg is broken.”
Soledad swore in Spanish. “Shall I come and get you?”
“No!” Abort now? He had been on Kular less than ten minutes! “I’m going to use the med kit to set my leg. Call you when I have anything to report.” He thrust the commlink back into his hidden belt, his .ngers brushing bare skin. All at once that brought up an image of Cam, naked in his bunk aboard the ship, which in turn brought up an image of Gianna, equally naked.
Not now.
The med kit was stored during .ight in a metal cabinet now so twisted and smashed that Lucca couldn’t get it open. Several minutes of groping in the dark determined that. All at once panic, the genuine unlovely thing, split his heart down its center seam. He hit the controls for the shuttle door, then pulled and pushed at it, but it wouldn’t open. He was trapped, a sardine in an alien can whose workings he did not understand.
Cam carried a laser gun. Lucca could have had one as well, but he’d re­fused all weaponry even though he was far more pro.cient with .rearms than was Cam. The Atoners had agreed without comment. But the Aton­ers hadn’t imagined him trapped in a prison of their own making.
Or had they? Surely aliens with the technology for star travel must have made that technology trustworthy? If they could adapt ship con­trols and screens for human use, if they could send those humans light-years away in weeks, then they could . . .
No. This was an accidental malfunction.
He pushed away the paranoia and splinted his broken leg with the arm of his chair, which twisted off more easily than he expected. The Atoner implants in his body released painkillers and, he assumed, heal­ing meds as well. From a cabinet not twisted shut Lucca extracted and ate some protein bars. He checked the commlink, personal shield, and translator, each in its separate tiny pouch on the belt under his tunic. And then, since there was nothing else to do, he waited in the dark.
An hour passed.
Then another.
Or maybe not—it was dif.cult to judge in total darkness. But he knew the passage of time by the deepening blackness in his soul.
This was his real enemy, and it didn’t come from being trapped in an alien machine, on a mission he could never have imagined and had not even remotely expected to be chosen for. The depression was an old and accustomed companion, as well known as the feel of his growling stom­ach or the taste of his mouth when he awoke each morning. This gray fog, this low- grade fever of the mind, had been with him since child­hood, banished only for the three glorious years with Gianna. When that London lorry had rolled off St. Martin’s Lane, onto the sidewalk, and over his wife, the blackness had howled through Lucca like a typhoon, and had not abated for an entire year. But that shrieking grief had almost been preferable to the deadened aftermath.
He’d told the Atoners all of that during his recruitment interview, stum­bling through the simplest words in an attempt to be honest: “I am a wid­ower. My wife died in an accident three years ago. I become depressed.” Did the Atoners even value honesty? No one knew. They/he/she/it, who­ever was behind that impenetrable screen, had not commented. They won’t take me, Lucca had thought, and hadn’t known which was greater, his disappointment or his relief.
But they had taken him, and here he was, and not even a trip to the stars had banished the soul- blackness. Nor had that stupid affair with Cam, nor would anything ever except the impossible, having Gianna back.
Time dragged on. Eventually, he slept.
He woke to poundingon the hull, to pounding in his head, and to muf­.ed shouts. Kularians.
Lucca reached under his tunic and turned on both the translator and the personal shield. He felt hot and feverish—a side effect of the im­planted meds?—and the loud hammering of his heart rivaled the banging on the hull. He banged back.
The pounding stopped. After a while it resumed, steady and pur­poseful. The Kularians were, with excruciating slowness, cutting him out of the shuttle. Tools able to work metal. His .rst observation as a Witness.
A long time later, a meter- square of hull fell inward, clanging on the shuttle .oor. Lucca braced for the weapon that would follow, although of course nothing they could have would penetrate his shield. Would it be a spear? A club? An automatic rapid- .re gun? They had had ten thousand years, after all. The Atoners said that neither Kular A nor Kular B gave off electromagnetic signatures of any kind: no radio transmissions, no tele vi ­sion, no micro wave towers, nothing. Presumably that meant, at most, an early- industrial society. But on Earth, the Gatling gun, capable of getting off two hundred rounds a minute, had been patented in 1862.
A head poked through the opening in the shuttle. Just that—an un­protected head.
The head said something.
Lucca smiled. The translator needed native language, a reasonable amount of language, before it could decipher anything. Lucca pointed at his leg and made a grimace of pain. The head vanished.
A half hour later they had him out. By then his whole body ached, feverish. It was daylight, although with the blowing sand, that could have meant dawn or dusk or anything in between. Grit blew continuously against everything, coating shuttle and clothing and tools with coarse dust. There were eight Kularians, and they worked with a cooperative en­ergy that involved much arm waving, heated discussion, and foot stamp­ing. There didn’t seem to be a formal leader. At no time did they show anything that Lucca could interpret as fear. They seemed intensely inter­ested in getting a task done, and not at all hesitant about whether it should in fact be done in the .rst place.
Once they understood that Lucca’s leg was broken, they became more careful in handling him, although never really gentle. Finally, with a good deal more shouting and foot stamping, they loaded him onto a kind of travois, which at .rst Lucca thought they would pull themselves. But then someone led an animal from around the other side of the shuttle, a slow and seriously ugly beast like a shaggy elephant, ruminatively chew­ing God knew what. The animal’s yoke was tied to the travois, giving Lucca a clear view of its hindquarters. He saw no anus, but the beast smelled terrible. It lumbered forward, led by one Kularian, while four others walked protectively beside Lucca.
Lucca looked up into the face of the Kularian nearest him and smiled. Thank you.
The man nodded. A swarthy man with deeply weathered skin, a long black mustache, very dark eyes, and one front tooth painted dull red. The man wore a hat of animal skin with .aps now shoved onto the top of his head, tunic and leggings not unlike Lucca’s own although of coarser cloth, and clumsy skin boots. He carried nothing, which was unusual for a man in anything but an advanced culture. More primitive humans away from their homes usually had things that needed carry ing: weapons, baskets, stringed instruments. But this was indubitably a hu­man, just as the Atoners had said. A human being whose ancestors had been kidnapped from the plains of Earth and brought here ten thousand years ago, as part of the huge experiment for which the Atoners now dripped with inconsolable remorse. Excerpted from Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress.
Copyright © 2009 by Nancy Kress.
Published in February 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction
is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or
medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 14 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Barely Rates a Four. Could Have Been a Five

    This book starts out like a dynamo and then fizzles about halfway through. A group of individuals are selected by aliens called "the Atoners" to travel to other planets in the Universe to act as witnesses for the Earth. Apparently, the Atoners had visited Earth several thousand years ago and had done something to humanity. The witnesses will be able to determine exactly what happened by visiting these remote planets.

    The first half of the book focuses on three individuals; Cam, Lucca and Soledad. Cam and Lucca visited two sister planets while Soledad guides them from space. Lucca's planet seems to be inhabited by a bunch of wandering nomads, while Cam happens on a warlike planet. Lucca is injured in his landing and the nomads take him with them as part of their group. Meanwhile an evil king wants Cam dead and sends his emissary, Aveo to capture her. Cam and Lucca's tales are highly intriguing and I could have given the book five stars. However, once they learn what the Atoners had done, the second half of the book focuses on the three on Earth after they have returned months later. The author then introduces another of the witnesses, Frank, who is on a religious mission to make the Atoners give back to mankind what they had stolen.

    The second half of the book drags and has none of the real intrigue of the first half. Even with the author interspersed cute advertisements from the future and other little tidbits like memos from the President, the book is not saved from being painfully difficult to finish. By the time the ultimate resolution with the Atoners is reached the reader doesn't care anymore.

    A better book would have been to expand the tale of Cam and Lucca on their respective planets and possibly rewrite the second half of the book as a sequel.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 3, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    an exhilarating cerebral science fiction thriller

    The alien Atoners race came from deep space to establish a base on the earth¿s moon. They use the Internet to inform humanity that they committed a heinous crime against mankind ten millennium ago that they cannot rectify. Instead they ask for twenty-one English speaking volunteers to serve as witnesses to see the results of the crime they committed by witnessing and testifying first hand what has occurred on seven planets in which they seeded abducted earthlings. Safety is guaranteed to and from the planets visited. <BR/><BR/>Cam, Lucca and Soledad respond to the Internet advertisement and are selected by the Atoners as human surrogates. They are escorted to the moonless twin planets of Kular A and Kular B. The humans living on these orbs treat life as expendable as they believe that life does not end with death. What the three human visitors learn they bring back to an earth already reeling from the alien visitation.<BR/><BR/>STEAL ACROSS THE SKY is an exhilarating cerebral science fiction thriller that asks profound questions about humanity¿s development, religion, and social interaction through the Atoner (apropos descriptor for this group) intervention. The three earthlings represent mankind visiting two planets in which each orb can be seen in the sky of the other; while the Atoners remain mysterious almost Godly due to their superior technology, knowledge, and humble need to atone for their mistake. The residents of the two deep space orbs also seem real even as their culture (their existence actually) on the Kular twins is owed to the Atoners, which makes for a fascinating religious relationship between the settled and those who performed the deliverance. Nancy Kress provides plenty of action, but it is the thought provoking questions to include defining what a crime is that make this a great tale.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 6, 2009

    Just an uninteresting rehash of modern American life

    Although I loved "probability" books to a varying degree this was an utter waste of money. There is very little science fiction in the book and I'm too disappointed to write a lengthy treatise on a boring book.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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