An Alien Light by Nancy Kress
I went into An Alien Light blind. I did read the back-cover, but it doesn’t give away much:
“She has become one of our very best!” –James Patrick Kelly, Co-author of DINOSAUR BEACH
With her first novel, THE PRINCE OF MORNING BELLS, Nancy Kress burst upon the Fantasy and Science Fiction scene like a new comet. Two more fantasies followed, and the Nebula award-winning story “Out of All Them Bright Stars.”
Now, in the masterpiece her talent promised, Kress explores a theme worth of SF’s grand tradition. In a sweeping novel of destiny and betrayal, she takes us to a faraway planet where a cruel experiment is underway, an experiment designed to study the strangest species in the universe, the only space-faring race that never lost its taste for shedding its own blood—
Frankly, I’m thinking all back covers should operate this way. We get the theme and the tone, and almost nothing more. There’s nothing to misconstrue or misinterpret. With something so sparse and to-the-point, bad back copy almost can’t exist.
More than that, I went into An Alien Light without expectations. Everything was new information, and at no point was I disappointed or distracted by differences between my expectations and the story.
I’m positive I would have liked the book even if I’d read traditional back-copy, even if I’d read a review that laid out the catalyst of the story and the major players. But I think the publisher knew what they were doing with the sparse introduction. I’m going to follow their lead and try to help you determine whether or not you’ll enjoy An Alien Light without giving away almost anything more than that back cover.
An Alien Light is a character-driven hard sci-fi novel that, I would argue, doesn’t have a plot so much as a premise. The first couple of chapters are dedicated to world-building, getting to know our character(s), and getting everyone and everything into position. Once everything is set, the intrigue of the book rests on how the characters respond to this basic premise.
I hope that’s clear.
If it’s not, here’s a really cheap example of what I would consider a ‘premise’ story:
Two coworkers desperately competing for the same promotion get trapped in an elevator together.
Any intrigue in this situation comes from the premise: they know each other, they view each other as rivals, and now they’re trapped in close proximity in a stressful situation for an unknown amount of time.
If this premise interests you, there’s already plenty of intrigue: Will they try to rattle each other? Will they put aside their rivalry to get out of the elevator? Will the stress make one of them crack, and will the other find that sympathetic or contemptible? You get the picture. You can’t spin that premise into a traditional plot without a lot of work, but you can easily spin it into a story with plenty of intrigue and emotion—so long as the reader cares about the premise.
An Alien Light has a shocking number of bad reviews. I don’t think I’ve ever thought so highly of a book that has been so harshly panned by reviews. I stayed up late last night trying to figure out why, and I think this is the answer. If you care about the premise enough to get lost in speculation about how things will play out and then be delighted and horrified by how they actually do play out—no brainer. This is a killer book.
If you don’t care about the premise—well, I would assume you’d find it boring and be confused by the reviews declaring their love. Which miiiight cause you to be much harsher in your review than is honest. Yeah, that’s right; I’m taking to you “BullDog.” You know who you are.
So the theme is human violence, the tone involves “cruel experimentation,” and the central intrigue comes from a premise rather than a plot.
That’s an honest if vague setup, and yet a little unfair. I mentioned that this is a character-driven novel, and I think that needs stressed a little. An Alien Light is very human. In many ways, it’s about the paradoxical and ever-changing nature of life. And while human violence and experimentation is on the table, it’s neither needlessly gruesome nor fetishized. It’s just part of the premise.
For what it’s worth, I have an aversion to strong—especially systematized—depictions of violence. I found this book heart-poundingly intense at times, but at no point did it make me want to turn away.
Okay, with that down, I have a few specifics that I don’t think will detract from the story to whet your appetite. An Alien Light has:
Strong female characters in abundance
Cultures where women (at least in most castes) are just straight-up equal to men of the same caste. For example, it was so refreshing to see a woman military leader whose leadership felt 100% natural. Like, no one undermined her, and she wasn’t clearly over-compensating. She’s just a leader. Nbd.
Lesbian relationships existing without any sort of societal push-back
A woman who recognizes a bad relationship and firmly closes that door without second thoughts. Honest to cod. It was like spotting a unicorn.
Okay, now the caveats:
An Alien Light’s opening is the weakest part of the story.
First there’s the world-building. I like it, I honestly do, but it’s a little confusing. As this is a hard sci-fi novel, I gave it being confusing a pass. It’s okay if I don’t entirely understand how the rotating stars and moons affect the day/night cycle and how that day/night cycle affects the local flora and fauna so long as I understand why those things affects the story. Which is pretty damn clear. But you have to decide if you care to understand the world-building or not, and until it levels out you might find yourself going ‘huh?’ and backtracking a little.
Then there’s the character-building. For the first few chapters, all of the characters feel almost like caricatures of themselves. Like, in an effort to make those first few chapters punchy enough to hold your attention, Kress dialed them all up to 11. I don’t think it works. It’s not too bad, but it is enough that I would find it wearisome for the entire length of a 350 page novel. Luckily, it’s extremely temporary. Less than 30 pages in and it felt like they settled down and centered themselves.
Some folks have taken umbrage with An Alien Light because they said it felt ‘fantasy’ rather than ‘sci-fi.’ As I traditionally love fantasy novels, and have much less experience with sci-fi novels, I’m a bad person to push back against this assertion. I will say, however, that the human protagonists of this story are at a fantasy-level of human advancement—knives, swords, tribalistic societies, etc. I personally don’t think swords flashing about undermines its status as a sci-fi novel, but if you think that would bother you, heads up.
I also feel like sci-fi novels are much less likely to be premise-driven and character-driven, which might be part of this hang-up. So if you like your sci-fi epic with delicate politics and universe-spanning plots—move on.
Finally, there is sexualized violence in An Alien Light. There are a few attempted rapes, some explicitly violent. Perhaps more gutting, there is a very young woman (who might very-well be considered a child by our standards, the novel isn’t entirely clear) who is a part of, essentially and for lack of a better term, the ‘whore caste.’ She has lead a hard life where she had no choice but to be used and abused by soldiers and clearly exhibits signs of something like PTSD. She’s an incredible character, and I think Kress did well in her characterization, but if you’re extra sensitive to the thought-space of a woman who has suffered sexual violence, it might be hard to read her chapters.
If this review has left you curious, give An Alien Light a read. In my opinion, it’s one of the top-five books I’ve read for ForFemFan, but I understand that this is very likely not a book for everyone.
Cover art by Sonya Lamut and Nenad Jakesavic: