Review: Aliens apologize to Earth in Nancy Kress' Steal Across the Sky

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Of all the hot-button topics that SF can address, religion surely has to be number one. Consider Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958) as examples of provocative thought experiments about God and the afterlife.

Then add Nancy Kress' latest, Steal Across the Sky (Tor, $25.95) to that honor roll of theologically explosive novels.

Kress starts with a simple yet deep premise and then unfurls it to a wide, enigmatic banner. An alien race calling themselves the Atoners arrive at Earth in the year 2020. (In a clever conceit, first contact is achieved through a Web site!) They ask for volunteers to visit a variety of planets on which reside our human cousins, "kidnapped" and relocated by the Atoners themselves 10,000 years ago.

The Terran volunteers have one mission: to witness some specific wrongfulness inflicted millennia ago upon the human race. When this knowledge is finally gained, it proves to be sheer dynamite. I won't give away the surprise, except to say that the revelation regards the human soul.

So much for Part One of the book, which resembles a kind of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963) in reverse, or perhaps the anthropologically inclined novels of Michael Bishop and Ursula K. Le Guin, or even Gardner Dozois' Strangers (1978): a grim catalogue of cultural misunderstandings, culminating in a shocking truth.

Part Two documents the chaotic, paradigm-shattering effects the discovery has on human civilization—and on the private lives of the Witnesses who returned. Kress employs a clever "multimedia" approach, shifting among character points of view and fake "documents" to create a dazzling patchwork impression of global upheaval.

In the end, the ultimate nature of the revelation is left in some doubt, as is the future of humanity. But the lesson remains: Contact with the larger universe is bound to expose us to concepts our puny human brains are almost unable to process.