Author: Nancy Kress
Genre: Pre/Post/Apocalyptic, Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Publication Date: April 2012
Paperback: 192 Pages
The year is 2035. After ecological disasters nearly destroyed the Earth, 26 survivors — the last of humanity — are trapped by an alien race in a sterile enclosure known as the Shell. Fifteen-year-old Pete is one of the Six — children who were born deformed or sterile and raised in the Shell. As, one by one, the survivors grow sick and die, Pete and the Six struggle to put aside their anger at the alien Tesslies in order to find the means to rebuild the earth together. Their only hope lies within brief time-portals into the recent past, where they bring back children to replenish their disappearing gene pool. Meanwhile, in 2013, brilliant mathematician Julie Kahn works with the FBI to solve a series of inexplicable kidnappings. Suddenly her predictive algorithms begin to reveal more than just criminal activity. As she begins to realize her role in the impending catastrophe, simultaneously affecting the Earth and the Shell, Julie closes in on the truth. She and Pete are converging in time upon the future of humanity — a future which might never unfold. Weaving three consecutive time lines to unravel both the mystery of the Earth’s destruction and the key to its salvation, this taut adventure offers a topical message with a satisfying twist.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: ARC from the Publisher
Why did I read this book: I have been meaning to read more of Nancy Kress’s work – I’ve had Steal Across the Sky on my radar for a very long time – so when we received a review query for this title from a small independent SFF publisher, I jumped at the opportunity. (Not to mention the fact that this book has Thea written all over it, from awesome cover and title, to solid synopsis.) How could I say no?
After the Fall
It is the year 2035. Life on Earth has ceased to be, humanity reduced to a handful of survivors trapped together in “The Shell” (a hull built by an alien intelligence that survivors refer to as “Tesslies”) that shields its human captors from the desolate wasteland outside. Of the 26 original adults taken into the Shell before the annihilation of life, just a scant a few remain. But hope endures, because these original survivors copulated and gave birth to the Six – children born inside the Shell that have never known any other life or the world outside. These children, now teenagers, were born with defects from radiation exposure, stunted with spindly limbs, rendered sterile and unable to procreate. Shortly after the Six have reached puberty and their sterility discovered, a new technology appears in The Shell. A strange platform lights up at random intervals and allows only the Six to return to a point in Earth’s past for a few precious minutes, giving the future survivors a chance to “grab” the things they will need most to survive. With each grab, the Six bring back food, water, supplies, and most importantly, virile, healthy children.
Pete, one of the Six, is just fifteen, but already has become a leader within the Shell and has made a number of successful Grabs. As the original survivors grow weaker and older, Pete’s rage grows stronger and he vows to kill the Tesslies that have murdered his planet, destroyed his people, and so coolly ignore their human captors.
Before the Fall
It is the year 2013. Julie Kahn is a talented and intelligent mathematician that specializes in patterns, and she is hired as a consultant for an FBI task force, charged with solving a rash of kidnappings in the northeastern United States. Julie’s carefully calibrated equations determine that the kidnappings are all interlinked, but she can’t figure out why or who might be behind them. As an expectant and then a new mother, Julie gradually understands that somehow, the kidnappings, the mysterious break-ins, and the food and supply thefts are all clues revealing a terrifying united truth about the future.
During the Fall
As Julie struggles to make sense of the data, and Pete and the Six travel back to the past on their grab missions, Earth herself is changing. Bacteria mutate, plates shift, volcanoes erupt. The end is coming, faster and more devastating than anyone could ever predict.
Aptly named and coolly effective in its scope and delivery, After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is one hell of a book. At a slim 200 pages, Nancy Kress’s new novel (more of a novella, really) is a harrowing look at a possible future iteration of our planet robbed of life by catastrophic climate, ecological, and biological change. It also happens to be a book with a wonderful science fiction bend, involving a technologically superior race of aliens and time travel, juxtaposed against a more procedural mystery and the slow death of a planet due to dramatic mutation and change. Phew. That’s a lot of stuff to cover, but Kress does so with easy skill, alternating past, present, and future in a seamless and tension-building narrative. Following three characters – Pete, Julie, and the planet herself – After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is an exercise in slow-simmering restraint, building both horror and hope as the chapters progress.
While I love the memorable and original conceit of the time traveling and perspective shifting with each different period of the apocalypse, the story contains more familiar SF tropes, too. The benevolent (or, perhaps, not so benevolent) Tesslies as they watch the violent, destructive Earthlings, are a familiar staple, and the concept underlying Earth’s destruction is as well (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it). Just because the concepts are familiar does not mean they aren’t well done, though, as these well worn tropes are handled evenly and well in this particular telling (albeit with a level of predictability in as far as the actual story concludes).
On the character front, we become mostly acquainted with two very different narrator protagonists, Julie and Pete. In the past, Julie is meticulous, intelligent and fiercely independent, remarkably competent and refreshingly so. In contrast to her even-headed logic, Pete from the bleak, stark future of the Shell is raw and violent, and this is where the real meat of the story lies. Pete’s is a narrative hard to read at points because of his anger and his limited comprehension. Within the shell itself, Pete’s relationships, his obsessions (sexual and emotional), and most of all his impotent rage are very real, tangible things. While it isn’t a particularly pretty narrative, it is undoubtedly effective, painting a terrifying, claustrophobic future for humanity – but one tinged with the important light of hope at the end of the day.
Though brief, After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is haunting, memorable, and a perfect example of how to write a future post-apocalyptic dystopia that is both effectively bleak, but with the all-important factor of human tenacity. Absolutely recommended.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
Reading Next: Blackout by Mira Grant
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