Kress puts us in the crossfire of first contact

crossfireNancy Kress is one of my favorite authors, writing high quality science fiction that adeptly blends well developed characters, absorbing plots, and thought-provoking themes. The latest Kress novel I picked up to read was Crossfire (2003), and as I expected, it did not disappoint. I don’t feel it’s quite in the same league as some of her other work (notably the Sleepless and Probablity trilogies); nevertheless, it’s a solid enough piece of writing and an enjoyable read. Crossfire is a tale of first contact (one of my favorites kinds) built around issues of war, pacifism, conflicting loyalties, personal demons, and inter-species ethics.

As social and environmental conditions on Earth deteriorate, a group of several thousand colonists, funded privately, flee the imminent downward spiral and head for the newly-discovered planet of Greentrees. There they plan to begin anew on a fresh world. The colonists consist largely of several sub-groups who have joined together for the venture: a Chinese group; an Arab group; a group of Cheyenne descendants who want to recreate the “noble savage” lifestyle of their ancestors; and a religious group, the New Quakers, with whose views I find myself very sympathetic:

Truth, simplicity, silence, conscience. These were the New Quaker tenets. […] [They] had departed from Earth because there seemed no Terran society left that didn’t value lies, image, scams, celebrity, and cynicism over truth.

This New Quaker philosophy plays a prominent role in the story, through one of the major characters, Dr. Shipley — who was, against my expectations, the character I most closely identified with.

The plot thickens when the colonists discover they are not alone on Greentrees. Soon a species of sentient aliens is discovered. Oddly, though, there are only a few scattered villages of these primitives, each with its own very different behavioral pattern. And, even more bizarre, there is no evidence that these creatures have lived there very long. And then — just when the colonists begin to come to terms with the situation, another alien species enters the picture. Before long, things have gotten very complicated, and the humans find themselves in the middle of an interstellar war, caught in the crossfire between two different species, finding not only their ethics challenged, but also their very survival.

The story has points of similarity with other Kress novels. For example, she explores here, just as in An Alien Light, the question of intrinsic human violence, and the idea of one alien species performing experiments on another in order to gain the upper hand in a war. And as in her Sleepless series, a piece of the plot here revolves around “genemod” individuals (genetically modified) and the effects therof.

The best thing about Crossfire is the depth of character. From Shipley’s struggle to be true to his convictions, to another character’s shameful past, to another’s self-destructive and anti-social tendencies, the characters in a Kress story are just damned interesting people. The most obvious weakness is that the aliens are not very imaginatively conceived. One species is a bit too similar to kangaroos, and I’ve never been satisfied by aliens that look like Earth creatures. The other species seems like a simplified version of Vinge’s Skrode Riders.

A worthwhile read, even if not the best Kress has done. If she’s written anything truly bad, I’ve yet to come across it.

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