I said in my review for Crossfire that (to paraphrase myself) it wasn’t the best Nancy Kress was capable of, but that it was still within the realm of worthwhile reading; and that its weaknesses were offset by its strong and well-developed characters. Its sequel Crucible (2004), however, doesn’t even quite make it to that modest level, falling a notch or two lower on the quality scale than its predecessor. This book has some problems and was not nearly as enjoyable as Crossfire. Taken together, this two-book series does not really impress, and I have to consider it something of a minor blemish in Kress’ track record.
The action takes place, once again, on the colony world Greentrees, where humans first encountered two alien species, the Furs and the Vines (who were at war with each other). This story takes place about forty years later, and the main character from the first book is now a very old man. However, through the wonders of near-lightspeed travel and relativity, some of the other characters have only aged a few months. And then, of course, there are some new characters.
Life on Greentrees has moved on; few of the new younger generation have ever seen an alien, and they have a hard time believing there is, or ever was, any danger to their world. Their society is soft and naive, totally ignorant of (and uninterested in) Terran history, and this of course sets the stage for a rude awakening. When a ship arrives, fleeing a dying Earth, its charismatic commander and his crew are welcomed with open arms. When this leader, General Martin, emphasizes some recent ethnic conflict and the continuing theoretical alien threat, he is granted more and more power to defend the colony. Before long the citizens of Greentrees come to realize they have handed over power too willingly, and paid too steep a price for security. As if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, there really is an alien threat, and the colonists soon find themselves fighting for survival and freedom against enemies of more than one species, including their own.
Now all that’s fine, I suppose. There’s the skeleton of a good story there, and some themes worth exploring (ignorance of history, security versus freedom). The basic problem is, this novel lacks sophistication or much of a sense of realism. Everything is too obvious or predictable, everything happens too easily. From the moment Martin arrives on the planet, it’s painfully apparent to the reader what he’s doing, he’s transparent as glass. It’s the Palpatine-style power grab: secretly manufacture a crisis, then step forward and offer to defend against it, with an air of false modesty of course. And the colonists are completely clueless; you just want to grab them and shake them and yell “WAKE UP!!!” This coup is helped along by the fact that none of the colony’s leaders exhibit any leadership qualities whatsoever, and so there’s little to no resistance, which seems a little too convenient. It’s also too easy that the aliens show up so soon after Martin’s arrival, a timely threat that strengthens his bid for power. Add to this several occasions on which characters jump to wild conclusions based on almost no evidence, only to find their conclusions are of course correct, and you can see how this story is just too neat and tidy.
And unlike its predecessor, Crucible is pretty weak on the characterization front. None of these people were drawn with much depth, not as in the previous book. And none of them behaved in a way that made me care much what happened to them. The Greentrees administrator Alex, one of the main characters, was a bumbling idiot; far from being sympathetic, I feel she deserved what she got. And she was far from being the only annoying personality in the book. Even the continuing characters from the first book weren’t half as interesting as they were before.
I don’t know what else to say about this one. It wasn’t necessarily horrible, but it wasn’t very good either. I guess every author has a low point now and then. Kress, at least, doesn’t have many of them.