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Nothing Human
Nancy Kress
Golden Gryphon Press, 300 pages

Nothing Human
Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1948. She went to college at State University of New York at Plattsburgh, receiving a degree in Elementary Education, and spent four years teaching the fourth grade. Her first sale was a story, "The Earth Dwellers," to Galaxy in 1976. Her first novel, The Prince of Morning Bells, appeared in 1981. Nancy Kress moved on to write copy for an advertising agency, wrote fiction part-time, raised her children, taught at SUNY Brockport, and earned an M.S. in Education and an M.A. in English. In 1990 she became a full-time writer. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Nancy Kress Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Crossfire
SF Site Review: Probability Space
SF Site Review: Maximum Light
SF Site Review: Savior
SF Site Review: Probability Moon
Interview: Nancy Kress
SF Site Review: David Brin's Out of Time: Yanked!
SF Site Review: Stinger
SF Site Review: Maximum Light
SF Site Review: Beaker's Dozen

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

What if our children weren't exactly human? It's a question that has been posed often in SF history, from classics like Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and Jerome Bixby's "It's A Good Life," to more recent works such as Octavia E. Butler's Xenogenesis series and Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio and Darwin's Children. In Nothing Human, Nancy Kress crosses the question of the next generations' humanity with a convincingly disastrous near-future ecological catastrophe. It's a novel that presents some all too human characters with questions and problems that just might be too big for humans to handle.

When Lillie is twelve years old she suddenly falls into a strange type of coma. It turns out she is not alone, several other children experience the same thing. When they wake up, they all bear the same message, "The pribir are coming."

There's more. The children also state that the pribir are coming to help humans follow "the right way." A short time later an orbiting nuclear reactor is destroyed.

When the pribir arrive, it becomes evident that their right way involves the use of bio-technology and genetic engineering instead of environmentally messy methods based on physics and chemistry. The first part of the novel concludes when some of the children, including Lillie, depart on a spaceship with the pribir. They return forty years later (they've travelled at relativistic speeds) to find an Earth devastated economically, politically, and environmentally. The pribir cannot believe that humans have messed things up so much, so fast. The rest of the novel follows Lillie and her friends as they try to survive the changing climate, threats from their neighbors, and the continuing interference of the pribir.

As a science fiction novel, Nothing Human invokes many previous stories. In addition to those mentioned earlier, the convincingly portrayed setting of global environmental devastation recalls Kate Willhelm's Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang. The petulantly adolescent pribir bear a resemblance to the teenage do-gooder in James Tiptree Jr,'s "I'll Be Waiting For You When The Swimming Pool Is Empty." And readers of Nancy Kress will realise immediately that she is no stranger to this theme, her own Beggars in Spain is also a novel of genetically engineered children.

What sets Nothing Human apart is the author's unrelenting focus on her characters' humanity. Scared to death that the goals and methods of the pribir will result in the loss of what it means to be human, Lillie and her fellow survivors are faced with a choice between accepting the right way of the pribir or the real possibility of human extinction on an increasingly inhospitable Earth.

Some writers build tension through physical action, Nancy Kress carefully constructs characters with real talents and faults, and then invites us to agonize along with them as they are tested to their limits. Some succeed, some fail. Nothing Human may not rank with the best of her work -- Beggars and Choosers and Probability Moon would get my votes -- but it does take compelling characters through a good story and in the end offers a surprisingly hopeful take on a classic SF scenario. It may be possible to do things the right way and stay human after all.

Copyright © 2003 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L. Johnson found that recent reports of trace amounts of human pharmaceuticals foumd in supposedly clean streams gave Nothing Human's ecological disaster setting extra plausibilty. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.

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