Crossfire by Nancy Kress

New York, Tor, 2003, $24.95, 364pp
reviewed in New York Review of Science Fiction 179, July 2003

The term ‘science fiction’ suggests there is a tension in the very structure of the literature we read and write. ‘Science’ evokes knowledge, ideas, system; ‘fiction’ is more a matter of understanding, character, story. These are not necessarily contradictory, but they do tend to pull in opposite directions. Harnessing them, using that creative tension to drive the novel, is what makes for truly great science fiction; but it is not an easy task, and it is all too easy for an author to fumble and drop the reins. What results then is one of those worksawash with literary values but with nothing fresh, nothing intellectually challenging to say; or else one of those dismal, often embarrassing generic novels in which the story is swamped by ill-conceived and undigested novelty. Nancy Kress, especially in the ‘Beggars’ trilogy and in numerous short stories, has controlled this tension better than most, but in Crossfire the reins slip.

This book is so overloaded with plot devices and science fictional ‘ideas’ that the author leaves herself no room for storytelling, beyond a succession of mind-numbing coincidences, while characterization has been reduced to the level of a cartoon. Believing impossible things is part of our job as science fiction readers, but we believe them because they are set within a context that makes them ring true, because they are buttressed by the support mechanisms of literature. If we are convinced by the character, we are more likely to be convinced by the things she does, the worlds she travels through. We are happy to accept a society in which certain people are rendered sleepless by genetic modification if those characters behave in a way it seems likely sleepless people would behave: one major alteration in genetic makeup does not also wipe out the myriad jealousies and generosities that make up familiar flawed humanity. But if what tempts us to suspend our disbelief is missing, if the actors in the drama are characterised only by one broad tic and not by the complex mixture of good and bad found in anybody we are likely to know, then we are unlikely to go along with the immense demands on our credulity made by an overwrought plot.

Crossfire simply has too much going on. We are asked to accept that this is the story of the first human colony on an alien world, a colony entirely constructed by private enterprise with no government support. Further, those who have come up with the millions needed to buy their way onto this expedition include a deposed Saudi princeling and his entourage, a tribe of wannabe Amerindians, and a community of Quakers. And all this is led by a dynamic, youthful multimillionaire with a shady past. Okay, the setup feels schematic and unlikely, but I could go along with it as the basis for a story if these various groups and characters allowed subtle tensions and insights to emerge.

Alas, they don’t: the Arab is simply oriental and mysterious, the pretend Cherokee are prickly and self-reliant, the leader of the Quakers is so unfailingly an advocate of peace that one wants to scream at him that normal people occasionally have doubts, while his punkish rebel daughter simply does exactly the opposite of him at every turn. Meanwhile, though we are repeatedly told that our dynamic multimillionaire hero did something disreputable in the past (though it takes an awful long time to get any idea of what it actually was), what we actually see is him behaving like the good guy in everything he does. Our confidence in the story, therefore, is tested from the outset.

Unfortunately this is only the very beginning os a story that gets more complex and more ludicrous with every page. The uninhabited alien planet turns out to have a small settlement of intelligent kangaroo-like creatures – the first alien race ever encountered – but they have no technology and no curiosity about the humans, and are not native to this world. The other settlements are found, the inhabitants of which all have distinctly different behavioural characteristics. Is this world the setting for some curious experiment? We have, I must admit, the makings here of a very satisfying sf puzzle, though it hardly needs the particular paint-by-numbers construction of the human colony to establish and resolve such a puzzle.

Ah, but again there is more that must be loaded on this particular camel’s back. A spaceship arrives, piloted by yet another alien race: intelligent plants. Plants, moreover, which have not one iota of DNA in their make-up: bang goes the panspermia theory. These plants are peaceful beings who respond to our Quakers; yet they are also locked in a seemingly eternal war with the kangaroo-like aliens. How two such races ever came to war is never questioned in the novel; as with so much else in the book, anything that fits the demands of the plot must be so.

There are still more twists and turns to come. A plot by the peace-loving plants to defeat the aggressive kangaroos can only be put into practice by the humans that neither race had previously encountered. There is, of course, an omnicompetent physicist who can figure out how to fly an alien spacecraft with the barest of instructions. And so on and so forth.

If novel ideas were all that is required to make good science fiction, then this would be a prime example of the genre. Forty or fifty years ago this sort of science fiction, a breathtaking assault of novelties, a continuous gosh-wow effect that leaves no time to question the sense of what is going on, would have been acceptable as a decent example of the genre. But ideas anchored to no conceivable reality are empty, science fiction that ignores the contribution of the fiction to the science is trivial. This is a trivial work from someone who can – and usually does – do much better. Minor Kress.