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Aliens, DNA and More: Nancy Kress Talks Tomorrow’s Kin

You can’t talk hard science fiction without including one of the most prolific of them — author Nancy Kress. With six Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon and a Campbell award under her belt so far, Kress is inarguably one of the most respected sci-fi producers of the last four decades. Her latest novel, Tomorrow’s Kin, is on shelves now. We chatted with Kress about her new book and why genetic engineering and believable science matter to her.

RECURSOR: What inspired Tomorrow’s Kin? Is it a sequel to your Nebula award-winning novella, Yesterday’s Kin?

Nancy Kress, photo credit Liza Trombi on Recursor.tv

Nancy Kress, photo credit Liza Trombi

KRESS: Not exactly. The story in Yesterday’s Kin didn’t seem to be completely finished. So the novella forms the first quarter of Tomorrow’s  Kin, and then the book carries it forward for another 10 years or so. Tomorrow’s Kin is the first in a trilogy, which will carry the story even farther.

What is Tomorrow’s Kin about?

Aliens arrive in New York, contact the U.N. and say they have a message for humanity about an impending disaster. There is the usual furor: Do we let them land? What is the problem? The U.N. eventually allows them to land, and they erect in New York Harbor a floating embassy. The major character, Marianne Jenner, is a geneticist who works in mitochondrial DNA. The aliens want to see her, and she has no idea why.

Why write a story dealing with first contact?

Ursula LeGuin has said that whenever you write about aliens, you’re writing about the other gender. Other people have expanded that statement to say that when you write about aliens, you’re writing about the other, whether it’s a different race, a different gender, a different sexual orientation, a different something.

But suppose the alien is actually you — at least you with a common seed, a common background. How do you react to an entire race that is so much like you?

When the aliens in Tomorrow’s Kin donate tissue and the DNA is analyzed, it’s clear that these people are human. They came originally from Earth. They were taken from here when we were still back on the savanna in pre-history, and now they’re back. They have some differences from us due to the fact that they evolved on a different planet, but basically they’re us. Yet we can’t even get along with other members of our own immediate planet, let alone another one.

 

Your protagonist, Marianne Jenner, is so believable. What inspired her?

Nancy Kress Tomorrow's Kin on Recursor.tvI wanted to create a protagonist who is an older woman with a complicated family. Marianne is a little over 50. She’s a woman with difficult children, gifted grandchildren, a complicated job, a dedication to science, and terrible taste in men. I wanted her to be a real person.

Not that I don’t admire the kick-ass heroines. Believe me, I do. But as an over-50, non-fighting-type woman myself, I think there should be more of women like that in science fiction. That’s why I created Marianne.

How do you research the science in your stories?

Because I’m very much an admirer of scientists, even though I’m not trained as one, I wanted to depict actual scientists at actual work. Not creating clones in the basement or time machines in the garage, but a real scientific team going through the steps that are necessary when you think an epidemic is coming, which is what the characters in Tomorrow’s Kin think is coming..

In order to educate myself, I read magazines. I talk to scientists. I collect microbiologists the way some people collect butterflies. I try hard to get it as accurate as it can be within the framework of a story that is set in the future.

Tomorrow’s Kin and other works of yours often deal with genetics. Why is that?

The science that interests me the most is genetic engineering, because I think this is our future. For the first time, we can direct something of our own evolution.

When you see cloning in science fiction, so often it produces monsters or telepaths or copies of Hitler. But cloning is delayed twinning; that’s all it is. And genetic engineering — not necessarily of humans, but of animals and bacteria and plants — has already produced tremendous advantages.

When I write, I want to explore the advantages of going forward with this science. Not that they are not risks or problems, because of course there are, but all technology has risks. The day man discovered fire, the crime of arson became a possibility. And that’s no reason why we shouldn’t do this.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Ursula LeGuin is my favorite sci-fi author. I think she walks on water. I admire Bruce Sterling for his grasp on global politics and economics, and the way he’s able to put them into futuristic stories. I admire Karen Joy Fowler for her wonderful style. And there are a lot of other writers I admire for different reasons. I don’t think they all have to write the kind of hard science that I’m writing in order to be good writers. My favorite writer of all time is Jane Austen.

Nancy Kress Beggars in Spain on Recursor.tvWhat about some of your favorite sci-fi movies?

I liked Her quite a lot. I liked the first Star Wars because it was clearly a fairy tale in space; it wasn’t pretending be anything else. I liked 2001: A Space Odyssey for its startling imagery and for the accuracy of how we might actually get to the moon and then go farther than that into space. I liked Arrival. I thought it was a very good translation of Ted Chiang’s story.

What other projects are you working on right now, in addition to the sequels for Tomorrow’s Kin?

There are some short stories I have coming out this year that I’m very pleased with. One story (“Collapse”) was written for the XPrize site, www.seat14c.com. The basic premise is that an air flight from Japan lands in San Francisco, but something has happened over the ocean and it lands 20 years in the future. Each of the passengers have their own stories about what happens next, written by a variety of science fiction writers. And there’s also an empty seat, 14C, where anybody who goes on the site can write a story and submit it to a contest. You can try your hand at it!

I also teach writing. I’m just back from teaching, as I do every year, a two-week intensive seminar in writing science fiction and fantasy called Taos Toolbox held in Taos, NM. I co-teach it with Walter Jon Williams.

We have to ask… What do you think of Recursor.TV?

It looks like you have some interesting offerings!

JOIN THE CONVERSATION AND ENTER TO WIN A COPY OF TOMORROW’S KIN.

We have a special contest going on! Leave a comment on this article, either here or on our Facebook page, and let us know your favorite sci-fi film, TV show or book. We’ll choose a random winner, who will receive a copy of Tomorrow’s Kin. Deadline is July 31!

 

Nancy Kress is the author of nearly 30 novels, three books on writing, four short story collections, and over 100 works of short fiction. Her fiction has won six Nebulas (for “Out of All Them Bright Stars,” “Beggars in Spain,” “The Flowers of Aulit Prison,” “Fountain of Age,” “After the Fall, Before the Fall, and During the Fall,” and “Yesterday’s Kin”), two Hugos (for “Beggars in Spain” and “The Erdmann Nexus”), a Sturgeon (for “The Flowers of Aulit Prison”), and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for PROBABILITY SPACE). Kress has been called one of the best science fiction writers working today by Kim Stanley Robinson, and Tomorrow’s Kin is a perfect entry point for Kress’ prolific bibliography. Characterized by Kress’ clear prose, complex characters and dynamic plots, Tomorrow’s Kin is a must-read for all fans of science fiction and speculative fiction in general. Learn more about her on her author website.

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