Since quitting her day job about fifteen years ago, Nancy Kress has turned out an astonishing quantity of good writing, including the trilogies that begin respectively with Beggars in Spain and Probability Moon; the eclectic short story collection Beaker's Dozen; two books on writing SF; the two novels that appeared in 2003, Crossfire and Nothing Human; as well as short fiction. Nancy Kress thinks big, conceptually and artistically. Fictional extrapolations based on genetic manipulation in the Beggars books or on quantum theory in the Probability trilogy certainly established her as an important writer of hard SF. She is also an excellent prose stylist who has mastered and sometimes parodied multiple genres and megatexts. The stories in Beaker's Dozen, for example, include detective fiction, hard SF, historical fantasy, and pseudo mythology.
Nothing Human appeared in September 2003, sandwiched in between the cliffhanger Crossfire and its intended sequel. As her readers have come to expect, Nothing Human displays Kress' formidable knowledge of contemporary science and her authorial versatility. Nothing Human is one of the many new fictions to capitalize on the widespread belief that the year 2000 began the century of biology. In it, Kress explores human evolution and the possibilities for alien-engineered adaptation to a negatively changing terrestrial environment. That's serious stuff. Reading Greg Bears' Darwin books, Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, or M. T. Anderson's slick YA blockbuster Feed can certainly dampen one's enthusiasm for the new millennium. Nothing Human offers an engagingly far-fetched solution to the environmental dilemma without letting humans off the hook for having created the crisis.
Unlike the aforementioned books, Kress' Nothing Human is a light-hearted look at potential disaster as well as a gentle send-up of the alien intervention megatext. Like Octavia Butler's Oankali (Xenogenesis) or Pam Sargent's Aedae ("Shadows"), the pribir come to earth to save us from ourselves by changing us at the genetic level. Like Clarke's Overlords, the pribir defy conventional preconceptions (if there is such a thing) of what aliens might look like or how they might act. Pribirs Pam and Pete could be driving their Hummer to a sushi bar or flashing perfect teeth in a self-improvement infomercial. They are ludicrously perfect in appearance but flawed psychologically, at least from a human perspective. Their condescension is understandable given the mess humans are making of their world, but their depiction clearly satirizes the smugness of those who know better than the natives how the natives should live their lives.
Another distinctive feature of this novel is that, like Beggars, it begins with a focus on young people and follows them through several generations. In fact the centrality of teenagers gives the book a YA flavor that belies its clever homage to adult SF intertexts. When the teens awaken from mysterious comas and announce to the world that the pribir are on the way, they become the sole sources of information regarding the alien advent. Here is how Kress renders one teen's response to adult inquiries: " 'Well, they're not angels or ghosts,' Lillie said with disgust. She had the TV on while she ate a bowl of cereal and a Fun Bun for breakfast"(33). The teens will sorely try the aliens' limited patience, subjecting them to the same treatment that occasionally drives parents and substitute teachers around the bend.
I suspect that some readers will have trouble with this book because of its generic and tonal slipperiness. My advice is to roll with it, just as the book's humans must do as they confront the unlikely fruit of the aliens' manipulation of the human genome. I will be reading this book with my SF classes this spring because it is a very readable excursion into environmental degradation and human self-definition and because it interacts so successfully with other SF texts. The prose style is crisp and engaging and the plot fast moving. It's a much more cohesive and, in a strange way, credible book than Atwood's Oryx and Crake. Nothing Human is a serious yet whimsical treatment of what should be a central concern of our species, now we must change our thinking before we so degrade the global environment that only the aliens can save us.
— Thomas J. Morrissey, SFRA Review #267, Jan/Feb/Mar 2004