It is perhaps not surprising that writers of science fiction novels, who pretty much by definition are attracted to the creation of worlds that can be played, have a history of creating games that explain the rules of their books. So Iain M Banks creates Azad, as a vehicle to articulate the values of the Culture (and its opponents), in The Player of Games (1992); so Margaret Atwood creates Blood and Roses, which attempts to weigh humanity's atrocities and achievements, in Oryx and Crake (2003). And so, in Steal Across the Sky, when Nancy Kress has one of her characters lecture another about the value of kulith, it’s worth paying attention.
"Kulith is not a game. Don't you yet understand? Although it uses the things of life, slaves and crops and soldiers and wars, kulith is not a mirror of life. Kulith is a mirror of the mind that produces life. [ . . . ] We play kulith to discover who we are, and who others are, and to foreshadow and so cause what will happen between us." (p. 118)
More like Azad than Blood and Roses, then: kulith, which is played by all members and levels of society, is both a structure that shapes those who play by its rules, and a tool for revealing players' thoughts. It is a game that is not, perhaps, completely unlike a novel (or a genre); and so what we have here is, in part, a story about learning the rules. The question, for both characters and readers, is whether these rules are worth learning.
The speaker is Aveo, a disgraced scholar dragooned by his Emperor into becoming translator for the woman who recently fell from the sky—and to whom he is speaking in the speech above, trying to get her to understand how his society works. The attempt is, let's say, ambitious, because the woman is Cam O'Kane, a young and hot-headed American. She is one of twenty-one "Witnesses" recruited by an alien race, who introduce themselves to early twenty-first century Earth merely as "the Atoners of Neu", and sent to investigate one of seven pairs of binary worlds, each of which bear twinned colonies of humans abducted from Earth thousands of years ago. Each pair, we learn, is a double-blind experiment; there is some fundamental difference between, for example, Kular A, where Cam is, and Kular B, where her fellow Witness, Lucca Maduro, has landed—or rather, crash-landed, since something went wrong with his shuttle on the way down. (The third member of their team, the American-Hispanic Soledad Arellano, stays, Michael Collins-like, in orbit.) The societies on the two planets do indeed seem very different: Kular A is a vicious pseudo-late-antique culture, with—as Aveo says—slaves and crops and soldiers and wars; Kular B, on the other hand, seems to be populated entirely by blissfully pacifistic hunter-gatherers. What's unknown, and what Cam and Lucca have ostensibly been sent to find, is the explanation for the difference: what change to the rules could produce such divergent societies?
Their mission is accomplished a little under half-way through the novel, at which point the action shifts back to Earth, and the narrative focus shifts to Soledad, plus another Witness, Frank Olenik, who visited a different system. In terms of spiritual and psychological import (if not detail), the crime the Atoners committed turns out to have been something comparable to the erasure of collective memory that underpins Sheri S. Tepper's recent The Margarets (2007); in each of the colony-pairs, one population of humans was left with the genes (the code, the rules) for a particular trait, while in the other population (and in us, the humans left at home) they were removed. But while in Tepper's novel aliens are happy to interact with humanity in pursuit of fixing the problem, the Atoners remain aloof, revealing to humanity what has been done but not explaining whether they consider that the fulfillment of their atonement, or what they might do next. Kress's focus, rather, is on the impact these successive knowledge-bombs—that aliens exist; and that we are not what we should be—have on humanity at large. Indeed, one of Steal Across the Sky's most appealing features is that to this end it is dotted with found documents offering multifarious perspectives on the human response, including: transcripts of interviews; a reproduction of a website protesting the "abduction" of Witnesses as some sort of alien indoctrination programme; letters; government reports on the Witnesses; tabloid news stories; advertisements for trips to the moon (including a view of the Atoner base), a video game called Atoner Attack, and an offer for an "Atoner Crimson" strain of rose plant; editorials, and editorial cartoons; a book review; a satiric crossword; and even the lyrics for a filk, of all things, to the tune of "She'll be Coming 'Round the Mountain When She Comes". These insertions lend the book breadth, and are handled with a welcome lightness of touch.
The first part of the novel, too, is crisp, engaging, and smart. The cultures of Kular A and B are deftly sketched, with an understanding of the ironies inherent in the Witnesses' position, both their dual affinity—with both the transplanted humans and, in their role as observers, with the Atoners—and their inability to escape "the lenses of their own culture" (p. 34). Cam's thread, in particular, is lively. As is noted more than once in the course of the novel, on the face of it Cam herself—twenty-three years old, working as a waitress, and with a criminal record—is a staggeringly unlikely choice to Witness. A combination of impulsiveness and blundering means that her adventures are basically First Contact: You're Doing It Wrong. They work not just because it is actually entertaining to watch someone breaking what we expect to be the rules of the game quite so comprehensively (has she never seen even a single episode of Star Trek, you wonder), but because half the time we're watching her through Aveo's eyes, and sharing his alternating bafflement, enragement, and horror at Cam's disregard for the strictures of his society. Crucially, although the other characters frequently judge Cam, the novel never does, not to condemn or patronize her. Not on Kular, nor on Earth, where, for all that her behaviour can be infuriating, and is sometimes reprehensible, she gropes towards some understanding of how to pull the levers of society—how to play kulith, as she realizes. Her ultimate grasp of those levers remains without finesse. But as a mirror for the Atoners, as someone who commits a crime and then seeks a measure of redemption, her journey works better than fine.
Elsewhere the touch is heavier. Soledad is a character more satisfying in concept than execution. She is Cam's mirror—"sensible, reserved, stocky" (p. 138), is the thumbnail description (a deliberate attempt, as Kress, through a compare-and-contrast with Soledad’s sister, clumsily makes sure the reader knows, to avoid "the stereotype of the 'fiery Latina'" [p. 142]; that description in itself betrays a hint of condescension entirely absent from most of the other character portraits, though see below). Like Cam—like all the Witnesses we meet—she struggles with the guilt of Prometheus; unlike Cam, she refuses to sell her story, and instead accepts plastic surgery and relocation from the US government. But she's saddled with a plot of dumbfounding transparency, involving a relationship with a man described as "gorgeous, a blue-eyed and blond Viking" (p. 159), about whom she is entirely unable to think coherently, that reduces her narrative to banality: "Her gaze flew to his. Men didn't use that tone to Soledad, at least not men who looked like James. She'd had lovers, sure—but not . . . not like James Hinton" (p. 181). It's the ellipsis that, as they say, makes it art. Or, later: "She was a receiver tuned to one frequency: James. James. James" (p. 241). It is no surprise to anyone but Soledad that James turns out to be something other than what he appears to be. Worse is Frank Olenik, who continues science fiction's long and ignoble tradition of religious characters catastrophically blinkered by their faith—or, more accurately for this novel, dogma, which may make for a tidy thematic box-tick, but doesn't make "[Frank] didn't care what anybody said, he wasn't a sexist, but Saint Paul had been real clear on what men and women were each supposed to do" (p. 169) and its ilk any more convincing as insights into the mind of a believer.
Soledad's closest friend, Fengmo, tells her to cope with her guilt this way: "you are not responsible for every consequence of every act you ever thought of committing. The world unfolds in its own way and you are a participant, not the designer" (p. 155). But the trouble with Soledad and Frank is that they precisely do feel designed. Soledad feels designed to avoid the expectations of a particular character type, her definition supplied only by the negative space around that type. (And, it should be said, even this limited approach is perhaps not entirely successful; late in the novel, as events are taking their toll on Soledad, "underneath that reserve", Lucca senses "a great capacity for passion" [p. 260]). Frank, meanwhile, and somewhat bizarrely, inhabits a stereotype with great gusto; perhaps, as Abigail Nussbaum has suggested of one of Kress’s other stories, excessive detail is here intended to substitute for nuance. These characterisations play into a larger problem: as the trajectory of the second half of the novel becomes increasingly clear, there is a sense that both Soledad and Frank exist entirely and only within the rules of the story, to get it where it needs to go. The same cannot be said of Cam, or indeed of Lucca.
So rules, in the end, render Steal Across the Sky inert. Early in the book, kulith is likened to other acts of creativity:
To weave a blanket, you carefully intertwined warp and woof, pulling on each with just the right amount to tension. To polish a gemstone, you turned it evenly to each facet, neither neglecting nor favoring any one. To create a strategy, in either kulith or life, you both wove and turned, and if you failed with one thread or one facet, you died. (p. 87)
Once again, much the same could be said of a successful novel. But in Steal Across the Sky some facets, some assumptions, are unexamined: the notion that the Atoners’ experiments could ever have been thought to work, the belief that confounding factors involved in setting up colonies on two distinct planets would not have been overwhelming, for instance. And there are unwoven loose ends, most notably the question—asked within the book but never answered—of why fifteen of the twenty-one Witnesses are American citizens. Indeed, for what is ostensibly a global event, the rest of the world is noticeable by its absence from this novel; nowhere beyond American shores is represented within the collection of found documents, for example. One might almost think that the Atoners themselves agree that this story is and should be inherently American; but maybe they’re just constrained by the rules of a different game. The mirror of the mind that produces life, indeed.