After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall
Once I played a dancer on stage—one past her prime, who stood still and gave a speech in Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall. The title of the play, with its grand theological overtones, has always resonated memorably with me. So when I heard about a new science fiction novel by Nancy Kress entitled After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, I felt I had to read it. One of the things that’s great about this novel is that the title is descriptive; it takes place at all three times. It is so cunningly put together and so enticingly readable that I sped through it in what I think of as escapist reading mode, forgetting to mark any pages to talk about later.
I do a lot of escapist reading in February. It keeps me from snarling so much. A few minutes ago I looked out the window at the flakes of white drifting around and snarled at Ron to say that I wished it would stop snowing. “It will” he said in a purposely infuriating attempt to sound cheerful and obtuse. “Now!” I hissed, in a manner that he characterized as Gollum-like.
At any rate, there’s nothing to take a person’s mind off the “burnt-out ends of smoky days” like a good post-apocalyptic story. At the beginning of the book, we are plunged into Pete’s world, which turns out to be the world after the fall. As the story progresses, we see brief glimpses of some of the biological processes happening during the fall. And then, at last, it becomes clear that we are currently living before the fall; a clever structure for this story.
Another clever bit is that when we are introduced to Pete, we are introduced to what he thinks destroyed the world, alien beings he calls “Tesslies.” As the book goes on, however, Pete learns that their role in the destruction of the world is not what he thought it was. The movement of the novel is through the narration of Pete, who is finding his way back to the fall, and the narration of Julie, who is moving inexorably towards him as she finds her way forward to the fall.
Pete lives in an alien-built enclosure with a few humans who were picked up by the “Tesslies” to survive the apocalypse. They use alien machinery, including one machine Pete and his fellow survivors call the Grab:
“The machinery sat in the center of the room, looking like nothing but a gray metal platform a few inches above the floor. If he climbed onto it, ordinarily nothing happened. But sometimes the platform started to glow and then it became a stupid invisible door. No, not a door. Something else. Whatever it was, if you jumped on the platform and went through it, you had ten minutes in Before.”
Julie is a mathematician who can predict when the next grab will be, although events on Pete’s end intervene to make her predictions look less reliable than they actually are. What Pete and the other human survivors grab is blankets, food, and babies, depending on whether the grab opens up in or near a house or a store. They prefer female babies, because it will take more females to re-populate the human race.
When Julie watches the news, this is what she sees:
“’Dead zones’ were increasing in the world’s oceans. No fish, no algae, no life.
The Nile was threatened by industrial pollution. No fish, no algae, no life.
CO2 levels in the atmosphere were creeping upward.
Overfishing was causing starvation in Southeast Asian islands.”
That’s the news in this fictional world before the fall. And so… if you know your place in this real, live progression, what can you do to try to stop it?
Oh, the cunningness of this Kress, yess, preciousss.